The Chronicle's Columnist, Buying BARC's Spin

Today's Chron column by Lisa Falkenberg, headlined "Finally, a bit of good news out of BARC," might have been more accurately titled "When Public Relations Attacks!"

What the column lacks in actual news value and insight, it makes up for by highlighting what might be one of BARC's thorniest, yet largely unacknowledged, problems: God-awful public relations.

That's because the article refers to an "estimate" by Bureau Chief Ray Sim that, "as of Wednesday," the percentage of dogs vaccinated was "95 percent or greater."

The very next sentence is Falkenberg's conclusion that "It's definitely progress, even if it's a basic reform that could have been implemented long ago."

However, we wonder if Falkenberg asked over what time period this magical 95 percent occurred.

On Monday, Hair Balls referred to a draft for additional BARC funds that estimated an eight percent vaccination rate between July 2008 and January 2009. In conversations with city Health and Human Services spokesperson Kathy Barton and HHS Director Stephen Williams, Hair Balls was told that the eight percent was accurate, but it was strictly for January -- that the prior months, in fact, had lower vaccination rates.

Last Sunday night, upon receiving the supplemental budget request (which is now being called a "draft"), Hair Balls e-mailed Barton, Williams, and HHS Assistant Director Michael Terraso, asking to confirm the eight percent figure.

Barton subsequently explained in an e-mail that "Immunization before intake was not consistently conducted until January of 2009. The statistic may be technically correct, but does not reflect that intake immunization is a new policy initiated by the interim management."

That might have been a good time to include any information that the vaccination rate somehow jumped 87 percentage points since January. So this morning, Hair Balls asked Barton what time period Sim was referring to in the Chron column, and she said "I believe what he said was, 'At this time.'"

Que pasa?

So naturally, our next question was: Could Sim have meant that, on Wednesday, June 24, 95 percent of animals were vaccinated?

Barton said: "It could be."

She then explained that vaccination rates have increased since animal control officers started vaccinating animals in the field. This policy was implemented, Barton believed, on June 10. So at worst, the 95 percent Falkenberg trumpeted as "good news" was actually a one-day statistic; at best, it was a 14-day snapshot (minus weekends, of course). 

When we asked Barton why this 95 percent estimate was only reported Wednesday, Barton said it was because that was the day she asked Sim.

This dovetails into our thesis, that BARC's PR involves a sort of supernatural suckage, whereby stonewalling, fuzzy math, obfuscation, miscues and lack of knowledge collide to create something that, if it appeared on a restaurant menu, might be called Clusterfuck Casserole.

As far as we can tell, this is in no way the fault of Barton, who has an extremely difficult job. And that job is to extract information from an upper tier of civil servants who appear unwilling to facilitate the free-flow of information and who would rather the media be stenographers than fact-finders.

Since the Press's January feature on BARC's problems, Hair Balls has written about a series of blunders brought to our attention by animal-welfare activists who are sickened by what they see as more of the same, followed by more of the same, ad infinitum. Although these reports usually detail events that happened days or weeks earlier, BARC's responses -- if they ever come -- are more often than not extremely delayed.

For example, we recently posted a photograph of Solid Waste Department truck hauling a load of exposed dog cadavers from BARC -- an incident that occurred, and was brought to BARC management's attention, in February. But when Hair Balls asked for an explanation, we had to wait two days. For something that happened months earlier.

These continued delays simply make BARC look bad. If Hair Balls were in charge of BARC's PR, we'd probably start every morning by calling Sim or Williams and asking "Did anything extremely backward and unconscionable happen yesterday? Because, if so, it'd be nice to get out in front of this, so at least we appear competent, concerned, and committed."

However, such a thing could only work if these people cared enough to give Barton the information she needs.

In the pantheon of public relations case studies, BARC would tilt closer to Perrier than Johnson & Johnson. And here's what we mean:

In 1990, North Carolina health officials discovered trace amounts of benzene, a carcinogenic, in bottles of Perrier. While the levels exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency's acceptable limits of benzene in drinking water, the FDA said the amount did not pose an immediate health risk. 

The company's explanation was that solutions containing benzene were used to clean the bottling machinery in one North American plant, and that some unknown bozo or bozos forgot to give a nozzle or a clamp a thorough wipe with a rag. Because the problem was isolated to that plant, Perrier said, it would recall a number of its North American bottles.

But when scientists in Denmark and the Netherlands found benzene in Perrier, the company apparently felt that the Absent-Minded Machinery Cleaner Theory wasn't going to fly. So this time, Perrier said that benzene occurs naturally in carbon dioxide, the stuff that gave Perrier its fizz. Although the benzene is always filtered out, the company said, a gummed-up filter was the cause of the European benzene scare. By this time, regulators everywhere were all up in Perrier's grill, and they soon discovered that Perrier -- gasp! -- was not "naturally sparkling," but that carbon dioxide was artifically added in the plants. The public began to lose trust, and Perrier began to lose marketshare. Perrier's shifting explanations and perceived evasiveness took a toll on its image, and the product never rebounded.

The infamousTylenol scare, however, is often used a prime example of how to maintain the public's trust. In 1982, some psychopath replaced Extra-Stength Tylenol Capsules with capsules containing cyanide; these packages wound up on supermarket shelves in Chicago, and seven people died.

Johnson & Johnson, Tylenol's parent, immediately reacted by using the media to tell consumers not to buy any Tylenol products until the extent of the danger could be determined. The next steps were to cease all production and advertising of Tylenol products and to withdraw these products from shelves in the Chicago area. But when two more contaminated bottles were discovered, the company than implemented a nationwide recall of all capsules.

Then, even while the company was sacrificing immense revenue from the sale of Tylenol, Johnson & Johnson set up a toll-free consumer hotline and a similar hotline for media to receive daily updates. The company's chairman appeared on national news programs, wanting to explain to as many people as possible how the company was committed to consumer safety.

Ultimately, Tylenol was the first of its kind to be sold with tamper-resistant packaging. And all along, the public saw a company that appeared to put safety ahead of profits. Think of the last time you swallowed a Tylenol. Now think of the last time you swallowed some Perrier.

Of course, the problem with BARC is that it doesn't exist in a marketplace. There is no competition that is charged with enforcing animal control laws, which means that it can continue to employ Perrier-level PR without consequence. There is literally nothing for BARC officials to lose by being recalcitrant and evading the public's requests for how animals are being treated behind BARC's doors. Quite simply, BARC doesn't have to worry about its appearance.

With no one in the city administration calling for accountability, it is extremely important for activists to keep shining a light on problems. And it's extremely important for the media to pay attention to these activists, and to pay attention to BARC, and follow the facts, wherever they lead.

In the meantime, it is crucial for those in the media not to mistake hollow proclamations for "good news." That sort of thing just doesn't do anyone -- or any animal -- any good.


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Contributor Craig Malisow covers crooks, quacks, animal abusers, elected officials, and other assorted people for the Houston Press.
Contact: Craig Malisow