Beef public relations 101

Nov 16, 2012

In keeping with its efforts to improve consumer perception of and demand for U.S. beef, the Beef Checkoff Program has created an easy-to-use, go-to source for tips on talking to consumers about beef. The pamphlet— “Your Guide to Having the Beef Conversation”—covers a number of common consumer questions and concerns about raising cattle and eating beef.

The pamphlet is broken down into different topics which frequently come up in the dialog between those in the beef world and consumers whose only contact with beef is at the meat case. Issues like the beef community, beef safety and nutrition, animal care and the environment are all addressed. Each section includes frequently asked questions from consumers, example answers, and some relevant data on each topic.

Before the topics of beef are brought up, however, important advice on simply interacting with concerned consumers is presented.

The guide stresses the importance of the EASE— engage, acknowledge, share, and earn trust— mentality when talking to consumers. This follows and supports the two-way communication model stressed in academia and public relations as essential for effective communication.

Though each of the EASE elements is described, the last E of “earn trust” is perhaps the most important.

“The goal of the conversation is to earn trust. It’s not about winning an argument or proving you are right. It is important to correct misinformation but don’t refute with facts alone; food is very emotional. Remember, if you don’t trust someone, you don’t trust their facts.”

Engage to understand, listen, share perspectives, acknowledge differences but focus on similarities, and explain but don’t preach. These are many of the messages and pieces of advice shared in the guide.

Word choice is an important topic discussed in the guide. One need only look to the use of “factory farms” as a derogative description of modern production systems or the term “pink slime” and its disastrous effects on one company in particular, and the industry as a whole, for example of the power of words. Unfortunately, many words frequently used in the beef industry that come with positive connotations have different meanings to consumers. The pamphlet offers a number of cautions against specific phrases, for example:

“We say, ‘efficient.’ Consumers say, ‘You are cutting corners to make more money.’ Talk about using fewer resources instead of producing more food.”

Due to the increasing pressures against animal agriculture, coupled with the increasing distance between consumers and the farm and lack of first-hand experience, livestock producers are forced to wear more and more hats. The chorus of “tell your story” seems to come from all corners all the time, but it is valuable and yet another goal to add to the list.

U.S. ranchers already do an excellent job of raising safe, nutritious food and fiber for people here at home and around the world, and are always improving. The future of ranching includes actively and openly engaging consumers about their interests and concerns. This conversation guide is just another effort to help producers tackle that necessity.

“Your Guide to Having the Beef Conversation” can be found online at MyBeef, search term “conversation.” — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor