By Brigid O’Leary
Scandal. It makes up the plot lines to many a book or movie. It’s what keeps the tabloids in business. Everyone loves it, unless they find themselves part of one. Even if a scandal doesn’t directly involve us individually, sometimes they hit too close to home. With planning, a nonprofit can usually weather the storm.
When a scandal related to their field makes headlines people who work with nonprofit organizations sit up and take notice as well. It doesn’t always mean they have to act – or react – right away.
“I’m located in south Florida, and there are a lot of pit bulls down here. When there is a news story about pit bulls, it creates a lot of emotion,” said Wendy Schugar-Martin, president and co-founder of the Freckles Freedom Fund, a nonprofit corporation dedicated to saving sick, abandoned and unwanted pitbulls and dogs generally categorized as a pit bull or pit bull mix.
“The initial reaction from most of our volunteers and fosters is the same as any dog lover – sadness for the dogs, disgust for the people who cause the pain, helplessness but a want to be able to help,” said Jason Flatt, founder and president of Friends to the Forlorn Pitbull Rescue, Inc., a volunteer-based 501(c)3 rescue and community outreach organization in Dallas, Ga.
While environmental news may not have as many stories about specific, large-scale incidents, they are just as likely to draw attention. The reaction to that kind of news may not be straight forward and likely will depend on many factors.
When the Flint, Michigan water crisis hit the news, Ronald Poltak, executive director of the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission (NEIWPCC), said the staff was bemused.
“What’s it all about?” is what Poltak said the initial reaction was to the news in the NEIWPCC office. “Not to be flippant, but really, you have to wonder what went wrong for something like that to occur.”
Poltak explained that the NEIWPCC mainly concerns itself with the implementation of the Clean Water Act (a 1972 expansion of the 1948 Federal Water Pollution Control Act, which established the basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants into the waters of the United States and regulating quality standards for surface waters), and not drinking water, which is the case in Flint, but, he added, “generally, given the very nature of what we do with the environmental protection we hate to see something like that happen.”
Brace for Impact
Bad news of any kind can shake up a community or the nation. If a nonprofit organization finds that the work it does is related to something that has hit the news in a big, bad way, it’s helpful to be prepared for inquiries, but it doesn’t mean that the organization is necessarily going to be called upon as an authority.
“Social media is a great conduit for people to express their opinion but not for fostering action, not independently anyway. When an individual has done something with an animal, a dog in general, it doesn’t really impact us except maybe people might do a few more searches or decide to donate to us,” said Schugar-Martin.
The Friends to the Forlorn also sees an increase in interest following news stories that involve animal mistreatment.
“When there is a dog fighting bust or other types of high-publicity cruelty or abuse, there is always an influx of messages and emails of people asking us to help,” said Flatt.
Sometimes, the community itself recognizes that the news, while something to talk about, isn’t likely to affect them directly.
“We didn’t get any calls from the public [about Flint, Mich.] because it’s site specific. The states we work with do get calls from the public, but the specificity of Flint did not, to the best of my knowledge, create any phone calls,” explained Poltak. “What does Flint mean? Flint means another failing, another occasion when the system was vacated and the safety procedures that were in place did not apply or were neglected in respect thereto. When you have lead pipes and you understand the difficulty is in dealing with that matter, don’t put water through them. It really showed bad judgment and that reflects for much longer than all of the good work that happens in our society, which is probably one of the most environmentally conscious societies in the world. And we all pay a price for that. It’s unfortunate because generally speaking, clean, available, safe drinking water comes through the faucets of every home in America and this doesn’t help. Any exception is detrimental to the public trust.”
The news that did generate public interest and on which the NEWIPCC was called to address was the Ebola outbreak last summer.
“Something more generalized does create public questions, like ‘what if the virus gets into the water?’ those kinds of fall outs,” explained Poltak. “If something of that nature takes place, we might get calls and sometimes the states we represent – all six states in New England, of course, and New York – will ask us to take the lead, to be the ombudsman on that.”
Meet the Press
The media, for better or worse, is how news is distributed and how most people first hear about different scenarios such as cases of animal abuse and environmental damage. Depending on how the facts are presented can make a difference in how the story is received by the public and it can be a double-edged sword.
It was hard to miss in 2007 when NFL player Michael Vick was charged with, convicted, and served jail time for animal abuse by way of dog fighting. There was coverage of the case again when Vick was released from jail 18 months later. However, Vick’s involvement in the case made national headlines. Dog fighting and animal abuse also happens in communities where there are no major NFL stars—and those cases might not even get a proportionate amount of local coverage.
“People always ask if we took a Michael Vick dog. We didn’t, but in 2009 we took in 38 dogs that were seized from a dog fighting raid that received no national attention. Most of the public didn’t care because there wasn’t media attention,” said Flatt.
For organizations such as Friends to the Forlorn and the Freckles Freedom Fund, both of which work with pit bull and bully-type breeds, media portrayal of the dogs exacerbate the problems they face, making it that much harder to combat the scandals as they arise, on any level.
“I notice in the media, when my husband and I watch the local news, they give you the lead and then send you to commercial with, ‘dog bite in Miami, more when we come back.’ We look at each other and say ‘it wasn’t a pit bull or they’d have said that before they went to commercial.’ They’d have said ‘pit bull bite in Miami!’ There’s a bias in the media and we fight it every day. It’s not like one more dog bite will make it worse. We’re already fighting an uphill battle,” said Schugar-Martin. “Our rescue is dedicated to Pit Bull type dogs, not withstanding the fact, that during the beginning of the last century they were considered America’s nanny dogs. They were the number one choice and they are now so maligned and misrepresented that I’m not sure it gets worse. We already have an up-hill battle. Recently there was a pet of the week on [a local television morning news] show that was supposed to be a pit-bull type dog and the television station refused to let it be seen on camera, because it was a pit bull type dog. Here we are with the media, the hypocrisy, the bad apples out there, we already have an uphill battle. I think that for the people who don’t like pit bull type dogs and already have a bias [that media coverage] only confirms it for them but it’s already hard.”
Schugar-Martin pointed out, too, that smaller organizations such as Freckles Freedom Fund and Friends to the Forlorn do not have the same experiences a larger, nation-wide group would, not only with fundraising and volunteer efforts but also with leveraging the media to challenging the negative coverage pit bulls and other “dangerous” dogs receive.
Instead, they must represent the breed and the owners thereof as best they can.
“We always just do the best that we can to portray the dogs in the best light and show people how great they really are. We stay positive instead of being negative or argumentative. That is how we operate every day, whether there is something high-profile in the media or not,” said Flatt.
It’s the same philosophy that Schugar-Martin holds the Freckles crew to as well.
“We don’t react to negativity. Sometimes you’ll see wars of words on Facebook, among other things, and our policy is to not get involved. It’s our reputation to be focused on the rescue of the dogs and doing what’s best for the dogs,” she said. “If I need to vent I’ll talk to my husband but in no way, shape for form do we step up to the mud slinging, the nastiness and we try not to even try to provide a positive spin when they are mud slinging – we don’t get involved. I don’t have time for that. Quite frankly, it would help a lot of other people if they could just ignore it. But some people just can’t. They need to say what they need to say and do what they need to do but we have a policy not to get involved.”
He Said, She Said
Sometimes, though, it’s impossible not to get involved in some way. In the case of the NEWIPCC, Poltak and his staff might find themselves on the front-line of questions when their constituents defer to the organization’s expertise. In those cases, Poltak advised, one should speak to what they know.
“The key for anyone in the environmental field is to make sure that any answers you give to conceptual or real problems you’re speaking from your area of expertise,” he said. “The most difficult aspect of responding to requests for information about repercussions of events is to be knowledgeable and not be alarmist but still understand the concerns the public expresses, or any member of the public, whether it’s from the environmental background or citizens. If you’re not sure what you’re talking about, don’t talk about it. Don’t assume that you know when you don’t and don’t lead, in your conversations, that you’re more knowledgeable than you are. Be precise.”
Until one is called upon to address a negative situation, Flatt encourages others to keep steady to the course.
“Just stay focused on your mission and don’t let anyone or anything sway you from doing what you need to do. Focus on the positive and don’t let negativity take you away from what you are trying to accomplish,” he said.
Above all, Schugar-Martin stressed, is to remember that a nonprofit only has its reputation to fall back upon.
“I think, what a lot of people forget is that your 501c3 is still a business. Just because you’re nonprofit doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t act with a certain level of decorum and professionalism, the kind that you would see in a publicly-traded board room. Do the right thing and be professional about it. If you have an incident, issue a statement but then don’t discuss [the incident]. Don’t engage further. Don’t talk about it on Facebook,” she said. You have to have the professionalism, first to be taken seriously and second to manage issues that come up – doing the right thing, saying the right thing, having the right image. All of those are important because if you’re being attacked, you can show a united front and people will respect that professionalism more than anything else. People will continue to talk, but then it will just be ‘did you see what they posted this week on Facebook? Did you see what they put on twitter?’ Remember who, at the end of the day, who your consumer is and who your constituents are.”
Because when it comes to scandal Schugar-Martin said, “you try to avoid it and try to protect against it but there’s only so much you can do.”