218 Who is Promoting Pedigree Dogs

by   David Hancock

 Crufts week should be a celebration for the pedigree dog world. The national press should be able to take the opportunity to promote British breeds, British breeders and all things canine. Oh, we all groan at the gushing, fawning, unquestioning TV coverage but that's predictable in an increasingly superficial news medium which lacks discernment, real journalism and depth. What is the national press saying about pedigree dogs in Crufts week? Newspapers produce permanent words which stay in the public mind and remain on file for future researchers. Astute advertisers and experienced public  relations executives long ago learned the importance of lasting rather than fleeting images. They have also long acknowledged the immense importance of pre-emption, of creating positive impressions and of being pro-active as opposed to being reactive. Is there one skilled, professionally-experienced press officer on the staff of the Kennel Club? 

 Let's look back at the coverage of Crufts in 1995 and the pedigree dog scene in just three national newspapers, The Daily Telegraph (not renowned for its sensationalism), The Daily Express and The Mail On Sunday, in the week ending the 19th of March 1995. On Thursday the 16th of March, the first day of Crufts, Frances Hubbard in an article in The Daily Express, used these phrases: "A travesty that's more concerned with pride and profit than the welfare of animals"..."The quest to fit dogs to human ideas of canine perfection has transformed some breeds into parodies"..."Selective breeding from a few favoured champions, whose virtues and defects are then passed down to a disproportionately high number of offspring, has distorted the canine gene pool".

 Is every word in these quotes unfair? Certainly not; but how easy and sensible it would have been for the KC to have anticipated and pre-empted such phrases. But the pre-Crufts KC-issued press releases achieved no such effect. The Kennel Club later claimed to have appointed a "marketing communications" company to "assist in media relations". But what scope and opportunity did they give to such an organisation? The press pack offered at the show covered many aspects to do with the show but nothing on the health and well-being of pedigree dogs. It has long been a feature of public relations that if you leave a vacuum on contentious issues then the press will fill it. And how they did!

 After The Daily Express's scathing comments on pedigree dogs on the Thursday, came The Daily Telegraph coverage on Friday. Cassandra Jardine's piece embraced such phrases as..."a range of faults in the professional dog world: in-breeding; perpetuating genetic defects that give rise to disease and deformity; failure to consider temperament"..."Judges should be better trained in anatomy and better regulated"..."Breeders are not forced to test...only the best breeders do, yet the public doesn't know this"..."Members (i.e. of the KC) rarely speak out...because they worry dogs will stop winning shows (sic) and they won't be asked to judge"..."Attitudes outside its walls have changed more than the Kennel Club since it was founded in 1873...With the state of dogs today they have to change. Someone needs to give them a good kick". This article was largely based on an extended interview with Beverley Cuddy, editor of Dogs Today magazine, former KC employee, Bearded Collie fancier and judge and skilled communicator.

 Over a million people purchased that copy of The Daily Telegraph; what kind of image of pedigree dogs is being conveyed in this way? But on Sunday, the last day of Crufts 1995, The Mail on Sunday really had a field day! Brian James's article made use of these words: "...pet deformed by extremes of the supposed perfections...the pets of Frankenstein...For me a bulldog bitch waiting for its fifth caesarean is horrible, absolutely unacceptable...they (bulldogs) will lie down and die from the stress of a hot summer's day - a result of the breathing deficiency bred into them...We need a return to favour of moggies and mongrels, to strike back at the concept of 'designer' pets...animals that are now, literally, too perfect for their own good".

 It is simply not good enough to dismiss such press coverage of Crufts and pedigree dogs as "the anti-dog lobby again" or "sensationalised and ill-informed", as so often happens, or indeed, as the chairman of the Crufts' committee did, as "several negative articles".  We all know there is an element of truth in such articles. But what did the Kennel Club 'spokesmen', approached by the three journalists mentioned above, say in riposte? Here are some quotes: "Well, I have never had a Peke snuffle up to me and say he wished he'd never been born!"..."we try to act through gentle persuasion"..."I am afraid that today the financial considerations sometimes outweigh the ethics"..."if we refused someone registration we would be taken to the Office of Fair Trading"..."Have a look at the Breed Standards book and tell me where it lays down any guideline that could give rise to any kind of distortion"..."I reckon anyone who is well into any hobby is a bit of a nutcase. As a breeder, I am one myself."

 These six statements could be fairly described in turn as: a flip disclaimer (the journalist's own quite justified reproach), a spineless excuse, an immoral concession, lame resignation, hiding behind paper which the journalist was not familiar with (and there are plenty of examples of harmful words in breed standards) and finally a quite stupid and rather pathetic attempt at diversion tactics. God knows what the public at large thinks of such thoughtless and inept remarks!

 Breeding and exhibiting pedigree dogs is not a cheap pastime. Such breeders and exhibitors pay sizeable sums of money to the Kennel Club every year. When are they going to get some kind of service in return, especially in the promotion of pure-bred dogs to the general public? There were seven KC executives in the 1995 Crufts press office. Judging them on the press coverage I have referred to, they are clearly not earning their pay and should be replaced by a specialist professional public relations agency (rather than a marketing company, that's a different skill). Does the KC actually have a strategy for dealing with the press? Does it have the first clue on how to brief a public relations agency so that the news media can be utilised to advantage? Even the most talented professional communicator needs to be given scope and ideally headline material, to steal a march on potential critics.

 Following a wounding leading article on them in the influential Time magazine, the American KC is considering engaging the services of a public relations organisation to "improve and repair its fractured image with the public." Writing on this in the March 1995 edition of Dog World USA, Nigel Aubrey-Jones commented that the very best advice that any bright organisation could give the AKC is to be sure it gives those in control of communications and planning the day off the next time the national press sends a representative to see them. Judging by the asinine comments of their own 'spokesmen', the KC here should take such advice very seriously themselves.

 So let's fantasise! The KC actually accepts that change is a challenge and not a threat. They go ahead and get a really sharp London PR agency to act for them. Here is the draft press release by that agency for Crufts 1996:

 "This year sees a sea change in the way the Kennel Club intends to conduct its business into the next millenium. First of all, our top priority is the production of better-bred, disease-free dogs. With this in mind, we are passing field trial administration over to the BASC, agility, obedience, good citizen dog schemes and other non-exhibiting matters over to those parties best able to handle them, and concentrating all our resources on the improvement of dogs. From 1997, we will register any pedigree dog as part of our contribution to the much-needed national dog registration scheme, but will only register the progeny of those dogs if they are hip-scored, eye-tested and cleared for breeding by our approved veterinary surgeons and geneticists. The progeny of a bitch under eighteen months or over seven years of age or one which has produced six previous litters will NOT be accepted for registration. We reserve the right to de-register any proven carrier of inherited diseases and to review the registration of its offspring. The Kennel Club is totally committed to the production of better-bred pedigree dogs and will work tirelessly and ceaselessly to this end. Secondly, accepting that the pursuit of excellence depends on efficient judges, the KC has decided that from 1997 every judge must: pass an approved written examination, be subjected to random anonymous monitoring, compile a written critique on each dog judged based on a scale of points for each breed and, when challenge certificates are on offer, be accompanied by a second judge. The Kennel Club is determined that only top quality dogs shall receive awards because of the importance of winners in future breeding programmes. Finally, the Kennel Club acknowledges its duty to breeders and exhibitors in achieving effective communication with the press and the general public. We therefore announce the appointment of Beverley Cuddy as our new Director of Communications. Enjoy the show!"