Putting Your Best Facebook Forward
Using social media - the right way - to save animals
by Arna Cohen
The woman only wanted to help. Having seen a post on social media about two cats facing euthanasia at a shelter in New York, she drove from the D.C. area to get them. Then she drove back, and brought them to the Washington Humane Society (WHS) to surrender them.
“I think we were all a bit stunned when she first came to the shelter and told us what she had done,” says Stephanie Shain, WHS’s chief operating officer. She suspects that the woman was trying to save the cats’ lives and didn’t understand that transferring them to another shelter was simply moving the problem. No one at WHS wanted to make the woman, who had cared enough to drive hundreds of miles, feel bad about what she’d done, and yet, Shain says, they couldn’t figure it out. “We’re like, why would you drive to New York if you want to help cats? You could have driven down to the street to any shelter—not just our shelter. There are lots of shelters in the area.”
WHS staff examined the two cats, and found that one was extremely ill, and the other was essentially feral. They explained to the woman that the first cat would have to be euthanized.
Unhappy with the prognosis, the woman took back the cats. She took the sick one to a private veterinarian, who also recommended euthanasia. She tried to take the other cat to another shelter, but ended up coming back to WHS.
“Later she told us that that shelter laughed at her when she told them what she had done,” Shain says. WHS ended up euthanizing the sickly cat, but found a good outdoor placement for the feral kitty.
It’s an odd story, one that captures some of the complexity of how the use of social media has impacted the world of animal sheltering and rescue. Shain doesn’t know what it was about the particular posting that inspired the woman to take such dramatic action. And the end results were mixed. After all, Shain says, the second cat—the feral one—most certainly would have been euthanized had the woman not intervened.
But “if you look at the other cat, you could say that was really unfair because she was already slated for euthanasia and then had to endure travel from New York to D.C., multiple shelter visits, a vet visit, and this is a cat who was really suffering,” Shain says. “She had to endure that.”
Doing it Right
It sounds so simple. Create a Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram account, post some pictures of your animals, and help find them homes, a rescue group, or foster care. A click, a tap, a swipe, and lives are saved. All you need are a digital camera, tablet, or smartphone and a bit of computer savvy to send your message way beyond your community in a matter of hours.
Social media have changed the world for homeless animals, and their impact overall has been a huge boon. These sites are fast, they’re free, they’re efficient, and they provide unparalleled exposure for animals who might otherwise have little to no chance of leaving a shelter. In communities where euthanasia for space is still a regular reality, the capacity to save lives sometimes hinges on this new technology that allows people to communicate quickly and urgently with people who may be able to help.
Yet aspects of social media can be cause for concern. Constant Facebook posts full of depressing messages like DOGS SCHEDULED TO DIE WILL BE KILLED IF NO RESCUE BY TOMORROW!!! PLEASE HELP!! and the use of terms like “Death Row” often make recipients feel helpless or overwhelmed.
“When we used to get emails five or six years ago saying, ‘Urgent, urgent, urgent,’ it meant actually urgent,” says Sarah Barnett, who manages social media for Lost Dog & Cat Rescue Foundation and serves as senior reputation manager for The HSUS. “Now, that’s our whole inbox. I mean if we flagged every single urgent email, we’d have 500 of them a day.”
Posts may also be mistargeted, reaching people who can’t (or shouldn’t) help. Barnett notes that the rescuers in her D.C.-area network are often frustrated when they get posts about an animal who’s scheduled to be euthanized in, say, Idaho. “We’re like ‘OK, but we’ve got 20 dogs just like that dog that are an hour away that are also going to be euthanized,’” says Barnett.
And social media in the animal welfare world are sadly not immune to the problems that haunt the rest of the Web: lurking trolls who seem to relish conflict, inaccurate content, and a lack of face-to-face contact that sometimes seems to generate anger and rude behavior.
How can you make sure you’re doing social media the right way, using it to help animals and promote your organization while staying above the fray?
A Model Effort
Some organizations have been working for years to figure it out. In Texas, Fort Worth Animal Care and Control has had great success using Facebook to find rescue placement for animals with treatable medical or behavioral issues that the shelter doesn’t have resources to address.
After taking over as director in Fort Worth in January 2011, Mike Camp toured a shelter in Irving, Texas, and heard from its manager how effective social media had been in getting more animals out alive.
Camp tapped volunteer Lauren Marte, who had experience helping to run a Facebook page for one of the shelter’s rescue partners, to put together a page for his shelter. The two sat down to map out a plan and establish the ground rules.
The facility’s adoption rate is high, thanks to two PetSmart satellite adoption centers, so the shelter’s page highlights animals at risk for euthanasia due to illness or temperament problems. These animals are not up for public adoption, but are available to be moved into rescue groups where they can be treated or rehabilitated. Fast action is the goal, so Marte and her crew of 30 Facebook volunteers can use “urgent,” “euthanasia,” and “put to sleep,” but hot-button terms like “murdered” or “killed” are prohibited. Marte also employs a color-coded tagging system that quickly alerts rescue partners to each animal’s risk status.
Because of the good working relationship and the trust that’s developed, Marte’s crew has a great deal of freedom. They’re permitted to handle and photograph off-view, rescue-eligible animals and add their own observations to shelter staff comments as long as they aren’t derogatory. For example, Marte says, they can mention that a volunteer found a dog the shelter had labeled as aggressive was much happier and friendlier outside the kennel. They can broaden the picture as long as they don’t demean or dismiss the shelter’s findings.
Keeping the page current is a round-the-clock project, says volunteer Molly Kemp. “Between I’d say 10 of us, there is always someone on the page … updating threads, updating pictures, moving pictures around, answering emails.”
While the project has been a huge success, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. The page is open to the public to encourage sharing, and like most pages, it has attracted its fair share of drama junkies who harangue the shelter and the page administrators. Off-topic and negative comments are deleted, and the worst offenders are banned from posting; visitors are informed of this practice in the page’s policy section.
“We want to keep the focus on the animals and not the drama with the shelter,” says Marte. “People like to come onto the page and start complaining about the shelter and what the shelter can do, and we kindly tell them this is not the place for that; we’re trying to save animals.”
Thousands of at-risk animals have been saved since the page’s inception, Marte says, and Camp credits the shelter’s volunteer-run page with the increase in his shelter’s live-release rate. “Within 30 days our rescue numbers jumped up,” says Camp. “[They’ve] gone up 150 percent since starting that page.”
The Pitfalls of Posting
How can you replicate this success? Start by understanding the powers and limitations of social media, which can do wonders for helping you reach other humans, but nothing at all in terms of controlling human nature.
Social media are fantastic “for helping our communities understand that the shelters need help,” says Donna Reynolds, president of the pit bull rescue and advocacy group BADRAP in Oakland, Calif. “It’s a tool that can be used responsibly, and it’s also a tool that can drum up strong emotions.”
It’s a double-edged sword. Working in sheltering or rescue, you are dealing with matters of life and death, joy and grief. As heartwarming as it is to have a hand in swiftly moving bottle-baby kittens into a foster home or a senior dog into a new family, it can be frustrating—and at times frightening—to deal with the stream of opinions and anger that are sometimes directed at the organization and its representatives on social media.
Sometimes an organization’s desire to convey urgency may fan the emotional flames that social media seem to sustain so well. There is a fine line between going for the heartstrings—often necessary and appropriate in the field—and going for shock value.
Some social media posters think shock is useful. Labeling photos of animals at risk of euthanasia with dramatic headlines—URGENT! WILL DIE TOMORROW! HAS UNTIL 6 PM! SOMEONE NEEDS TO STEP UP!—can create a sense of urgency, motivating people who’ve been considering adoption to follow through and rescue groups to act.
But constant hysterical announcements of imminent death can also create a sense of helplessness, eroding the public’s trust and ultimately hindering the effort. “I think the message it gives the public is that shelters don’t care for animals or don’t like animals and want to kill them,” says Reynolds. “It creates an animosity that’s unnecessary and counterproductive to the goal of working together as a community.”
Several sources interviewed mentioned their concerns that highly emotional posts may be more attractive to people who are saving animals out of a compulsion. “I think hysterical posts attract hysterical people,” says Whitney Horne of the Coalition for Animal Rescue Reform in Georgia. “Hoarders are attracted to those pages. They can’t say no.”
Of course, you shouldn’t shape your social media strategy around the possibility of attracting hoarders! But do keep in mind the tone you set in your posts and who the audience is likely to be. Some people may be motivated by emotional urgency, while others may find it a major turn-off. “I come on FB to escape the reminders of the real world ... laugh at a friend’s post, smile at a family pic, lose myself in a game ... those pics are too painful,” wrote a poster in a Facebook discussion, expressing her reaction to photos of at-risk animals appearing in her news feed.
The passion to save animals’ lives has sometimes brought out pain in the form of online name-calling, accusations of murder, and even death threats against animal welfare representatives. This negativity only hurts the animals, says Robert Cabral, a Los Angeles photographer, dog rescuer, and author of Selling Used Dogs, a primer for shelters and rescues on marketing their animals more effectively.
“Once someone starts slamming a shelter, people will turn off to that shelter,” Cabral says. “What people don’t realize is the shelters that have the worst reputation have the dogs that are in the most dire need.”
Remember, if things get really ugly, shelter management may decide to end the organization’s social media presence. It’s happened before, and it’s a result all parties should strive to avoid, because a popular Facebook page can be one of a shelter’s cheapest and most effective tools for placing animals.
Reynolds points to Berkeley Animal Care Services (BACS) in California, with whom BADRAP has had a 10-year partnership, as a model of no-drama messaging. “We really like their transparency when an animal is starting to stress out and is having a difficult time in the kennel,” she says. When the shelter notifies rescue partners that an animal needs out, “they do it in a way that’s not dramatic … in a way that allows the entire community of rescuers to think, ‘Can I help this animal?’”
BACS described Chapati, a cat who had been in the shelter for several months, not as SCHEDULED TO DIE, but rather as affectionate, playful, and calm, “a beautiful brown tabby girl, who is growing increasingly frustrated with her long stay in the shelter. … Being confined is taking its toll on Chapati and she needs a home of her own.” The notice drew the attention of a rescue group that offered her a foster home.
To keep things on an even keel, page administrators need to engage in what Cabral calls “thread wrangling,” keeping posts updated and on point, and staying on top of the flow of comments to prevent threads from being hijacked by angry people.
It’s smart to set and post on your social media pages a policy about which kinds of interactions and comments are acceptable and which will not be allowed. If the rules are clearly stated, then you’ll get less pushback when you enforce them. You can provide people with a warning, but if they continue to be aggressive and rude to your team or other visitors, take advantage of your abilities to delete their comments and block them from your pages.
Stay focused on the mission at hand and test your approaches by monitoring which posts get the best results. Sometimes it may be appropriate to use a more emotional appeal, but remember that people can reach a saturation point. Think of the boy who cried wolf here—if everything’s a wolf, people stop reacting. If you save your high emotions for the times when they’re most needed, people are more likely to see your group as reasonable and truthful.
Social Media Tips
Back to the basics. Include information about the organization you are representing, such as location, contact numbers, public hours, and a link to the website. If there is no website, you may want to include information about adoption policies as well. Just make sure everything is accurate, and notify the group holding the animal in question so it won’t be surprised by an increased number of calls.
Make it simple and sweet. Start out each adoption or foster post with the animal’s adorable photo, location, ID number, and a date—important information that allows the pet to be tracked through multiple shares. Don’t neglect that picture—images are more likely to get shared. On Facebook, follow this with a short story about the animal’s best characteristics.
Catch more flies with honey. Focus on the pet’s best qualities—a beautiful coat, a playful nature, a loud purr, a calm temperament, an amazing trick. Save the appeals to the negative emotions for extreme situations; you can convey urgency without conveying hysteria. “People don’t want to look at the pages of animals that are going to be put down the next day if there’s nothing they can do,” says Abby Volin, rescue group coordinator for The HSUS’s Companion Animals department.
Keep photos positive. Try to catch an animal playing with a toy or looking happily at the camera rather than huddled in the back of a cage looking miserable. Photographer and rescuer Robert Cabral also recommends short videos that capture the pet’s personality—easy to do with a smartphone or tablet.
Target your posts. Does your Ohio shelter want people driving from California to help? The answer may be yes—many groups work with rescuers around the country these days. But if you’re not doing out-of-state placements or only work with local rescuers, make that clear and target your Facebook posts using the “location” function for your listings.
A current affair. Make sure that every animal’s status is updated regularly, listing whether he’s still available, adopted, gone to rescue, etc. Some administrators keep the main page clutter-free by moving animals who are no longer in the shelter into a secondary photo album. Even if his status is unchanged, try to put new comments on the post to keep viewers interested: “Took Fluffy for a walk today. He’s very interested in squirrels!”
Close the loop. When your posts result in adoptions or placements, update followers with a happy photo. It helps remind the public and your network of helpers that their support is saving lives.
Read the rest of this issue from Animal Sheltering magazine