A PR case study: How EASTWEST PR hatched an animal welfare story that the media didn’t want to publish

By Jim James, Founder EASTWEST PR and Host of The UnNoticed Podcast. 

There are times when the media won’t be interested in your story. There are also instances when Newswires (which are professional services that send out press releases) won’t want to send out yours. 

What can you do once that happens?

In a recent episode of The UnNoticed Podcast, I shared a case study of a service that my business EASTWEST PR has provided to a client. The client is called Equitas, which is an international animal welfare organisation with offices in the UK, US, and Asia. The non-profit group — dedicated to consumer protection and animal welfare in the food supply chain — was working on a case about battery chickens in Singapore. 

The Issue

Equitas came to us because they had identified that there’s a chicken farm in Singapore producing what they call “caged eggs.” This means that hens lay their eggs inside cages; they’re not free-range. This is actually against a movement by both governments and retailers to only have eggs that are semi-free-range — not those hatched in small pens and cages. The problem is this: A large supermarket chain in Singapore, which is owned by a Hong Kong-listed company, was selling eggs from a farm that uses caged battery farming. 

The case was quite clear. Equitas had a video of chickens being transported in inhumane conditions. They also had a video taken inside one of the facilities, showing faeces on the ground and dirty eggs. However, the group couldn’t get Newswire or any other agency to run their press release. We did ponder upon taking on their request, but as an organisation, we believe that Equitas should be supported because they are trying to protect the consumers’ wellbeing. 

Screengrab from Equitas

What our client was fighting against is the commercial reality that Newswires and big publishers are being paid a lot by these large companies. Additionally, the Singaporean retailer involved in the issue is a well-recognised one. The egg supplier is also acknowledged by the Singaporean government and is one of the leading players in the industry. 

What We Did

Indeed, there were concerns about defamation and liability. What we did at EASTWEST PR was to carefully look at the issue first. We went over their materials and did our own due diligence. We also got the client to sign a waiver saying that they would cover legal fees should a legal implication arise. We’re aware that there are people who’d bring cases against a PR firm even though the firm was only acting on instructions. 

After we had those assurances from Equitas, we looked at the press release they wrote. It talked about how this Hong Kong-listed retail conglomerate should not be allowed to sell eggs in Singapore. The problem is that they’re taking on Goliath without any weapons at all. And no one really wanted to highlight the fact that the company — which was employing a lot of people and paying a lot of landlords for their rent — is actually infringing on what could be seen as a marginal law. It’s a marginal law because, in truth, no one is too bothered about chickens. And certainly, many wouldn’t want to take on these multinational listed companies, with our client as an exception. 

We did send out their original press release because that was what they wanted, although we stated beforehand that it may not get much of a result. After doing our job, we could have left it there. However, we work differently at EASTWEST PR. 

After that, I talked to the client and told them to change the approach slightly. What we did then was to look at some of the regulations in Singapore and we found out that there’s a Singapore Quality Egg Scheme, which is a regulatory framework that governs the production of eggs in the country. The reason for it is that Singapore has done a great deal of work to eradicate salmonella, a disease that can be caused by unsanitary egg production. It’s a devastating disease that has caused them a lot of trouble in the past.

Image from Unsplash

Upon research, it turned out that in the previous year, there was a salmonella outbreak in Singapore affecting a group of children at a particular kindergarten. It’s a piece of news we found in The Straits Times. With this, I rewrote the press release and talked about the need for Singapore authorities to maintain standards for consumers related to all foods — specifically, to egg production. I pointed out the potential downstream effects of bad eggs and how they can be infected and cause salmonella in children. 

In the press release, we didn’t mention the Hong Kong retailer; we didn’t try to take on the big retail company. What we did was to squeeze the farm producing the eggs so that the company wouldn’t be taking on too many battles at once. 

The Multiplier Effect

After rewriting the press release, we decided to take advantage of the multiplier effect. This means that you just need one media publication to carry your story. This will give your story the currency or credibility so that the others will also take it.

If you’re dealing with something that’s slightly marginal or contentious — in this case, the impact of selling caged eggs — then the mainstream media wouldn’t probably want to touch that. 

The Online Citizen, a Singapore-based publication run by an independent journalist, released the story. The site has a great following among Singaporeans; these are audiences that don’t just follow government publications, such as The Straits Times (Singapore), Berita Harian (Malaysia), or Lianhe Zaobao (China).

Screengrab from The Online Citizen

Apart from that, we also amplified the story by putting it out on social media and getting other people to start reposting the said content. Afterwards, television station Channel News Asia picked up the story and published it on their website. With that, we were able to gain momentum for our client’s story without us doing anything. The cascade effect took over as more local and international media started sharing the news.

Screengrab from Channel News Asia

After that, the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) publicly clarified that it licenses and regularly inspects chicken egg farms. In view of the feedback received about the farm involved, the SFA said that it will continue to inspect the involved farm, which is called Chew’s Agriculture. 

Chew’s Agriculture, on the other hand, went publicly against the statements that have gone to appear in 16 media outlets. The company said that the facility involved has already ceased its production and has been closed in September 2020 (which was only just before our press release came out). Additionally, they said that they’ve built a new state-of-the-art facility that produces and supplies their eggs in October of last year. According to them, the facility has been thoroughly inspected by the SFA and considered to meet the standards and criteria of eggs sold for human consumption.

What Happened After

What started off as a low-key stealth approach of using one publication cascaded. Social media and mainstream national media picked it up; as a result, the company that we called out felt obliged to make a statement. 

Dairy Farm, the Hong Kong-listed company that sells the caged eggs, also went to disclose their plan to buy non-caged eggs; they will have their own brand and their own range of non-caged eggs. 

Though Channel News Asia wrote this as their headline: “No food safety issues found at local egg farm, following complaint about poor poultry welfare: SFA,” we were able to raise awareness that there could have been — and that there were — indeed food safety issues. Another piece of coverage came out, and it said: “Dairy Farm Group egg supplier reported to the Singapore Food Agency following investigation.” 

Screengrab from Eco-Business

After getting coverage, I also advised Equitas to file an official complaint with the SFA as the agency is obliged to investigate every major complaint made against a supplier in the country. 

Learnings

For Equitas, we used a niche strategy by going to The Online Citizen. We used Singapore’s regulatory framework and got the media coming in. We had a total of 16 media publications writing about the story and each of them has brought great coverage. We also got Chew’s Agriculture and Dairy Farm both saying that they don’t espouse caged eggs — and that they’re either finishing that or we’ll be finishing that and will be committed to free-range eggs. 

The key learning here is to don’t give up. Just because a mainstream platform doesn’t want to air your story, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t an angle somewhere. It’s a matter of finding it. Then, you start with one media to publish your story and use the credibility from that coverage to establish an audience. All you need is one piece of coverage to start that sense of legitimacy and get that cascade effect. 

Next, amplify that coverage using your own social networks and get other people to share it. If you can, get the industry players to start to comment. This will help you draw the very people that you need to make an impact on into the conversation.

Image from Unsplash

The case study that I’ve shared was about the work we did for Equitas, an animal welfare group whose story was not touched by any other media. The first iteration of their press release did not take off, so we revisited it and looked into anything that might involve liability or defamation. We considered their issue is something that, when handled extremely carefully, can end up with great results. 

Furthermore, it is for those children who might have gotten salmonella had they consumed tainted eggs. With the service we provided, we were able to contribute to safeguarding their health — which makes what we’re doing ultimately worthwhile.

If you need help with your PR, write to me at jim@eastwestpr.com

This article is based on a transcript from my Podcast The UnNoticed, you can listen here.

 

Cover image by Nighthawk Shoots on Unsplash.