Talk about a cat fight.
When local TV station WRLH Fox 35 hired an exterminator to kill feral cats in a back lot of its building, the local SPCA got wind and unleashed a save-the-kittens firestorm. Now the station is dealing with a far larger problem than a few alley cats: a PR snafu that has it looking like a cold-blooded cat killer.
By the end of the day yesterday, three other TV stations turned their cameras toward one of their own. (Possible teaser: “Is one Richmond TV station trying to kill your cat, Stay tuned to see the story at 11:00.)
Robin Starr, CEO of the Richmond SPCA, was at WRLH on Wednesday afternoon trying to protect the cats, which numbered close to 50, she said.
Starr said someone alerted her via email yesterday about the pending cat-kill.
So Starr contacted Fox 35’s general manager, Steve Genett, who was initially cooperating with the SPCA to save the cats. Then Genett informed Starr that bulldozers were in the process of demolishing the space were the cats resided.
Fox 35 did not return calls seeking comment.
In an emotional plea, Starr sent an email to SPCA members and to local media outlets (BizSense got it from a member).
“Sinclair Broadcast Group and Fox Richmond’s unconscionable actions are cause for great concern throughout our community. I cannot begin to understand what manner of corporate culture and leadership it would take to behave in this cruel way … I had hoped that Fox and Sinclair Broadcast Group would reconsider and continue to operate as a kind and responsible media partner in our community, but that hope was dashed with their inhumane actions this morning.”
The story then took on nine lives, fed in part by a bevy of blogs and online news sources. It was on MySpace bulletins by 4:00 p.m. A posting, appeared on WRIC Channel 8’s website around the same time. The aggregator RVA BLogs had a link soon thereafter
Such is a warning to all businesses that even a seemingly simple task – getting rid of some alley cats, for example – can quickly spiral out of control into a PR nightmare.
“These days, simple decisions are not so simple,” said Mike Mulvihill, president of the local PR firm CRT/tanaka.
“In a case such as this one, the best thing to do is to consult the experts of the particular field for advice,” said Mulvihill. “In this case, that means the stations probably should have contacted the SPCA first.”
Starr and the SPCA view the cats as part of Richmond’s natural fauna.
“We have to find a way to stop the destruction of the cats’ habitat, and to find a humane and non-lethal approach to benefit the wild cats,” Starr said. She added that cats breed this time of year, and that “there are likely multiple litters of kittens that are facing immanent, untimely death,”
So far Critter Control, the company hired by Fox 35, has killed three cats, according to WRIC Channel 8.
Starr said she would like to protect the cat’s “habitat.” The SPCA’s plan involves trapping, sterilizing and caring for the cats before ideally returning them to the station’s property.
They might also be relocated.