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Food, Farming and the Media

A ‘no holds barred’ inside look at why getting the right messages across matters, and how to do it


April 23, 2010
By Treena Hein

Topics

It’s safe to say that the relationship between agriculture and the media has never been more important than it is right now.

It’s safe to say that the relationship between agriculture and the media has never been more important than it is right now. Food safety, environmental concerns, food costs, disease, food security – these are just a few of the topics being covered by the media on a regular basis. What’s more, coverage spikes when a crisis hits.

As a member of the media, I am the first to admit that we can do a lot to disseminate accurate and balanced information about a given topic, but we can also (unwittingly or through laziness, a lack of background knowledge, poor investigative skills and other factors) do a lot of disservice. That’s why farmers and other members of the agriculture industry need to be prepared to handle the media effectively, and get the right messages “out there.”

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The Right Message. Farmers and other members of the agriculture industry need to be prepared to handle the media effectively, and get the right messages “out there.”


In order to do that, let’s take you on an “inside” tour. You should first be aware of the two media groups you might interact with. The first group is industry-related media outlets, also known as “trade” media (for example, Canadian Poultry magazine), which serve a particular industry audience, such as farmers, manufacturers, florists or mechanics. The other is known as mainstream media – newspapers, magazines, TV shows, radio programs and websites that address the general public.

However, while you may think the term “general public” means “all of us,” keep in mind that it actually doesn’t – and who mostly consumes mainstream media may surprise you. “Women are the driving force behind the majority of purchases that a family makes and this is the number one audience that farmers must reach out to,” says Wallace Pidgeon, president of Toronto–based Brick and Ball Media and farmer media trainer with the Ontario Farm Animal Council (OFAC). “For the first time since 1941, women are now the majority in the workforce and this is another factor that farmers must relate to when approaching the other 99 per cent of the population that do not work in the farm sector.”

Pidgeon also believes it’s important to recognize the fact that women are the nurturers of society who take the lead in managing family well-being. “Women care about the quality and safety of food, health, nutrition and value,” he observes, adding that “Women are also the predominant employees in the communications sector.”

But being prepared to deal effectively with these two types of media – trade and mainstream – goes beyond knowing the makeup of the audience. Keep in mind that in trade media, you are much more likely to find better informed reporters who care to produce material valuable to readers. These reporters want to get things straight, and generally want to have a good relationship with everyone they interact with. This is mainly because they often contact the same people or organizations many times throughout their careers, and these relationships are important to long-term success. Said another way, it’s counterproductive for trade reporters to “burn” anyone with a legitimate stake in the industry.

Mainstream reporters, on the other hand, may not be as well-informed (although some of them cover a beat and can be very well-informed about politics, business, a particular geographical region, etc.) and may therefore have no vested interest in the slant of the article being particularly useful for the farming community in terms of helping farmers do their jobs more effectively or building positive perceptions. They may never call on a farming contact again, or do another story on food or farming again.

Also keep in mind that the trade media is out to sell copies to their audience within an industry; mainstream media is out to sell copies to as many members of the general public as they can. In both types of media, advertisers matter. The material generated is the vehicle through which advertisers reach the media outlet’s audience.

Media training
Before you interact with the media, it’s helpful to have some media training, and there are now lots of opportunities for farmers to do this. But before we get into exactly what this training entails, let’s look at why it’s a good thing.

British Columbia, 2004: the first avian influenza outbreak hit the poultry industry like a brick wall 100 feet thick and ten stories high. “We’d never experienced anything like that,” says Rick Thiessen, vice-chair of the B.C. Chicken Marketing Board and broiler producer from Abbotsford, B.C. “The media attention was intense.”

“None of us had had media training at that point,” explains Thiessen, “so we immediately arranged for a crash course from a private public relations company. It was very helpful. They provided us with a half-day of training, and also assisted us with key messages and coordinating interviews.”

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Women are the driving force behind family purchases, and farmers must reach out to them. They care about food quality and the safety of food fed to their families. Women are also the predominant employees in the communications sector.


 

The B.C. poultry industry figured out within the first few days of the crisis, says Thiessen, that it needed to have a few people who would speak on behalf of everyone. He was one of those chosen. “At the beginning, we had the media showing up at farms and people understood pretty quickly why it was important to politely direct these reporters to trained spokespeople aware of the key messaging.”

One critical message – which Thiessen and others hammered away at over and over again during the next six months – was that the bird flu was an animal health issue, not a food safety issue. That is, no one was going to get sick from eating properly prepared chicken or eggs.

Thiessen himself gave over 200 interviews for print, TV and radio. “As time went on, I certainly became more comfortable,” he says. However, after the crisis was over, it became clear that more people should be trained to handle future issues. Chicken Farmers of Canada (CFC) has put “a lot of effort into training people in all provinces,” Thiessen says. “Research has shown that the public wants to hear from farmers directly. They trust farmers the most.” CFC has also taken other proactive measures such as creating farm video footage (showing the use of standard food safety and animal health practices) that can be provided to the media at a moment’s notice.

Kelly Daynard, program manager at the Ontario Farm Animal Council (OFAC), agrees that it’s critically important for farmers to speak up. OFAC has done its own “public attitude” studies showing farmers are the most credible spokespeople for the industry, she says.

Similarly to B.C.’s experience with bird flu, “In 1998, the Ontario pork industry was in crisis and Ontario Pork realized it didn’t have any farmers who were comfortable speaking with mainstream media,” says Daynard, “so they provided some who were interested with basic skills.” The Ontario Cattlemen’s Association responded similarly after the Walkerton water crisis in May 2000, and over the last two years, OFAC began offering media training to interested farmers of all stripes.

Key messages and more
Let’s delve into why preparing and practising key messages is a central aspect of media training. Using key messages means you respond to – as oppose to answer – questions. “Having your response come around to one of your three key messages,” says Thiessen, “means you don’t become distracted and wander into topics that aren’t relevant.” This is known as keeping ‘control’ in an interview.

Here’s an example. To a ‘tough’ question such as “Why are unsustainable practices still being used on farms?”, you could give a straight answer, focusing on the fact that some farmers do indeed use unsustainable practices. However, it’s much better to acknowledge in general terms that while there are a wide variety of practices used, most farmers use sustainable practices and many use highly progressive practices. You could go on to say that farmers themselves as well as their families eat the food they produce, drink from the water of the farm, have done so for generations – and that they want to continue to have good soil and water in order for the continued well-being and livelihood of future generations. Refusing to “take the bait,” and instead turning the focus to a central message, is known as “bridging.”

Let’s look at another “hot question” that’s showing up in various guises today: “Isn’t keeping chickens in small cages cruel?” Here are two sample answers – ask yourself which one is better.

a) “We aren’t mean to our chickens. Our chickens are well cared for. Chickens kept in cages are fine.”

b) “That’s a valid question, and I’d like to first say that there is nothing more important to farmer and their livelihood than the welfare of their animals. We ensure we have comfortable and healthy birds because we care and because doing so is critical to our farm business success. Secondly, whether you as a consumer buy eggs – a highly nutritious, easily digested, affordable and delicious food that can be cooked up in so many ways – whether you buy eggs that come from chickens housed in cages or free-run in barns, we think it’s important that you have choices. And we ensure you have those choices at the grocery store every day.”

The second response is obviously much more effective. While it acknowledges the concern, the focus is on the messages that farmers care about their animals, eggs are a good food choice, and consumer choice matters.

Other main messages that the agriculture industry often wants to communicate include:

Food raised/grown on Canadian farms (eggs, berries, pumpkins, beef etc.) is safe and of the highest quality; farmers deserve a fair wage for themselves and their families, and food prices therefore must address the high Canadian standards that we all desire and deserve in the areas of environmental stewardship, animal welfare, labour laws, food safety and more.

Besides practising central messages, you should also find and use a relevant statistic, and always provide the source. For example, in responding to a question about why birds are housed in large facilities with automated systems, you could point to the fact (from Egg Farmers of Ontario) that there are just under 400 layer farms where all the eggs for the entire province – approximately 10 million people – are produced. This statistic makes things very clear why large-scale farming is a necessity.

You should also prepare and practice telling a personal story that illustrates one or more of your messages. In addition, prepare a “quotable quote” – a snappy short statement that a reporter is likely to feature prominently in the media piece (such as “We care about consumer choice.”) Also remember to use a personal perspective, which allows the audience to connect with you. For example, when asked what animal welfare is, you might say “For me, it means…”

Lastly, if you are going to be on TV or doing some presentations, you might want to attend Toastmasters, a public speaking club with chapters in most major centres. Work on relaxed, positive, moderately energetic body language.

“It was well worthwhile,” says a poultry industry member who attended both basic and advanced OFAC media training sessions in 2009 and early 2010. “You never feel completely confident about these things [media interviews], but I definitely feel more confident than I did.  As a person in the poultry industry, the most common things I’m asked about from the media or other people outside the industry are animal welfare and food safety, and after going through the training, I have a better feel for what not to say. I really understand the importance of the whole concept of being prepared and not getting distracted from your central messages.”

This participant also points out that knowing how to control your messaging is critical when talking to other members of the poultry community. “At industry meetings or even in casual conversation, you want to have your story straight, because what you say gets around. This training cements the thinking that we need to be careful what you say and who you say it to.”

Daynard observes that in addition to seeing more farmers taking part in media interviews, they are also engaging the media in other ways, such as sending letters to the editor. “It’s great to see them passionate about telling their stories,” she says.


Media Interaction – Nuts and Bolts

Farmers and farm industry representatives are mostly contacted for comments to appear in printed or web-based publications. Radio or TV spots are much rarer.

When contacted for any media interaction, you as a potential interviewee are free to ask about the media outlet, audience, background of reporter, intended air or publication date and general thrust of story. Sometimes reporters aren’t honest about their intended story slant. Sometimes, they genuinely can’t be very specific about this because they have to speak with a number of people in order to see “where the story goes” – that is, what the issues are and how they are evolving. Also, keep in mind that potential interviewees certainly don’t have to say yes to commenting right away. 

If a reporter’s approach makes you uncomfortable, you can certainly refuse to participate. However, you would then be missing out on an opportunity to communicate important messages.

You have a right to ask, if you are answering questions for print for example, whether you are going to be taped over the phone or whether the reporter will be taking notes. You can ask, or make it a condition of agreeing to contribute to an article, that your comments be read back to you at the end of the call (or even emailed to you so that you can check them). If this is agreed to, bear in the mind that the reporter may paraphrase part or all of your comments, cut them down and/or rearrange them to suit the flow of the article and place relevant material together.

It is unreasonable to ask that the publication send you the whole article before it is published, even if you are the sole person interviewed. While some publications are willing to do this, you will usually be refused this request for a wide variety of legitimate reasons – foremost being that when an article is published, everyone receives it at the same time and is therefore on equal footing in terms of responding to the information. We have a free press in this country, which means the press is free to publish what it deems suitable within the confines of the law (libel, slander, hate laws, etc.). However, as everyone knows, the press is regularly taken to task or sued for the content it produces. Corrections, retractions, and threats of lawsuits are a regular occurrence.