Outrage To Dogfighting Charges Knocked Out Site

September 1, 2007       Mark Hrywna      

A recent online campaign by the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) could almost be considered too successful. In the days following Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick’s federal indictment on dogfighting charges, more than 275,000 emails were sent to the National Football League (NFL) commissioner’s office through the HSUS Web site. At some points, the flurry of activity at www.hsus.org knocked out the site’s donation and action pages for several hours.

The HSUS Web site experienced five times its normal volume on July 19 and six times the normal volume on July 20, according to Geoff Handy, vice president, media and online communications. Normally, HSUS gets about 7,000 unique visitors to its home page every day. “We had so many people who wanted to click on the page…the site was giving errors to users.”

The charity’s technology provider made some initial fixes within the existing framework before moving an additional server to boost capacity, Handy said. “We also sent emails to advocates in our file in smaller chunks, so email wouldn’t go to a large number of people at the same time. We spread demand out over a larger time window. That seemed to have worked,” he said.

“The real issue was the fact that we had emailed a pretty good size of our file at the same time,” Handy said. “The issue was in the news, with public outrage, a much higher percentage of people wanted to take issue. People on our file then told family and friends to do the same.”

It’s hard to anticipate, “but you need be ready to handle any kind of crisis,” Handy added. “We are the leading organization on animal fighting abuse. We need to be ready to respond…but it’s hard to pay for that capacity you need” every year or two.

“The demand goes from ordinary to extraordinary overnight. It speaks to the need of having systems in place, and excess capacity with your technology partner to handle anything,” Handy said.

Fortunately for HSUS, the increased traffic also meant a spike in online donations, though Handy declined to be specific fearing opposition groups might use it against them. Except for Hurricane Katrina and the HSUS effort to stop the Canadian seal hunt, the dogfighting effort was the most successful fundraising campaign, he said.

“We invested a number years ago in our Web site infrastructure and our email capacity in developing an online community,” HSUS President Wayne Pacelle said. “During Hurricane Katrina it was of great usefulness in imparting information and raising funds. We had reporters who were down there updating the site every few hours with new stories.”

“We felt this was very much in our wheelhouse,” Pacelle said of the Vick indictment.

The nonprofit prides itself on driving public policy and corporate targets, from very intense to low-level threshold campaigns. Pacelle said many congressional offices told him that during the last term, they received more communication about horse slaughter (one of the society’s main efforts) than any other subject.

Pacelle said they’ve received very little negative feedback, estimating less than 1 percent. “There’s a near unanimity of opinion that those items in the indictment are horrifying and barbaric.”

Likewise, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has received little negative feedback from its online advocacy campaign about the Vick indictment. Dan Shannon, assistant director of youth outreach & campaigns, said peta.org had 200,000 visitors the day the indictment came down. Traffic has been more than double its usual rate since then and online donations have eclipsed $50,000.

PETA’s Web site was able to handle the traffic this time. The site was interrupted after an appearance by a spokesperson on The O’Reilly Factor in February discussing a “naked” PETA video, with a flood of unexpected traffic to the site. The Vick campaign is different because “it’s being driven from a wide variety of sources rather than one specific source,” Shannon said, “and the traffic has been steady (and is showing no signs of letting up) rather than coming in one massive wave.”

Shannon said PETA has taken steps since that crash to make sure it doesn’t happen again, including increasing server space and having backup servers in case the main ones go down.

Since the Vick indictment, PETA also has produced various apparel featuring the phrase, “Dogfighters are cowardly scum,” from assorted T-shirt styles and bumper stickers to messenger bags and trucker hats. “It’s a way for us to raise money to combat exactly this sort of thing on the ground,” Shannon said.

More than 50,000 supporters had contacted NFL offices through PETA’s Web site. “Those are really good numbers for us for something like this,” Shannon said. “There’s so much discussion and public outrage, it’s been a very successful campaign; double what we normally get for something like this.”  NPT