What: Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration
When: Aug. 22-Sept. 1
Where: Calsonic Arena, Shelbyville, Tenn.
Information: www.twhnc.com, 931-684-5915
Bill Crowder, owner of Midway Diner, a meat-and-three in Shelbyville, Tenn., was taken aback at the response he received after not buying a "proud sponsor" sign from the Walking Horse Trainers Association.
"I've been here for 15 years, and I've always supported the horse business," Crowder said. "But now they're boycotting me. They got me down as a bad guy."
He was referring to efforts on social media to blacklist his business for not purchasing an endorsement sign.
As Shelbyville, a town of 16,000 about 60 miles south of Nashville, braces for a massive tide of visitors expected to turn out for the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, one industry group has hired a prominent public relations firm to convince the hundreds of thousands of Celebration attendees that local businesses support the walking horse industry.
The $40-apiece pale green sponsor signs are a small part of a public relations blitz expected to pick up speed. The effort is intended to divert attention from recent revelations about abusive practices in the multimillion-dollar walking horse industry.
Shelbyville's Walking Horse Trainers Association recently hired Washington, D.C.-based Purple Strategies to clean up its reputation - or as they put it: promote "the proud history of the industry."
While the walking horse industry adds volume to its public relations campaign, advocates with the Humane Society of the United States - which has helped bring abuses in the industry to light - say their voice is being silenced.
The group has tried to publish editorial columns and paid advertisements in Shelbyville's local paper, the Times-Gazette, but both the columns and the ads have been refused.
Purple Strategies has devised public relations campaigns for clients like McDonald's and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Moreover, the corporate communications firm was hired to create a damage-control strategy for BP after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010.
The firm, in particular, has promoted the walking horse industry's new internal inspection process, which is described as an alternative to the federal process. Its stated goal is to "prevent animal abuse and promote the safety of horses."
Although the industry has been in the cross hairs of animal rights activists for decades, a graphic undercover video released in May by the Humane Society brought fresh outrage to a practice known as "soring," in which horses' ankles are treated with caustic chemicals to force the eye-catching gait known as the "big lick."
The practice is rampant in the walking horse community, and some trainers say a naturally trained horse could not produce the unusually high step.
The Celebration event, now in its 76th year, is expected to inject about $41 million of spending into the town, the county estimates. The weeklong event accounts for the county's biggest boost in sales tax collections.
Stephen B. Smith Jr., who is a managing director for Purple Strategies, comes from a long generation of horse riders and breeders in Tennessee.
His father, of the same name, was once president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' and Exhibitors' Association. His grandfather, Reese, was a noted horse breeder and holds a dozen World Championships.
He said his connections to the industry will not result in favorable treatment.
Keith Dane, the Humane Society's equine protection director, said he isn't shocked that the group's ads have been rejected by the Times-Gazette.
"It's not totally surprising, but it's still disappointing," Dane said.
Sadie Fowler, the paper's editor, formerly worked for the Walking Horse Report, an industry newspaper. Dane said that proves that the newspaper is too cozy with walking horse business leaders.
"Anything that is seen as critical of the walking horse industry is perceived as being bad for Shelbyville," Dane said. "And it's a close-knit community."
Fowler said her former employment did not weigh on the paper's decision to reject the group's columns and ads. She said the paper has for several years turned down the group's ads, but she declined to explain why.
Dane said the Times-Gazette and Shelbyville's business community are trying to create an "us against the outsiders, we're all in this together" spirit with the Celebration edging closer.
The fact that corporate sponsors such as Pepsi have pulled the plug on Celebration sponsorships has added to the urgency, Dane said.
"The industry started to lean on local businesses to shore up backyard support," he said. "They are trying to circle the wagons."