Talking science to consumers during controversy

Sep 13, 2013

— Communication skills are imperative in interacting with consumers.

“Know your audience” is Commandment Number 1 in the world of communication. But as ranchers are being continually called upon to communicate with consumers who may have never had a first-hand experience with agriculture or the animals who produce the food they eat, this and other communication strategies are more vital today than ever.

Frustration in the face of widespread consumer concern over food safety and animal welfare topics is understandable. You have science and proven history backing up what you do, so why do consumer panics start? But sadly, people’s opinion formation and acceptance of information doesn’t work that way.

Instances like public panic over Lean Fine-Textured Beef, or BSE, or even the ongoing concerns over genetically-modified organisms and cloning are good examples of the difficulty in communicating science-related topics to consumers.

The Animal Agriculture and Climate Change branch of the Extension Service recently released an article pointing out the “if they [the people] only understood the facts, they would agree with us” model of communication has been found to only work with 10-15 percent of the population. That is an important thing to keep in mind; in addition, a myriad of other inputs—emotion, past experience, personal values, and perceived trust in the source—all contribute to individual’s acceptance of information.

These are important points to keep in mind when trying to communicate what might be a troubling topic for consumers. Doubly so is the mindset in which to approach such topics. When discussing potentially contentious or confusing topics with consumers, the situation should be approached in an environment of openminded, unbiased consideration of all the facts.

Below are several communication strategies the Animal Agriculture and Climate Change Extension article recommended when it comes to discussing climate change. However, the general points are equally applicable when it comes to those in agriculture communicating with consumers about the science and reasons behind their food safety and animal welfare practices.

Understand your audience: It is crucial to make sure any examples offered resonate with the audience. Metaphorically, you can’t discuss the finer points of football with someone who thinks everyone’s playing soccer; a common ground of understanding must be established. Knowing their concerns, interests, and perceptions is enormously helpful. If you don’t know them to start with, don’t assume you do; ask instead. Once you know your audience’s perspectives, examples based on shared or analogous experiences can be offered.

Frame the issue and word choice: Everyone comes to an issue with their own background made up of opinions, concerns, past experiences, and so on. These things influence how people see and communicate—i.e. “frame”—the issue. It is also certain your frame on the issue of, say, feedlots, will differ from the frame a person from New York City places on the topic.

But framing an issue can be used as a means of better understanding when talking with consumers. By using a more personal or neutral frame, such as calling a feedlot a “cattle feeding operation” instead of a “CAFO,” it can smooth the way for better understanding.

The Extension article pointed out that scientific terms are often misinterpreted by the general public, which leads to public doubt regarding science-based issues. Returning to the wordchoice element of framing, you should connect with your audience’s values with how you talk about an issue. Using stories that are familiar to the audience and that they can relate to is the most effective way to get the message to stick in people’s minds.

Effectively communicate uncertainty: Scientific topics—and the practices based on them—come with a level of uncertainty. It is in the nature of science and responsible livestock production to come upon new information as time goes on and adapt to it. That is to say, things have changed, continue to change, and will change as new and better answers are discovered for old questions.

Unfortunately, many people are not comfortable communicating uncertainty, and particularly want to present a unified, sure face when answering questions on contentious subjects. However, it is important to communicate the uncertainty and the ever-learning, ever-adapting nature of agricultural practices. Emphasizing your own need for continued learning—as well as that need in general—is important and acknowledges the fact that there is a lot of information out there that can’t be covered in short periods of time or be known by any one individual.

Minimize bias: Just as with frame, everyone will come to an issue with their own biases. Most of these biases are often unknown to the person who holds them; even you. Take the first step by analyzing your own perspectives and asking yourself where your values and biases lay. This can be an excellent opportunity to engage those who have concerns about how things are done in raising livestock; if you find places where your respective perspectives and biases differ, ask them their opinion and invite their recommendations.

At the very least, this can create another opportunity to dispel misconceptions they may have, but it can also make you a more trustworthy source in their eyes as well as give you the opportunity to see your operation in a new and possibly helpful angle. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor