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Unspun 

Two Barks Up the Wrong Tree

Wednesday, Aug 27 1997
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From a public relations standpoint, it's hard to imagine going wrong with either of these two causes: an expose of beagle-beating drug researchers, or a report on the city's largest and most popular gay pride event.

Yet, amazingly, in recent press releases, two groups well-versed in the ways of PR managed to solicit bad press for each of these causes.

The beagle-beating expose was botched by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA); the organizers of the city's gay pride parade, the San Francisco Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Pride Celebration Committee Inc. (SFLGBTPCC), were the ones who bungled the gay pride event.

First, PETA.
In a news release datelined San Francisco, Emeryville, and Palo Alto, PETA committed a classic smear-by-association. The news release, which dealt with alleged animal cruelty at a drug-testing lab, opened as if it were going to say something horrible about three "[i]nternational pharmaceutical giants" (Genen-tech Inc., Chiron Corp., and ALZA Corp., which are located in San Fran-cisco, Emeryville, and Palo Alto, respectively).

But the only "news" contained in the release involved PETA's delivery of an undercover video made at a British drug-testing lab (which uses beagles) to the three firms. PETA wanted the three companies to "look into any relationship" they might have with the alleged beagle-batterers.

Checks with the companies show that none of them have had any recent dealings with the lab in question. So much for that hook.

And the tape?
The press release says the tape shows lab workers "forcefully striking, shaking and screaming at frightened beagles" and "improperly dosing dogs, simulating sex acts while injecting dogs with drugs and otherwise abusing animals."

As a result of the publicity, PETA states, "Hundreds of outraged beagle-loving Britons have protested"; major drug companies have withdrawn contracts from the lab; and its stock has suspended trading on the London and New York exchanges.

So it was with trepidation that Unspun popped the 25-minute tape into the VCR.

Well-produced, and shot in remarkably clear focus, it is narrated by a young woman who vows unconvincingly that she's not opposed to all animal research, but just wishes her "puppies" (as she refers to the animals she cares for in the facility she infiltrated) would have a chance to play outside and not end their days in a drug lab.

Indeed, it is a sad fate, but what the tape shows is not nearly as gruesome as the press release suggests.

The worst scene is the final shot of a dog undergoing an autopsy; but even the narrator concedes that the dog's euthanasia was handled with respect and gentleness. At one or two points on the tape, a technician gets angry at a dog, and one person is shown picking up dogs roughly. The "simulated sex act" is merely one male worker rather tastelessly horsing around with another, who doesn't seem to mind. The incident doesn't even seem particularly sexual.

Even the people making the tape can't seem to find much wrong. The dogs' cages are of a good size. The main complaints: The dogs should have some sort of bedding; they should be allowed to play with humans more; and the tests they undergo don't seem all that necessary.

This was a non-story from start to finish. There's such a thing as crying wolf -- even when it comes to battered beagles.

The gay pride parade press release from SFLGBTPCC stirred up more questions -- and more negative implications -- than it answered or explained.

The headline was "Double Whammy Hits Pride Finances." Not the sort of thing most organizations would want to flout.

"This year's Pride Event has turned out to be the costliest ever," the release opened, noting that the affair had gone over budget by as much as $160,000.

In a mean-spirited move, the release placed the blame for this scenario not on the organizers who managed somehow to lose money on the city's biggest feel-good event, but on free-lance street vendors "eager to profit from the pink dollar." Also at fault was "the community" for making a "pathetic less than $10,000" in donations and for not volunteering in great enough numbers.

According to details that committee officials supplied later, the finger-pointing in the press release wasn't justified.

Donations were roughly unchanged from last year to this; beverage sales were indeed off this year, but only by $30,000, according to the Pride Committee's executive director, Teddy Witherington, and they still amounted to a hefty $100,000. And Pride President Deborah Oakley-Melvin blamed the cool weather, not free-lance vendors, for the drop-off. Oh, and this year, the committee had to split the beverage proceeds with a company the committee hired to run the beverage service to make the event "more professional," Oakley-Melvin said.

In fact, most of the event was put on by paid presenters this year. As a not very surprising result, operating expenses swelled; surprisingly, the event's planners didn't factor in those new costs. Hence, the deficit.

"Anticipating criticism," the third paragraph of the six-graph release started, organizers were "swift to reassure everyone of their resolve to retire the debt." How? By asking for more money from corporations and the city, which already supplies about 10 percent of the budget -- or some $64,700 this year.

Oakley-Melvin says the committee plans to draft an economic impact statement, which it can then use to justify asking for more city money. And the committee is asking the city for money to draft the statement.

Unspun can't decide which is nervier -- the committee's advertising the fact that it screwed up in such a big way, or its boasting of its intent to ask taxpayers and private donors to bail it out.

Phyllis Orrick can be reached at SF Weekly, Attn: Unspun, 185 Berry, Lobby 4, Suite 3800, San Francisco, CA 94107; phone: 536-8139; e-mail: porrick@sfweekly.com.

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Phyllis Orrick

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