Newsjacked! Rachel Alexandra Replaces Totilas as PETA's Equine Welfare Target

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In public relations seminars, they call it "newsjacking". It's the technique of taking a top story in the news and repurposing it to promote your product, service, book, political candidate or cause. You use publicity to insert yourself into the news stream surrounding an event, a celebrity, or a trend.

And guess what? It works. Just ask People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

Here's how you do it: Become a combination newshound/social media maven. Using every tool in the book, cultivate a motivated following by targeting people who will likely be sympathetic and eager to share. Don't waste a lot of energy pushing the issue right now; be patient. You are waiting for your moment.

Sooner or later, something will happen in the news that brings an aspect--even a distant aspect--of your cause into the public eye. That's when you pounce. You use the attention of the public on the celebrity to insert yourself into the news. People may or may not agree with you, but you have their attention, your name is steamed into the general mix of news about the celebrity or the story, and your fundraising coffers, web site stats, Facebook likes or name recognition ride the wave...until the next newsjack opportunity comes around.

If you're good enough at it, you'll be quoted by mainstream journalists who want to paint a balanced picture by tipping a hat to the opposition, you'll be invited to appear on media panels and links to your website, followers on Twitter, and "likes" on Facebook will bloom. And the next time the issue comes up, you'll be on a reporter's speed dial.

I hate to say it, but this technique is not only widely taught to public relations firms and journalists--it's used widely used, and successfully. In fact, it's a motivated form at the very base of a public relations plan, although a professional will cultivate press relations throughout the slow periods, and provide backup or access to experts in the field.

So don't throw too many stones at PETA when they pounce. They take their lessons from political activists, and from every other would-be persuader on the Internet who leap-frogs the traditional, respected process of public relations and issue-based advocacy.

Sometimes, when a news story breaks, I wonder how long it will take for the newsjackers to come on the scene. Inevitably, they do, although the horse world has been a little slow to catch on. And newsjacking has positive benefits as well as opportunistic ones, if you consider that the mainstream media is not always looking at the sensitive issues that often lie just beneath the surface of a news story. Newsjackers can sometimes add depth to a story that news producers and journalists haven't even considered.

When triple world champion dressage star Totilas made his high-priced move from the Netherlands to Germany, his circle of fame widened, even as his number of competitions--and his success--shrank. There were training issues, rider illness, minor injuries and a long list of reasons why Totilas wasn't at the shows. But, at the same time, he emerged as the poster boy for the elite Euro-equestrian lifestyle.

Photos and videos of the lavish stables where Totilas lived during training with rider Matthias Rath were not leaked. They were taken by professional photographers and videographers who were invited in by the horse's owners; they believed they were doing the right thing in sharing access to the expert care they were giving the champion. I was even allowed to report on his corrective shoes; a change in hoofwear is not generally news that trainers want to share with the public.

But PETA saw the way that the public gobbled up any and all news about the horse. Where others saw a horse in the lap of luxury, PETA saw a horse caught in a tangled web of human greed that violated his welfare. Totilas couldn't gallop in a field. He couldn't cavort with pasturemates. His huge boxstall was more like a prison cell, in the eyes of PETA. And they showed photos of him training in what some would call the "rollkur" frame.

PETA newsjacked Totilas. Overlooking all the obvious horses in need in Germany and throughout the world, PETA knew what it was doing as it used a celebrity horse to question both how stallions are managed and how dressage horses are trained. Not only did PETA newsjack him, the organization filed a welfare-violation lawsuit against his owners in October.

In December, a Frankfurt prosecutor launched an official investigation of Matthias Rath, his father (and coach) Klaus-Martin Rath and the co-owners of the horse: Matthias Rath's Olympian stepmother, Ann-Kathrin Linsenhoff, and German sport horse impressario Paul Schockem?hle.

The ink on the German newspaper hadn't even dried before?PETA's
USA office turned its guns to the horse that shared the
top headlines with Totilas back in 2009-2010.

When Totilas was slightly injured earlier this week during a breeding collection, it showed up, in all places, on a vegan blog in Germany, and on the PETA Germany Facebook page.

PETA, by the way, has a USA Facebook page with 1.6 million "likes". The highest-liked Facebook page I could find in the horse world was the American Quarter Horse Association, with less than half the "likes" of PETA.

But what PETA does not have today is the upper hand; the German newspaper Die Welt published news that no evidence of abuse had been found.

The ink on the German newspaper hadn't even dried before PETA's USA office turned its guns to the horse that shared the top headlines with Totilas back in 2009-2010. Rachel Alexandra was a three-year-old filly who beat both the colts her age and older, and earned the title of 2009 Horse of the Year. She and Totilas were the talk of horse sport fans on both sides of the Atlantic f0r the better part of two years.

For one special week, they shared the headlines: Rachel Alexandra's retirement to Stonestreet Farms in Kentucky was announced the same week that Totilas, under then-rider Edward Gal of The Netherlands, was winning all three gold medals in dressage at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Lexington, Kentucky.

Who knows? Their horse vans may have crossed paths on the interstate in Kentucky as Totilas left town, and Rachel returned to begin a breeding career. Now they are again sharing headlines as PETA dictates the mare's future: "Thou shall not breed her again," is the edict from PETA.

Meanwhile, Stonestreet hasn't said that they have any intention of breeding her again. Nor have her veterinarians made a statement with their recommendations on her breeding future. It is entirely possible they will give her a green light to be bred again. Then again, they might not.

As soon as PETA filed the lawsuit, Matthias Rath's web posts ended.

As someone whose blog requires a close monitoring of issues related to horse health--whether of celebrity horses or the forgotten, neglected ones--I can tell you what I have observed to be the effects of PETA's newsjacking of Totilas. Before PETA came on the scene, Matthias Rath (or his PR team) published news about the rider, the horse, the campaign on a regular basis. Photographers and video teams, as mentioned before, showed us the inside of his stall, the riding arena, and his performances because they were invited in by the owners.

As soon as PETA filed suit, Matthias Rath's web posts ended. The photos stopped. There were no more videos. Matthias's last web share was on October 8th, just before PETA's announcement that it was filing charges.

Fast forward to Valentine's Day. When Rachel Alexandra was transferred to Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital to be treated for complications of giving birth to a filly, both the hospital and her owners, Stonestreet Farms, began an almost-unprecedented news blitz, sharing details and photos of her condition and care. In the beginning, the updates were daily; as her condition improved, they were spaced further apart. There was even a press conference.

The Jurga Report shared many of the updates, and the response of the mare's fans and friends was tremendous. They loved being in on the news. Especially, they loved the photos, which allowed them to see the mare, and that went a long, long to inspire confidence.

Now what? Today's announcement by PETA questioning Rachel Alexandra's future as a broodmare could be ignored by Stonestreet Farms, or it could have compel them, like the Raths, to lock the gates and pack away the cameras.

If Stonestreet and Team Totilas had not been so open and generous with information, PETA wouldn't even know that Rachel was hospitalized or that Totilas was "tormented" (PETA's word) by his rider's choice of training techniques.

PETA Senior Vice President Kathy Guillermo stated amicably in the press release, "PETA hopes that Stonestreet Farm will agree that Rachel Alexandra's well-being is more important than her value as a broodmare." ?It's not an edict, exactly; it's a hope, but a shot across the bow to warn that PETA is watching.

They're watching because Stonestreet Farms is allowing all of us to watch. PETA undercover agents don't have to sneak into Rood + Riddle (as if they could!) and use concealed cameras to photograph her in her stall; last night Stonestreet provided a high-resolution image of the mare that they can scrutinize.

PETA picked a fight with Totilas, and didn't win. Now they have chosen another famous horse to use as bait for publicity, and the Rachel Alexandra team is not playing along, so far. PETA may be newsjacking Rachel's story as other horses suffer openly but they did win one battle: they were able to get me--and other writers--to write about them, yet again.

Credits: Photo of Rachel Alexandra courtesy of Stonestreet Farms; photo of Matthias Rath and Totilas courtesy of CHIO Aachen 2011.

Article and image ? 2013 Fran Jurga.