Why positive storytelling beats shock tactics for Animals Asia in its fight to end bear bile farming

Animals Asia logoAnimals Asia is a charity that, unlike many others, uses a softer approach to tell disturbing stories, the retrieval of bears from bile farms and other acts of animal cruelty such as the dog meat trade.

In this Q&A with Mumbrella Asia’s editor Robin Hicks, Animals Asia’s head of communications Steve Jackson talks about why positive stories are more effective than shock tactics in building a following, the sort of content that gets most shared, how the NGO moderates extreme comments, and how it works with celebrities and brands.

One thing that stands out about Animals Asia’s approach to communications is that the stories you tell tend to be positive, and not depressing. When did that come about as a content strategy?

Jill Robinson

Jill Robinson

We started producing regular content for social media about three years ago, but the culture [of positivity and optimism] came about a long time before that and it stems from our CEO and founder Jill Robinson who was doing all this face to face (and still is) from the outset.

Perhaps shocking images might have more of an initial impact, but I believe that to build a following that will stick with us we can’t be relentlessly confrontational with what we share. The aim of growing our following is also about growing our influence. We want people to take up our fight and we want them not only to see the need but also see what can and is being achieved with their help.

As an organisation, many of our staff are Chinese and Vietnamese. It would feel like a betrayal for us to write about how terrible Chinese and Vietnamese people are [for holding bears in bile farms], when not only are these people our colleagues, they are also the people who are rescuing and caring for bears. We are always on our guard against negative stereotypes – not least because they don’t hold true.

Bear in bile farm; image: Animals Asia

Bear in bile farm; image: Animals Asia

We are very vigilant about our comments [on social media platforms] and won’t accept racism. We moderate our comments section fiercely in this respect and a few times we’ve come out and said this is not acceptable, and we will block any racist commenters. It’s been gratifying to see people respond positively to that. This includes those people that might feel alienated by the hate elsewhere, as well as Chinese and Vietnamese people taking part in debate that otherwise they might have felt excluded from. One of our favourite responses is ‘cruelty knows no borders’ and that’s true. It’s lovely to see that quoted back at us occasionally.

The story we did about Tuffy [a dog that was burned and thrown out of a four-storey window by its owner for chewing a mobile phone] is an example. We first saw the pictures of this poor burnt dog in the summer of last year. We could have done a shock-horror story then about this terrible cruelty. But we didn’t want to do it, because frankly, what would that have achieved? It would have just caused people to be outraged and we know that that kind of cruelty can happen all over the world. We made the decision to hang on to those pictures until we could tell the story of a happy ending for that dog. Thanks to the skill of our vets and this very brave dog, that was possible. We were delighted when we could get pictures of a fully recovered, happy dog, and make something that would have been a horribly negative story into a positive one. As well as our vets, the hero of that story was a young Chinese woman who took in Tuffy. We were happier having a hero than a villain. While there was no attempt to gloss over the cruelty we even went as far as listing the acts of kindess.

Watch the story of Tuffy, which is on Animals Asia’s YouTube channel and Facebook page.

The wider point of view is this: We are very aware that we are building an army of people online; people who come together and believe in what we do. We have an ethos of involving people. So when we achieve something, we want to say it was down to you, our supporters. We want it to be a feel-good thing.

People will unfollow charities because they can’t face gruesome images in their social media feed anymore. I have no doubt that in the short term, shocking works and some people might think we’re being naive and of course there is a time for it. But we also want to be something that people want to read about everyday – we want them to join us in hoping for better times.

What sort of content works best?

Pictures and video are well shared. But a really hard news story showing progress probably shares better than anything. But you can’t always get a hard news story. Waiting for breakthroughs can take a lot of patience. So when that’s not happening, giving people pictures showing what’s going on in the meantime work well. It’s good to show our supporters specifically something we’ve done in return for their support – and the good work of caring for our rescued bears happens daily. We desperately need sponsors just so we can feed the bears because each rescue is a lifetime commitment. So it’s about much more than just the initial rescue.

Tell us about #MoonBearMonday.

Image posted on #MoonBearMonday

Image from #MoonBearMonday

We try to put up content every day. We want our supporters to check our page, even if the content doesn’t appear in their feed –  we want them to bookmark our page and go directly to it. As a result of that, we’ve built up the numbers [Animals has around 180,000 fans on Facebook, and 61,000 followers on Twitter]. MoonBearMondays is a fun segment for any moon bear stories we have. It gives us a leap for the week, as we’ll have a story in the bag on Friday night and it’s ready to go on Monday morning. Just to put it into a wider perspective, the piece will hopefully be translated into Chinese, German, Italian and Vietnamese. We try to work 24 hours ahead of ourselves so we’re ready to go out on various platforms.

What about covering live bear rescues?

Animals Asia bear rescue from bile farm in Vietnam

Animals Asia bear rescue in Vietnam

When we get to the point of rescuing a bear –  for many of our supporters, that’s what they’re waiting for – and, as with the recent Halong Bay bears in Vietnam, the rescues were possible thanks to a long campaign. When we go to do a rescue, we cover the rescue live. That means live video footage, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and we use Storify to drag in all of the updates. We use short videos on Twitter and gifs and Vines too, which are just fantastic as the footage we get quite often isn’t that good because it’s from vets, bear carers, etc. But perhaps there’s a six-second snippet in the middle that we can use that uploads very quickly and tells the story perfectly. To date we’ve had over two millions ‘loops’ on Vine. We’ve all got the communications skills to take two of three bits of footage, splice it together very quickly, stick a URL at the end and a title at the front and get it out pretty much ‘as live’.

What about using Periscope to live-stream a bear rescue?

There are a number of reasons why we haven’t to date. One is that rescues are in the middle of nowhere using 3G to report back, so it might be a bit hit and miss. We tend to use Viber [the instant messaging and VoIP app] for sending footage and pictures back, which is as live as we can make it.

Animals Asia bear rescue in Phan Tiet

Bear rescue in Phan Tiet

The other reason is that it would be increased pressure on the team in an occasionally tense situation. We are happy to share coverage of our events, but live reporting would put a lot of pressure on our staff. We need a short buffer, even it’s just a couple of minutes. It’s useful to have that space to ask ‘what just happened?’ and receive an explanation. Such as a rescue last year where a bear stopped breathing under anaesthetic but was revived. Perhaps in future we may use Periscope for parts of the rescue. But we’ll see…

Which media have proven to be most effective in raising funds?

Like most charities while we’re pushing boundaries with digital communications, most supporters still donate as a result of more traditional ‘asks’. In many cases social media is a way of reaching new people that may become donors further down the line. Of the social media platforms, we’re probably not alone in the sense that Facebook brings in most funds but Twitter has a networking dynamic that helps us reach some incredible people who can help in all manner of ways. It’s probably harder to put a figure on but it’s invaluable to us.

Where does Animals Asia get the most traction from its communications? Which language works best?

In terms of western social media – as China has its own – our English-language Facebook page. In particular, because of the way Facebook has taken on YouTube in the video space, Facebook videos are more likely to be seen than a photo or a link, and tend to be very well shared.

A while ago, YouTube was stronger, as you could also embed their videos on Facebook. When Facebook stopped that to try and force you to upload to their site instead we thought YouTube would be less useful to us in future. But, in fact – both Facebook and YouTube movies share well. The Tuffy video was our best shared video ever.

By way of background, the footage we had for the Tuffy story, and the photos, is not something that we used a TV crew for. We don’t have the resources for that sort of thing. And in some ways it’s pretty lousy footage – it’s someone filming with a smartphone, even holding it the wrong way around as amateurs do. But it is what it is, and it’s really real and that is a strength. It wasn’t even meant for us to use. We just asked and, with the way the modern world is, you can guarantee that someone will be taking pictures or movies. There’s no gloss on it. I edited it together with a bit of royalty-free music added. It’s pretty powerful stuff and that’s almost a million views on zero budget. The footage may be amateur, but it’s gold dust.

Where we’re lacking gloss in terms of what we share, we make up for with reality. The viewer sees it as we see it and more often than not it’s filmed by bear carers, vets and programme staff – who I am eternally grateful to.

How much content do you produce, and how frequently do you post in Animals Asia’s social channels?

I see organisations that will post 10 Facebook posts a day. But in my view, even if I love your organisation, I don’t want 10 updates in my feed.

We’ll do one a day – which is still quite high compared to a lot of charities– of our own original content (although if there’s a bear rescue, we’ll do a dozen updates a day). And we’ll look for third party content, such as news stories and things that are worth sharing.

I use Tweetdeck [a streaming news feed for Twitter users] with a dozen filters for various keywords so nothing much gets by us. We’ll share anything that we think is of interest to our supporters. And we constantly get pictures of bears sent to us from staff at our sanctuaries.

Maybe it’s a shot of a bear recovering or taking their first steps of freedom, and we like to tell those stories.

On Twitter we can go through stages of getting 100-200 retweets quite often, and when I look at many large NGOs with bigger budgets they’re not coming close to that. So we have some really engaged supporters who are just incredible. We preach this as well: Ok, you want bears to be rescued, you need to do your bit, and we need you to spread the word, sponsor and donate. If they can do that for us then it’s only right that we recognise that. When we get good news we remind them that it’s down to them. You did this! We work for them and we’re very privileged to do so.

When we do a rescue, it’s an emotional event. We say: We did this together, let’s see what we can do next.

Animals Asia's anti-dolphinarium campaignLast year we got to a point where as a result of our campaign, the prime minister of Vietnam stepped in to let us rescue some bears, and that’s no small feat – the most powerful people are noticing what we’re doing.

Another example was a dolphinarium planning to open in Danang. As a result of our campaign, we understand those plans are now on hold. That’s a very tangible result. Dolphins that would be in bathtub sized pools are still in the sea. But we’ll continue to fight on till we hear the plan is definitely not happening. We want them to stay where they are.

How big is the communications team at Animals Asia?

Steve Jackson

Steve Jackson

We have staff attached to programmes but internationally – as it stands – there’s a head of communications (me), a content manager and a comms officer. So it’s a really small team and we are all comfortable doing a bit of Photoshop or movie editing or splicing up a Vine or whatever.

When I interview new people, one of my first questions is, can you do these things? I don’t mind if they can’t so long as they clearly aren’t afraid of it. With Google we can all find out how to learn to to do anything pretty quickly. Why would you say you can’t do something unless you’re afraid to learn? Those not scared of changing technology and those who are willing to learn are the people we look for. That attitude is as important as past experience.

Do you use agencies?

This is not something we routinely do but we have in the past. In the vast majority of cases the work is pro bono and it’s happened as a result of someone coming to us because they believe in our cause.

An issue with agencies doing work on a pro bono basis is that they tend to have creative control…

When you’re not paying for something you will always lose a bit of control. It’s harder to say ‘can you do this again?’ or ‘I need it by Thursday’. That will always be an issue but you have to expect that. That said, we’ve worked with some really good people who tend to be supporters who have stepped up and they get us.

The sh!t in the woods campaign came from an agency [Enigma in Australia]. That campaign was well supported by celebrities, such as Ricky Gervais. Tell us about how you use celebs.

Ricky GervaisYes, we had Ricky Gervais, Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne, Matt Lucas, Simon LeBon and Moby – some great names who came through for us, and none were paid a penny to do what they did. From that fantastic concept the reach it gave us was incredible. Ricky Gervais was born to wear that t-shirt.

How did those relationships come about, and how is Animals Asia using celebrity connections?

They are all people we’ve reached essentially through our networking – either online or offline and for the most part they came to us. The Downton Abbey crew came in via our ambassador Lesley Nicol [who plays Mrs Patmore in the show] and to see her networking online on our behalf alongside Peter Egan (another ambassador) is a wonderful thing. It’s always been somebody who knows somebody and they’ve been introduced to the cause. And increasingly social media is speeding up a process that was previously face to face.

Ricky Gervais Animals Asia tweetRicky Gervais has been absolutely incredible. If you’re a large NGO working with your average A-lister you’d probably be talking to their people for months about a single tweet. Whereas we can wake up and we see our stats going crazy because Ricky has tweeted something entirely unprompted. It’s a genuine act of kindness and we love Ricky for it.

Stephen Fry also, to a lesser extent, he’s crashed our website before after tweeting links. The numbers you can reach through celebrities are phenomenal, and they’re effective at reaching new people, otherwise you can be preaching to the converted over and over again.

Bear bile farming is one of those things that you say to people, and their reply is – what? Not enough people know about it. You need to explain it, and people have their minds blown that it even exists because it’s shocking that it happens, and on such a huge scale.

How are you trying to find new audiences?

It’s interesting to see the way things are shared these days. When you look at it from a traditional media perspective, it’s now been inverted. In the old days, you’d send off your stuff to traditional media and be high-fiving if it was covered. Now there’s occasionally a feeling of, they’ve stolen our video. And it’s about working out if you want them [media outlets] to have this content, or do you want the audience to stay on your platform. But of course their platform reaches new people – even if it’s not you that’s getting the hits from it being shared.

For us, what’s changing in terms of us reaching media is we’re manna from heaven for agencies and websites who want to share potentially viral content. Another example of our content is a video of a cub called Murphy.

The story was covered by Time magazine, Fox, a few UK tabloids. Once it’s out there we have people wanting to share the video on our behalf and even offer to pay to do it, albeit not very much. The idea that “PR” could bring in money is incredible to someone like me who spent the early part of his career sending out typed press releases hoping they’d fill a hole somewhere.

For social media, of course, animals are incredibly shareable content. When I look at people working in social media for the UN, for example, that must be tough. We’re lucky to have content that will make our platforms grow, because people want to put it on their timelines. Again that goes back to putting out positive optimistic news when we can.

Where does support for Animals Asia come from, mostly the West or Asia as well, where there are still bear bile farms?

In terms of donations, it’s mostly from the West but there’s no doubt that will even out. But in terms of social media, it’s all over the place. Our number one Facebook city for followers is Hong Kong, next London, then Melbourne, Milan, Manila, Hanoi, Sydney, Bangkok, New York and Singapore. So it’s a good spread. We have offices in Hong Kong, Australia, the UK, Italy, Germany and the US, where staff work with local supporters.

How far has Animals Asia gone to confront the cultural issues that surround bear bile farming in this region? Is that battle being won?

In the case of Vietnam, it’s illegal. We’re now down to around 1,200 bears [in bile farms in Vietnam]. Those numbers are dwindling fast, and the campaign is very clearly working. From a comms point of view that’s down to the hard work of the local team. We’ve set a timeline that by 2020 we want it to be all over. We’ve had the traditional medical association sign up for that, and we’re increasingly working with local authorities and government, so we’re no longer the external people saying this needs to be sorted. We’re working hard from within.

In China, we are seeing a greater collective will and there are increasing signs of progress.

Major manufacturer KaiBao buys 50 per cent of all bear bile for use in pharmaceuticals. They’re now working with the government to find a substitute. The fact that government is putting significant money into this, and KaiBao is looking into it suggests they too are tiring of the pressure on them and beyond that there are market forces with people wanting a cruelty free alternative. Should they reach a point whereby KaiBao withdraws from the bile market – the market would surely be in serious trouble.

There are still over 10,000 bears being farmed in China. But 87 per cent of Chinese people want an end to bear bile farming.

How difficult is it to be an NGO in a region where some green groups are seen as radical or a nuisance? How does that influence communications?

It might help short term in fundraising if we spent the whole time fighting people and being negative. But our supporters trust us because we’ve shown we can get results and that’s because we work in partnership with people. Even with bile farmers – it can be a case of hate the sin rather than the sinner. To end something you usually have to be able to talk to the people who are doing it. if all we do is alienate them then we will bring about no change.

Sometimes you’ll find that those taking the toughest stance have no local presence at all. They can condemn but they’re not in a position to help. I think our core supporters understand that too. They trust us and our local people in China and Vietnam are very good at knowing when to push and when to hold and when they get a breakthrough we’re just delighted to share it with the people who helped us make it happen – our supporters.

Animals Asia focuses on bears. What other issues does the charity champion?

China's dog meat trade uncoveredWe have a cat and dog programme based in Guangzhou, China, and we also focus on captive animal welfare. There are a lot of problems surrounding strays and dog management in China, and we are also taking on the dog meat industry there. Our research is showing ever more clearly that the dogs being eaten in China are largely stolen companion animals. The same thing is happening in Vietnam. China’s Yulin dog meat festival, has become an international concern and millions more people are aware of the cruelty of the dog meat industry as a result. In Asia, as in the west, people love their dogs and cats and it’s a very good conversation starter in terms of animal welfare issues – why do you eat that and why don’t you eat that? It prompts some excellent debate. We all need to think about how we live and how that impacts on animals.

In terms of captive animals – it’s a remarkable programme. We’re not pro-zoo but we’ll happily work with any organisation if we can help improve the lives of animals. Many zoos in Asia are underfunded and lacking in expertise in terms of how to care for animals. Sometimes some simple “enrichment” can dramatically change an animal’s life. Something for monkeys to climb for example or different ways to get animals to forage for food. We helped release an elephant from a chain last year in Hanoi just by showing them how the enclosure could be made safe so the animal could move about. In many cases these are very simple measures that are not expensive and they can continue after our experts leave.

Tell us about your tie-ups with brands such as Miomojo? Have these partnerships proved to be effective?

Animals Asia's brand partnershipYes, Miomojo began supporting us in 2012 and the partnership has raised over US$50,000. Corporate partnerships have the potential to not only bring in funds but raise awareness and reach new audiences. Ideally the partner would be cruelty free (as with Miomojo) but we’d also consider working with an organisation where we could help them make change. They can help us do what we do and, in return, we can use our expertise to help them make a genuine step change in terms of their own treatment of animals. But we’d look at it on a case by case basis. We desperately needs funds but we also have a duty to make sure partners are right for us.


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