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The ‘Today Show’ Fiasco: Looking Back and to the Future

You’ve all seen the headlines, and they weren’t pretty: “AKC-registered breeders raising dogs in ‘miserable’ conditions’”; “Link Between Puppy Mills and the AKC”; “AKC Approved Puppy Mill Pups”; etc., etc. It was enough to make any right-thinking dog fancier’s blood boil.

It’s been a couple of weeks since NBC’s “Today Show” aired the now infamous Jeff Rossen report on how “AKC-registered breeders” are among those raising and selling dogs in disgusting conditions. (There is no such thing as an “AKC-registered breeder,” of course.) The discussion – and the repercussions – continue, unabated. Personally, I found the program difficult to watch mainly because of the footage of all those sad, filthy, mistreated dogs. It was not clear in which kennel those shots were taken, but that anyone can keep dogs in such horrific conditions is deeply disturbing. Few things upset a dog lover more than seeing the inside of kennels like these, so excuse me if just watching that made me even more upset than however badly this all may have reflected on all dog people.

The basis for the report was that a woman had purchased a puppy from an “AKC-inspected” kennel. The puppy turned out to have intestinal parasites, an upper respiratory infection and a congenital eye defect. And, surprise, she’s not the only one: it turns out there are lots of breeders who sell AKC-registered puppies and keep their dogs in less than ideal conditions.

In a way, it’s amazing that anyone – let alone a TV producer – can be naive enough to think an AKC-registered puppy would automatically be “better” than any other. (Better for what?) And how can anyone really believe that an organization such as AKC, without any government funding whatsoever, would be able to inspect everyone who’s breeding AKC-registered dogs in the U.S. with such diligence that there would never be any problem? Perhaps that’s got to do with an attitude that regards a living puppy as a “product” that’s sold with a lifetime guarantee for quality and health, something that anyone who’s familiar with animals knows is an impossible dream.

The main reason the program was the worst possible PR for AKC and those of us who are involved in the dog show world, however, was AKC’s inability to deal efficiently with the media. The AKC officer chosen to answer Rossen’s questions did not come across well. Why did she say that AKC is doing such a fantastic job inspecting kennels when that’s demonstrably not the case? How could it be, with only nine inspectors in the entire U.S.? That AKC is doing anything at all is commendable, but for the AKC director to say “I’d give us an ‘A’” when grading AKC’s inspection program was asking for trouble.

Promoting public awareness of the many great things that AKC does for dogs requires media savvy. Photo by Titov and SideInikova/Dreamstime.com.

Media Suicide

As everyone knows, uttering the words “I don’t know” in response to an interview question is tantamount to media suicide. Yet that was the AKC director’s answer when asked how many breeders nationwide have AKC-registered dogs, and what percentage of the breeders are inspected. Granted, both are impossible questions, because how do you define a breeder – so how about turning the tables on the interviewer and saying just that: “That’s an impossible question, unless you tell me how you define a breeder. Someone who has just one bitch or a dozen? There are thousands and thousands of people out there who breed puppies, and we’re doing the best we can to inspect as many of them as possible with very limited means…” etc., etc. At least the viewer would then realize that AKC is trying to deal with an impossible situation instead of being ignorant and uncaring. (Of course, if you bring up AKC’s limited resources the interviewer could follow up with questions about the club’s economy, and that might not be what was wanted.)

And why was there no mention of AKC’s Breeder of Merit program? Wouldn’t this have been a wonderful opportunity to trumpet the fact that AKC puts sincere, caring dog breeders in a category of their own, and that these people are those you should turn to first if you want a puppy that’s been raised by a conscientious breeder? I don’t breed anymore, but if I did, and if I were a Breeder of Merit, I’d be hurt that the program wasn’t even mentioned.

To be fair, we have no idea what the AKC director said that was cut from the interview. By all reports, the above was what was left of a much longer session that was not aired. An aggressive interviewer and a clever editor can shape a rough tape to suit almost whatever they want by cutting and editing, but that’s something anyone who’s dealing with the media today must be aware of.

Where Were the Big Guns?

This leads me to my main question. Why weren’t AKC’s biggest guns brought out for an interview that was going to be aired by one of TV’s top-rated news programs? Almost 5 million viewers reportedly watch the “Today Show” every day; they are trying to catch up with “Good Morning America” in the ratings, which means they try harder and are probably more ruthless in their interviews – and that makes it even more peculiar that it was AKC’s director of communications who was chosen to answer (or “thrown to the wolves,” as someone has said). Her job is listed by AKC as providing “assistance with AKC papers, registration, finding a breeder, DNA kits or any customer service-related inquiries,” etc. Does that qualify anyone for dealing with national TV interviews?

It’s true that the AKC president or chairman of the board would not necessarily have come across any better in the TV interview. (And that applies to people such as you and me, too, although we’re all so good at Monday morning quarterbacking…) What AKC needs is obviously a talented PR person, someone who’s able to talk to media people in their own language and knows how to present the image that AKC wants. There has been talk of hiring a public relations firm, which isn’t a bad idea.

Good for the Job

However, there are at least two individuals who I think would be good for the job, and I’ll mention them here: Ron Menaker and David Frei. Menaker is a past chairman of AKC’s board, but is now retired. Frei is Westminster Kennel Club’s public face. Both men have done a fantastic job in promoting the two top dog shows in America, Menaker, the AKC/Eukauba National Championship, and Frei, of course, Westminster, for which he also serves as an unparalleled TV commentator. Both are sophisticated, used to dealing with the media, able to turn on a dime and would, I think, do a wonderful job in protecting our interests. I can’t swear that either of them would accept the job, but I’m also pretty sure they haven’t even been asked.

And while we’re at it, how about AKC hiring a few talented wordsmiths who could help present whatever AKC wants to say in a press release in a slightly more convincing manner than what we get now? (I can think of a few good suggestions.)

If AKC has any better ideas, I’m sure we’d all love to hear about them. If there is no change, we may all just as well say goodbye to the sport of purebred dogs as a respectable activity – something you don’t have to apologize to your neighbors for being involved in.

We all know there’s good reason for AKC to say it’s not just about “champion dogs” but that it is also “the dogs’ champion.” We stay involved in AKC activities because we believe AKC has much more to offer than any of the alternatives, provides an excellent framework for our sport and really cares about dogs. We all know the many great things that AKC does for dogs. The question is, does the public?

Written by

Bo Bengtson has been involved in dogs since the late 1950s and judged since the mid-1970s in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Great Britain, France, Germany, Austria, Holland, Italy, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Japan, China and Russia. He has judged twice at Westminster, twice at Crufts and four times at the FCI World Show, as well as the U.S. national specialties for Scottish Deerhounds, Whippets, Greyhounds and Borzoi.
  • Karen Lee May 15, 2013 at 9:14 AM

    Many good points raised here. If you go through media training, you’ll see that just being honest when questioned is not enough to come off as you wish in a television or newspaper interview. The AKC would be spending $5 today to save $50 tomorrow if they got a designated media-savvy, reasonably telegenic spokesperson to be the public relations face of the organization. I’m sure that the AKC Director is good at the other aspects of her job, but that interview was a disaster for AKC. It’s not her fault if she hasn’t been trained to handle that kind of media attention. AKC should pick someone who has the skills and the experience. Either of your choices would be excellent!

  • Collin May 15, 2013 at 9:26 AM

    I can’t understand why Alan Kalter or Dennis Sprung couldn’t have taken on the task of facing the NBC reporter, but there are other people at AKC, such as Lee Arnold, or Gina Lash, who would have perhaps been more effective. What a wasted opportunity. I feel sorry for Ms. Peterson, but don’t believe she was the right person for this particular assignment.

  • Iva Kimmelman
    Iva Kimmelman May 16, 2013 at 10:45 AM

    The entire Today show was such an unbelievable mistake I can’t even find words to describe how I feel.
    When I get emails from friends who know I breed dogs, who saw it, I have no explanation.
    Why has AKC forsaken us?

  • Mark Sachau: Duxinarow Labs May 17, 2013 at 5:21 PM

    Among the generously compensated AKC administrators there should be ranked and designated spokespersons depending on subject matter and venue. If AKC had looked outside the box years ago they surely would have created requirements of their show giving all-breed clubs to, for instance, financially support abandon dogs at shelters or the SPCA. It could have been something like a simple entry tax. If they had they certainly wouldn’t be facing the PR nightmares they do today. Its never too late to re-strategize and find something to promote that the general public can understand and support.

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