Palin, Romney and the Power of Precise Messaging

February 16, 2012  

By Laura Petrolino, StubbyDog VP of Operations

As discussed in my blog a few weeks ago , part of the difficulty in trying to change public perception about the pit bull surrounds the fact that the word “pit bull” has taken on a definition of its own that has little to do with the dogs it describes. “Pit bull” has become a common descriptor and is often used more as an adjective than a noun.

I think we all remember Sarah Palin’s famous speech during the last presidential election where she quipped, “The only difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull is the lipstick.” Unfortunately, so far in our current presidential race, the same pattern is continuing. For example take this article written during the Florida primary a few weeks ago: “Romney tries pit bull approach in Florida.”

Now, as pit bull lovers, many of you might translate this as …

“Romney tries to cuddle with Florida to win votes” (perhaps odd, but whatever gets the votes!).


“Romney wiggles his butt and gives Floridians slobbery kisses in hopes that they vote for him” (even odder, but hey … I live in Florida, and I’ll be the first to say that for a certain amount of the populous this tactic might actually work).

Unfortunately, based on the reading of the rest of the article, which repeatedly describes Romney “tearing into” or “attacking” his opponents, it seems that the reporter of this article was using the term “pit bull” in exchange for words like “aggressive,” “vicious” and so on.

Pit bulls aren’t the only animal that continues to be defined in modern culture, not by facts, but by reference or folklore. Snakes, sharks, wolves, foxes and bats are just a few other examples of animals who face similar dilemmas.

So how do we start to change this? Obviously it isn’t an easy process, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible, and it starts right here with all of us who are pit bull advocates.

At StubbyDog, one of the things you might notice is that we try to be extremely careful with the language we use. Whether it be in our stories, on Facebook, in external outreach or media efforts, as pit bull advocates, what WE say about pit bulls and how WE refer to them is even more important than what anyone else does.

One classic example is the referencing of dogs as former “fighting dogs.” If we want the general public to stop mistakenly thinking all pit bulls are former dog fighting dogs (and therefore add to their fear because of this “fighting dog” image), we need to stop referring to any pit bull as a former “fighting dog.”

The reality is that the vast majority of pit bull type dogs are just ordinary family pets, just like most Golden Retrievers, Pugs, Poodles and almost every other type of dog today. Of course, there are pit bulls that are actually victims of dog fighting (we have many inspiring and beautiful stories about them on our site), but the goal is for the public to stop blaming the dogs for this problem (and therefore making the poor “pit bull” language associations as with Palin and Romney).

Just like puppy mill survivors, pit bulls rescued from fight busts are the victims not the criminals, and the simple change in messaging can help focus on that very important difference. So instead of “fighting dogs,” we always try to refer to them as “victims of dog fighting.” This helps the public to recognize that the responsibility for these crimes lies with the human. When the responsibility lies with the person and not the dog, it’s easier for the public to include pit bulls in their circle of compassion and slowly stop associating a pit bull with “fighting” or fighting behavior.

Language is a powerful thing. Words are heavy with meaning, which makes the precise crafting of the message extremely important in making sure our overall effort and outreach creates the positive impact that we all know it can.

photos by Melissa Lipani)

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8 Responses to “Palin, Romney and the Power of Precise Messaging”
  1. pitbullsrock says:

    You are so right, Laura. I cringe when I read pit bull advocates using foul language against anti-pit bull people and at the same time saying while they “know their dog was bred for fighting,” theirs is a loving baby. We need to be civil and careful with the facts. The Nanny Dog quote is out there in spades and while I know the owners are well-meaning when they use that, it doesn’t lessen the fact that any dog can attack under the right (wrong) circumstances. I think that’s what we need to keep focusing on.

    I just read a post by a local man in response to an incident where two alleged pit bulls attacked an older woman. In defense of what bad dogs they are, he said, “I’ve never heard of an attack by any other dog than a pit bull in the last year.” Wow. Again, the media is not doing ITS job to educate the public. Sad.

    • @pitbullsrock Yes, very good points. Often, although well meaning pit bull defenders unknowingly hurt their own cause. It is an emotional subject and it is easy to let those emotions interfere with focusing on the clear and precise messaging needed. At StubbyDog, we hope to serve as a resource to not only help give the world a different look at these dogs, but also to prepare pit bull advocates to better spread the message themselves.

  2. starscreeam says:

    Never let it be said the media would sacrifice sensationalism for education. I *have* seen some positive pitbull stories in the news (thumbs up), but even those headlines/leaders tend to read “Dog Saves Family from Fire” or “Family Pet Rescues Child from River”…however, let the story be in regards to a PERCEIVED or actual pitbull TYPE dog attacking someone and you can bet money the headlines will shriek “PITBULL ATTACKS GRANDMOTHERLY WOMAN WHO WASN’T DOING A THING TO PROVOKE IT”.

    THAT is a media issue that needs to be addressed.

    • @starscreeam There are of course many issue that need to be addressed in the way the media sets agendas. This doesn’t just apply to pit bulls, but also to politics, world events and just news in general.

      Creating change is a process, one that has many steps…..

  3. blazer says:

    Agreed, agreed, agreed! I try to watch my language carefully as well. Something I see so often that makes me shake my head is when a pit bull type dog shows up with scars and an unknown history. People/advocates are quick to make up a sob story to get the dog attention and make you feel sorry for said dog, when in fact, no one knows how the dog got his scars. I’ve met so many people who are proud owners of a dog they ‘rescued’ that used to be a bait dog or a fighting dog — when they are basing this idea off of a couple facial scars and nothing else. They love to assume and make up backgrounds when you should just admit, “Unknown background,” but this is what we DO know of this dog since it’s been with us: “yadda yadda.” I’ve seen timid dogs come in that people say, “Oh, he was clearly abused.” The fact is, I have a 3 year old dog that I raised from a puppy — he is timid and acts like he’s been abused when he’s been treated with nothing but love and patience! hah! He came from a puppy mill and I had the chance to see his parents — I think the timidity is genetic in him. We adopted our pit bull type dog from a shelter 4 years ago — he has a slashed tongue and came in with a host of health issues. I wish I knew his past, but all I can say for sure is that he is the most gentle, social, loving, soft and delicate dog I have ever met.

    • @blazer So well said! We want pit bulls to be treated just like any other dog and so WE need to treat pit bulls like any other dog. That means not assuming things about them or their past just because they are pit bulls. Great comment!

    • pitbullsrock says:

      @blazer Spot on, Blazer. And thank you for adopting your two dogs. They are so lucky to have you (and vice versa, I’m sure). You obviously get it and don’t want the pity party [pun not intended, ha, ha], you just want what’s best for your dogs and know they are in a safe, loving environment.