07 May 2008

The Kentucky Derby and Crisis Communications

Apparently there were a couple of primaries last night. We may know a lot more at the end of today than we do at the beginning. Social media played a small role in organizing and a huge role in fundraising, much as it has in other primaries. But more on that later.

Tuesday's NYT editorial "Another Horse-Racing Horror" is not being well received here in the Bluegrass, particularly from the equine industry that calls this place home. Within hours of the Derby and the sad fate of its placing filly, Eight Belles, PETA was dominating the airwaves - calling for investigations of the jockey and the owner, calling for the banning of the sport, and barring that, mandating the new "polytrack" surface on all tracks.

A handful of talk-radio callers and newspaper columnists defend the industry with comments, mostly directed toward PETA, like "you obviously don't know anything about this industry and ignorant people should just keep their mouths shut." They may have a point, but they shouldn't be part of the industry's crisis communications plan.

To its credit, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association is responding via its CEO blog with a post called, "Safety First." The online component is likely part of a larger communications effort to talk about what the industry does to protect horses. I'm especially impressed with the close of the post:
I would appreciate hearing your thoughts on what you believe racing should do in the wake of Eight Belles’ death. Thanks.
This reflects the openness and access that the entire equine industry must embrace at this moment and beyond. I'll be candid: having lived in the Bluegrass for a few years now, and having approached "horse people" on a few occasions, I get the feeling that the industry looks at people outside their industry with some suspicion, and their first reaction is to clam up.

I think it's because it's not just an industry - it's a way of life.

Just as the New England fishing families resent the scientists and environmentalists (many who have never fished a day in their lives) telling them to cut back on their days at sea, the horse families of Kentucky resent animal rights activists determined to ban thoroughbred racing, and with it, events like the Kentucky Derby - signature moments in their heritage and culture.

So in situations like these, the reaction of some in the equine industry is to lump anyone who has questions about Eight Belles or concerns about the welfare of animals with the activists trying to ban racing. This is a cultural thing, and you're either with us or you're against us.

Taking this tack right now will only serve to polarize the issue and hurt the industry's case. The industry has to walk people through all the safeguards it takes and explain the whole process, warts and all. It has to acknowledge fault where it exists, and take real action to prevent future problems.

And once the shock of the race subsides, it has to continue the spirit of openness that NTRA is now showing on its blog. It won't be able to turn directly to its political priorities of casino gaming and estate tax relief - these only reinforce the elitist, profit-before-welfare stereotypes many have toward the industry. NTRA doesn't represent the entire thoroughbred industry, let alone the whole equine industry - but right now they're front and center and the pressure's on.

Frankly, I think we should see even more from the good people at the American Association of Equine Practitioners. They're already doing a good job explaining what really happened to Eight Belles, but they're being drowned out by the critics right now.

I think AAEP's crackerjack blogger, Dr. Jennifer Selvig, should be front and center, explaining what happened and issuing the call for more equine practitioners so we can take better care of horses. Use Eight Belle's tragedy as an opportunity to help horses in the long run - that's a legacy any horse owner can embrace with pride.

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