A good name worth defending; have a crisis-proof reputation

Apr 13, 2012

“Have you invested in your reputation?” asked Amy Richards of an audience of vets and producers at the annual American Association of Swine Veterinarians (AASV).

In a crisis where ag is involved—be it a natural disaster, a transport accident, assault by an activist group, disease outbreak or anything else—attention will be on you, the involved producer.

How you weather a crisis depends heavily on the strength of your reputation with the public.

“One of the only things you can do is to create a presence now, because you can’t establish it when there’s a crisis. You have to have an architecture built before the crisis,” said Richards, a public relations agent at Charleston|Orwig.

The ways to preemptively build this architecture—or invest in your reputation, if you prefer the financial analogy—are as varied as the specific crises which can happen. Richard and others at AASV’s crisis management seminar spoke at length on specific responses, but several general recommendations emerged.

Tell your story

A public relations 101 basic is: If you don’t tell your story, someone else will.

Consider who tries to tell the story of animal agriculture. Are these the people you want telling the story of what you do to the consuming public?

One example of a farm taking control of their story is Fair Oaks Farms in Fair Oaks, IN, called the “Disneyland of Dairy.” They run on the idea that the best story told is a story experienced first hand. The large working dairy (milking 30,000 head a day) brings in over 500,000 visitors a year. Visitors get to see all elements of milking and birthing of calves.

Another, less labor-intensive example of telling the story of ag is to provide live video feeds to the public. Rose Acre Farms, an egg farm also in Indiana, has capitalized on this. The farm’s website features live camera stills of its caged hens on its website, updated every few minutes.

In addition to making the consuming public feel included in the process, closed circuit TV systems and public video feeds have other benefits. Experts such as Temple Grandin have suggested either could prevent the rare animal abuse that does unfortunately occur and counter activists’ claims that those aberrations are the norm.

The benefits of telling your own story of animal agriculture are vast. Among the most important, however, are building trust among the public and stealing thunder from activists who seek to harm the industry.

Deciding how to tell your story could be tricky. If you operate a cow/calf operation on the range, for example, tours and webcams likely aren’t an option. But when in doubt, simple and direct is a good standby; talk to people.

Richards stressed the importance of not preaching to the choir. “Start talking to people outside your space.”

Listen, don’t lecture

An important add-on to the suggestion of telling the story of animal agriculture is to listen as much as talk.

“Talk to people you wouldn’t normally,” Richards reiterated. “What are they worried about? Start a dialog. Hear what they have to say. Listen.”

Mountains of academic communication research shows that two-way communication—where each participant in a conversation gets to voice their side and have it genuinely listened to—is far more successful than one-way communication where one voice tells and the other must listen. When people feel they are not being listened to and taken seriously, they can become resentful. Resentful audiences are not receptive audiences.

Consider your own experiences with, say, heavy-handed government. If you feel some regulatory body is ignoring your concerns, are you going to accept the next thing they say? View them as trustworthy? Turn to them with questions? Probably not.

“It totally changes the conversation when you approach [skeptics] by listening to their concerns,” Richards observed.

Being willing to open dialogs and listening to consumer concerns is key to building a strong relationship with the public. And what is a reputation but a public relationship?

Immunize important people

Particularly important members of the consuming public should get special attention when it comes to telling your story and establishing a dialog. These people—non-ag buyers of your products if you direct market, CEOs and management of retail companies who buy from the packer you supply— especially need to be told the story of what you do.

Information is the best immunization against misinformation and deception.

For those people who are particularly important to your business, this vaccination program of knowledge is that much more important.

Dr. Howard Hill, DVM, of Iowa Select Farms, cited McDonald’s recent bow to Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) pressure over gestation crate use in its pork supply as an example of how preventative measures might have been effective. If the higher ups at McDonald’s had been armed with first-hand knowledge of standard practices in the hog industry, they would have been in a position to dismiss the undercover videos of “abuse” HSUS released as the deception they were.

“The point is you have to build confidence that you are doing things right,” Hill said.

Have a plan

The best offense is a good defense. So goes the idiom, anyway.

When it comes to crisis management, a good defense—in the form of plans and protocol—goes a long way in safeguarding your reputation, not to mention alleviating stress and problems should a crisis occur.

Dr. Carly Doranzio, DMV, of TriOaks Foods, Oakville, IA, stressed the importance of having a clear chain of command already prepared and known during a crisis. Having a procedure in place of who to contact and in what order goes a long way to minimizing redundancy, miscommunications, ineffective response and chaos.

Having begun her career with TriOaks Foods under trial by fire with the 2008 Iowa floods, Doranzio had first-hand experience with how important a chain of command was in a crisis. She stressed that having a go-to person for media questions or contact—with instructions to all others to redirect questions to the designated person—was especially important.

“As we were trying to save hogs from flooding barns, we really didn’t expect the media to show up, you know?” Doranzio told listeners. “But they did. You need to expect media during a crisis.”

Jennifer Woods of J Woods Livestock Services, an expert in livestock transport accident response, repeated this idea. She told several stories of “heat-of-the-moment” comments made by drivers involved in a livestock transport accident being used as fuel for activist attacks and litigation attempts.

Both speakers stressed the importance of crisis response training for employees. Woods compared it to fire drills or earthquake drills for school children in terms of importance.

No comment

If, in the unfortunate situation that you do face a crisis, there is one thread of advice that was voiced over and over again: “No comment” is not an option.

This goes back to the “if you don’t tell your story, someone else will” idea. If there is a crisis centered on your operation and you or a representative decline to comment, others will fill the void. What they fill the void with is almost certainly not in your best interest.

Consider when you read a newspaper article on, let’s say, a government official embroiled in potential scandal. If the article reads “And So-and-so declined to comment,” or “No one at So-andso’s office answered inquiries,” what is your first impression? It’s not likely to be an assumption they were busy or were otherwise innocently prevented from making a statement.

Right or wrong, most people’s natural inclination is to view an unwillingness to communicate with suspicion or see shady motives where there may be none. This is generally where public outcry over ag protection laws stem.

The desire to keep people out—a physical analog of “no comment”—is interpreted by many as evidence the animal ag industry has something to hide. The reality of that situation, where farmers hope to be protected by malicious groups, is irrelevant in the perceptions of the skeptical public.

If your operation experiences a crisis, don’t let the skeptical public come to their own—likely wrong— conclusions because you are silent. Make a statement and update the public frequently. Not only does this fill the information void with your message and thereby keeps you in control of the story, it shows due diligence and demonstrates a dedication to transparency, all of which help rebuild and strengthen your reputation with the public.

It is unfortunate that America’s farmers and ranchers have to continually prove themselves over and over again, but that is the situation today.

Ranchers and farmers are the premiere stewards of the land and the front line of livestock animal care. In addition to these traditional roles, you must also be communicators and stewards of your—and the industry’s— good name. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor