All Things Considered: December 2007
A Job Well Done
By Jim Knisley
A Job Well Done
Producers outside Saskatchewan likely noticed that the AI incident on a farm north of Regina was what is sometimes called a one-day wonder.
The story broke, the information flowed – with all the details any reasonable person could want or need – and then it faded.
On the surface it looks pretty straightforward. But it takes a lot of preparation to have it run so smoothly.
Reporters, and with almost three decades as a reporter I can say this with confidence, can be a pain in the butt. They want all the information and they want it now. And they are never satisfied with one source, especially a single industry or government source.
This might shock you, but most reporters I know, to put it kindly, have been mislead by those with a vested interest.
They want to talk to government experts, they want industry officials, they want heads of producer groups, they want unaffiliated experts and, more than anything, they want actual producers.
It used to be that spokespeople could get away with answering the five Ws – who, what, where, when and why. Now no reporter worth his or her salt will stop there.
They want the circumstances of the actual event, but they also want to know what comes next and what the potential implications and ramifications are. In the case of AI they need to know the strain and the potential impact on the public.
They want to know all the measures being taken to control and contain the disease and what the public should or should not do.
If the industry and government aren’t ready, the reporters will turn elsewhere for answers.
And all of this is done under the pressure of extremely tight deadlines. “We’ll get back to you tomorrow,” doesn’t cut it when the presses start running at 11 p.m.
The public may not like reporters, but they demand they do their jobs and their job is to get the best information available and deliver it as quickly as possible. Resistance is futile.
But a well-designed, well-prepared communications strategy eliminates the need for resistance and that is what the poultry industry, the CFIA and the Saskatchewan and federal governments had ready.
When the Saskatchewan AI outbreak was made public everyone was ready. The experts were ready, the producers groups were ready and government was ready.
Most importantly the communicators were ready. They provided clear, concise statements; they answered all the questions (informed and uninformed) and made sure that whomever the reporter wanted to talk to was available.
They also had their message. Right off the top they made it clear that this was H7N3 not H5N1. They made sure that everyone understood that while the disease was devastating to poultry it wasn’t a threat to people. They made certain that everyone understood that none of the birds from the farm were destined for the food chain and that none had entered the food chain.
They pointed out that the farm was isolated and that geography provided a barrier to any spread. They described the measures in place including containment, depopulation, disposal and decontamination.
It looked so simple. But like anything that looks simple, it isn’t.
Behind the scenes, the poultry producer groups, CFIA, CPEPC, veterinarians and others have been meeting and holding workshops to prepare. While everyone hoped there would never be another AI outbreak they prepared for the next one. They anticipated what could happen and they kept their communications specialists in the loop.
When it did happen, the plan was to be open, candid and co-ordinated. Everyone knew the message – this is a poultry, not human disease; it’s on one isolated farm; we’re preventing its spread; and we knew this was
possible and we’re ready.
This was backed up with regular updates that reinforced the message that while this is tragic for the farm in question it doesn’t threaten the public or the industry as a whole.
The industry went out of its way to accommodate the media and the public and it paid off.
There is a strong temptation to go the other way and try to shut the media out. Sometimes that can work, but usually only on things where there isn’t a great deal of public interest.
If it’s seen as important and there is public interest stories will be written and they won’t be the stories those involved want.
Closed doors spark suspicion and distrust and if you are unwilling to communicate. I can guarantee you there is someone who will and you may not like their message.
None of that happened in the Saskatchewan incident. They were prepared, they were open, they were consistent and they were factual.
It was a textbook example of effective communications. n