Bringing animal rights into the limelight, by PETA India’s Benazir Suraiya

During my growing up days in Guwahati, I had big dreams and high aspirations. They brought me to Delhi, where I graduated with a specialisation in Sociology from Hindu College, followed by post-graduate work in Public Relations and Advertising from a private institute. Afterwards, I joined one of the world's foremost PR firms, Corporate Voice Weber Shandwick, but after gaining experience, I decided to extend my skills in PR and knowledge of sociology to a very crucial cause – animal rights. So for almost three years, I've been working for PETA India, ensuring that our message has a strong media presence in our country.

I suspect that most people, when thinking about PR, likely picture smartly dressed people in gleaming corporate offices crafting slick strategies to enhance the appeal of a person or a company in the public eye. They are less apt to envision dressing people in outfits made of vegetables to promote vegan eating or joining other women in colourful uniforms outside the Cricket World Cup 2011 games, to urge the use of synthetic balls over those made from cruelly produced leather. Yet that sort of thing is part of my job on a regular basis.

The surprising nature of this work, though, underscores why it is so necessary. Unlike well-funded corporations, PETA cannot afford to rely on cash to get subjects into the national conversation, so a large measure of ingenuity and a willingness to take risks is often the key to attracting press coverage.

Animal rights is the philosophy that animals should be free to live in their natural habitats and lead normal lives, just as we humans do. But we cannot get people to consider this idea – and more importantly, to act on it – unless we can put it in front of them, in a manner they can't ignore.

By any objective standard, the systematic abuse, oppression and violent killing of billions of living beings for food, clothing, entertainment and experimentation – all of which is unnecessary since we have humane ways to meet these needs – is newsworthy. Yet the media is often unwilling to cover this issue because these cruelties are routine, or due to the level of violence involved, or because they are being done at the hands of companies that may be advertising with the press.

In response, PETA has developed strong PR strategies to make sure that stories about issues affecting animals appear on newscasts and the front pages of top papers. Our unique ways of drawing an unforgettable picture of cruelty to animals has allowed us to make huge strides in improving and saving animals' lives.

While some of our PR tactics have become effective perennial favourites – from the use of our eye-catching and cute “dog” costume to encourage the public to choose to rescue a dog from the shelter or the street instead of buying one, to our ads starring celebrity supporters. PETA is always trying fresh new ways to touch people's hearts and get them involved. To that end, it has been my great pleasure to work with many animal-friendly celebrities, such as Sonakshi Sinha and Sunny Leone to promote sterilisation of dogs and cats, since there are too many animals and not enough good homes; John Abraham to urge the public not to cage birds; Lara Dutta, Shahid Kapoor and Sonu Sood to promote vegetarian eating; Imran Khan, Kalki Koechlin, and Trisha Krishnan to promote dog or cat adoption from animal shelters or the street;  Wayne Parnell and Anoushka Shankar to encourage the public to avoid zoos as they are prisons for animals; Chitrangda Singh to urge people to only buy cosmetics which are not tested on animals; and Sonam Kapoor to urge the government to ban sharp deadly manja which kills countless birds. Their kind involvement to help animals always generates huge buzz in the media.

The victories these tactics have made possible include persuading the All India Institute of Medical Sciences to retire monkeys that were used for experiments, pressing beermaker Carlsberg to end its support of a hideous and much-criticised elephant polo match, and helping PETA and progressive scientists convince the Ministry of Environment and Forests to issue guidelines stopping dissection and experimentation on animals for training students in favour of non-animal methods of teaching.

You can almost say PETA is a PR firm for animals. Considering the amount of cruelty animals face, I don't think we will ever fall short of strategies to highlight it. Whether we're being funny, sexy or bold, expressing our message in an unusual way allows us to attract the attention of the public, save lives, and change the world for the better.

Benazir Suraiya is the lead media and celebrity projects coordinator for PETA India

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