Pilot's Facebook Fracas

Ends employee in-store collections for Humane Society after social media pushback

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- In an example of the role that social media can play in the retail realm and community relations, Pilot Travel Centers LLC has clarified its position on employee and customer contributions gathered to date at Pilot locations for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and changed its corporate position on the charity because of a controversy that erupted on Facebook.

Over the past three years, Pilot employees have raised approximately $52,000 for HSUS-supported causes through in-store collections. Last Thursday, the animal rights organization acknowledged [image-nocss] and praised Pilot for the efforts. "We're giving a shout out to Pilot Travel Centers for standing up against animal cruelty and supporting us!" HSUS said on its Facebook page (click here).

Then Knoxville, Tenn.-based Pilot started taking flak for the support on its Facebook page (click here), reported WBIR-TV, with many of the comments arguing that HSUS does not represent the interests of Tennessee families who work and depend on agriculture. One of HSUS's causes is the End Factory Farming Campaign, the goal of which is to work to reduce the suffering of animals raised for meat, eggs and milk.

Escalating the discussion beyond the Pilot situation, some in the farming community also questioned HSUS's ethics as an organization, citing a Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) report (click here) critical of the group. HSUS supporters fired back (click here), accusing the CCF as being a front for Big Ag.

Last Friday, Pilot released a statement on the matter:

"We sincerely regret any actions that led to the misperception of our support of this organization. Pilot Travel Centers is a strong supporter of agriculture interests in our home state of Tennessee and across the country. Since 2007, less than $52,000 in voluntary donations from customers and employees were collected in stores as part of an employee-driven charity event. The money went to three specific areas: rural animal veterinary care services, disaster relief and a foreclosure fund to help rescue animals left behind in homes during the foreclosure crisis."

It added, "In order to avoid any further misunderstandings, employees will immediately cease collections of donations to HSUS. Pilot corporate has never matched a single dollar of these donations and will not support any organization that has an agenda that works against agriculture interests."

The Humane Society released a statement in response:

"We thank employees and customers of Pilot Travel Centers for three years of loyal support for animals in need. We regret they are no longer being given the opportunity in stores to support our work to help animals abandoned in the foreclosure crisis, to help end pet overpopulation and aid animals in distress."

Sixth-generation farmer/rancher and broadcaster Trent Loos commended Pilot for choosing agriculture over the HSUS, added a report by agribusiness newspaper Feedstuffs.

"While perhaps initially misled, it is obvious that the fine folks at [Pilot] recognize and appreciate the valuable contributions that agriculture makes to all U.S. citizens," said Loos, who spoke with Pilot CEO and president Jimmy Haslam late Friday. Loos told the paper that Haslam asked him to help set the record straight about the company's position regarding the donations and to let agricultural interests across the nation know that Pilot will not support those that do not support agriculture.

Loos will be airing an interview with Haslam today on his national syndicated show Loos Tales.

Pilot is a leading operator of travel centers catering to professional drivers and traveling motorists in 41 states with more than 300 retail interstate properties. The company employs 14,000 people nationwide and is held in a partnership between Pilot Corp., wholly owned by the Haslam family and Propeller Corp., wholly owned by the funds advised by CVC Capital Partners, a leading global private-equity firm.