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An animal cruelty exposé, and the poor communications by the federal agency in the middle of it

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When your company or government department is the subject of a media exposé, that is never a good thing. And a poor communications response only makes it worse.

The most recent edition of CTV’s W5 is the latest case in point. It stands as the most recent example of totally incompetent communications – the kind of “don’t do this” examples that find their way into media training workshops.

But poor communications is the small part of the problem for both Western Hog Exchange, a major hog processing facility in Red Deer, Alberta, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

If you didn’t catch it, you might want to check it out on the CTV website. Or you might not. It’s pretty disturbing.

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The hidden camera footage shows widespread abuse, including beating pigs too sick or injured to move, kicking them and zapping them with electric prods, and using bolt cutters to remove the highly sensitive tusks off boars, with no pain killing medication. And much of this under the eyes and apparent tacit approval of government inspectors who are supposed to be there to ensure this kind of thing doesn’t happen.

The show followed the usual pattern of such media investigations, including confronting the company CEO with the video evidence to get his response.

In this case the man who was shown the footage was Western Hog Exchange Chairman Brent Moen. He said what you would expect him to say, that he was disturbed at the video and will act to rectify the situation.

The more telling thing is when W5 tried to get a comment from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.  You’d think they would be anxious to reassure Canadians that they take their responsibilities seriously, that’s what you’d think. But rather, according to W5, they were stonewalled at every turn, repeated requests for an interview ignored. Here's the email exchange between W5 and CFIA. 

So they did what shows like W5 do. Reporter Victor Malarek, complete with a camera crew in tow, approached CFIA President Bruce Archibald in the parking lot outside his office. The result, with the cameras rolling was a major communications fail. Total stonewalling with the apparent message for viewers that it’s not an issue he really cares about.

Then it gets worse. You can imagine the discussion within the department, with management and communications people realizing W5 now has video of the agency’s President sounding like an arsehole and coming off as someone quite indifferent to the animal cruelty documented by the hidden camera. It’s not looking good.

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So the CFIA finally decides to call W5 back. But the purpose isn’t to finally confront the issue of their inspector’s apparent dereliction of their duties; it’s to protect the President. W5 says the agency agreed to offer up someone for an interview, but only if the network promised not to use the footage of the President taken the day before.  W5 refused, and so the conditional offer became part of the story, as did the ambush interview.

The exposé went to air, and the next day the CFIA announced it has launched an internal review.  No surprise there, most could see that coming.

The problem is, of course, larger than a communications issue. A lame release stating “CFIA management has met with all inspection staff in the area to reinforce our values of courage, rigour and respect” falls considerably short, on the heels of video that shows CFIA inspectors apparently complicit in animal abuse and obvious violations of regulations in place to ensure humane treatment.

I admit I have a soft spot for animals. I’m no bleeding heart, as I have no problem with animals being slaughtered for food. However, I believe we have a responsibility to treat these animals with respect, and that includes allowing them a natural life and a humane death.

I don’t think I am alone in that. I hope not.

W5, along with the animal rights group that shot the video did us a service by shining a light on a situation that most of us would find disturbing. 

Both the slaughterhouse and the CFIA promise to do better.

But judging from how the government agency has handled it so far, their communications doesn’t leave the impression it’s really that big a deal to them and it certainly doesn’t instill any confidence that improvements will be made. Rather, it smells of damage control, designed to get them by until this whole thing blows over.

If that’s a misleading impression, they only have themselves to blame.

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