On The Couch - Take The PR Challenge

Children love to cuddle ferrets.

If you love ferrets and feel that other people ought to understand them better the chances are you have thought about doing PR work with them, writes Dr June McNichola, a senior psychologist and animal behaviour specialist. If so, brilliant. People need to go out with their ferrets to meet the public and promote a more positive image. But are you or your ferrets up to everything it involves? For that matter, are the public up to meeting you!?

It's time for YOU to be On the Couch - so relax, be honest with yourself and take the self-analysis challenge to see if you and your ferrets can meet the demands.

Let's start with the actual venues, events and the people who will be there. This is a very mixed bag. You could be at school open days, village fetes, pet stores or major agricultural shows. It could be a couple of hours one afternoon or a full three or four day show. There could be a few dozen people there or, literally, tens of thousands. What sort of events would you be prepared to take on? You also have to consider what else might be going on at the event around you and your ferrets. This can range from dog shows, gymkhanas and livestock sales to fun fairs, brass bands, karaoke and the Dagenham Girl Pipers on the hour, every hour.

Then there's the general public. At a lot of shows, your public will not be wearing much. I don't mean you'll be running ferret PR at nudist camps, I mean that the majority of events are during the warmer summer months - sleeveless T-shirt/air the cleavage sort of weather. While this may not be a problem to most ferret owners (if so, do feel able to write to me, confidentiality assured), your ferrets must be trustworthy with the bits of flesh you perhaps do not normally present them with during the cooler months of the year. It also means that you have to be sure that ferret claws are trimmed enough to be pleasantly blunted if handled or cuddled. If not, you risk your audience getting badly scratched, and it's simply no good assuring people that ferrets are friendly and loveable when your last visitors are leaving looking like they've survived an explosion in an abattoir. You also need the patience of a saint to deal with the many repetitive questions and comments you will receive from the public. But more about that later!

OK, so you think you can survive the sort of events you may be called on to attend? What about your ferrets?

The ferret PR tent at Brecon Show.

Any ferrets you decide might be suitable ambassadors have to be totally willing and able to take the strain of the occasion. If they are not completely happy about it, it is simply unfair to expect them to do PR work. Take a moment to list what the PR ferret has to endure. Crowds, all weathers, PA systems, bands, other animals (including children and the Dagenham Girl Pipers). They have to be happy to be stroked and handled by strangers in the midst of all of this (the ferrets, that is, not the Girl Pipers). How can you be sure they won't mind? Well, a good start is to test whether your ferret is confident with anyone and everyone besides his owners. The only way you can do this is to plonk him on to every available person who comes your way. (Admittedly this may come as a shock to the milkman or the postman, but they are usually very understanding). And do remember the 'exposure test' ie: letting your ferret encounter any 'unusual' or infrequently met areas of flesh (probably not advisable to suggest tis to the milkman or postman). Only if your ferret is happy with all these tests should you even think about taking him on the PR trail.

Also you do need to think about how tiring it is for ferrets at these events. A ferret may be able to take an hour, maybe two, of intensive PR work, but then he must be able to have a break. Many experienced PR teams operate an 'hour on, two hours off' schedule to make sure all ferrets are able to feed and rest between shifts. No matter how intensively you are prepared to work, your ferret needs this sort of consideration.

OK, so you think you can cope with the demands of the venue, and you have ferrets happy to work with you?

So far, so good, but now you have to face the acid test of whether you are up to PR work? How would you rate your powers of patience and endurance on a scale of 0-10? If it's below 7, you'd probably be doing your blood pressure a favour by leaving PR to others. Most people think PR means being 'nice' to the public. Of course, this is a major part of PR, explaining patiently (for the hundredth time that morning, without exasperation or through clenched teeth) the same things about ferrets and the misconceptions about them. However, you also need to know when to be firm, to say 'No, he's resting' or 'No, sorry, you have a cold, so you can't hold him because ferrets can catch human colds' or 'Please don't let your dog do that' etc etc.

The trials and tribulations of PR work are probably best summed up by this very tongue in cheek 'code' put together some years ago by myself and my daughter Anna in an attempt to minimise damage to sanity. It goes something like this:

We do most solemnly swear that:

We shall display great patience while explaining for the thousandth time that the animals surrounding us are ferrets, not rats, cats, voles, moles, monkeys, kangaroos or any other daft identification in spite of the sign FERRETS printed in two foot high letters above the pen.

We shall tolerate being regarded as peculiar, even by those sporting anoraks, bobble hats and carrying notebooks and clipboards.

We shall not strangle children nor sell unaccompanied children as slaves.

We shall not feel offended when people assume that it is our partner/father/son/brother who knows about ferrets simply because they are male and that we are only the Chief Pooper Scoopers.

We shall, without complaint, endure repeated accounts of that highly amusing story of the TV personality with a ferret on his finger (not even murmuring 'that was twenty years ago, isn't madam dating herself?')

We shall refrain from comment when told the life story of a woman who claims she was attacked by a ten foot ferret as an infant, thus leading to her nervous debilitation and acne in later life.

We shall not permit our ferrets the indignity of being photographed on someone's head or in their pockets.

In the undersirable event of ferrets being photographed on heads or in pockets, we shall promptly return all spectacles, hearing aids, false teeth, cameras, wallets and other valuables seized by the ferrets and stashed in their exercise tubes.

We shall still not strangle children (nor administer lethal injection) nor shall we amuse ourselves by telling them the logical ending to their favourite story of the Flopsy Bunnies.

We shall not enter into confrontation with members of the Peter Rabbit Appreciation Trust (there's a rather unfortunate acronym there!)

We do hereby solemnly promise to conduct ourselves in a manner befitting National Ferret Welfare Society members...


Just let one more man mention trousers and I swear we'll personally take his measurements and announce them over the show tannoy!

So, does PR work appeal? In spite of all the things I've warned you about, I sincerely hope you do want to take part in the ferret PR trail. It can be a most rewarding experience. Yes, it's a mix of enjoyment, exasperation, frustration, laughter and plain disbelief but when people go away saying: 'I never realised ferrets were so lovely', you know exactly why you do it.

If you'd like advice on helping in PR work or arranging an event please contact the NFWS at www.nfws.net They are happy to help, direct you to information leaflets and share experiences.

(From Ferrets First Issue no. 17 April/May 2004)

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