Surviving social storms takes transparency, trust

Dec 6, 2013

Ranchers are continually forced to wear many hats these days. Added to the good old cowboy hat are about a dozen others. And ever more frequently, ranchers are being asked to wear the hat of the public relations expert because—fair or not—when something goes wrong on one animal ag operation it doesn’t just reflect badly on that operation, it reflects badly on all of animal ag in the minds of the public.

This PR cap is made all the more necessary for animal agriculture given the growing trend of undercover videos. The Center for Food Integrity (CFI) held an online seminar, or “webinar,” last Tuesday on the topic of surviving an undercover video.

Though the issue lent the presentation its name, the topic of actually dealing with the aftermath of an undercover video was almost a footnote in the grand scheme of things. Why? Because the way to weather the social storm of an undercover video is to build trust with the public, and trust must be established long before anything happens.

Trust and transparency

Public trust in agricultural producers is essential. Charlie Arnot, CEO of CFI and President of the ag-focused public relations firm CMA, explained that public trust is what grants producers their “social license.”

“[The social license is] the privilege of operating with minimal, formalized restrictions based on maintaining public trust. If the public trusts us to do what’s right, they won’t feel the need to impose more restrictions, either through legislation, regulation or the market.”

As producers have an interest in maintaining this social license and their ability to “do what they do best” with minimal interference, what builds trust with the public is a valuable thing for ranchers to know.

Arnot presented the results of a number of research efforts to answer the question of what contributes to public trust of entities like companies or animal agricultural operations. Three main areas played a role: influential others; competence; and confidence.

Influential others are trusted individuals—friends, doctors, colleagues, etc.—and what they say. Competence is factual knowledge; facts, figures, science and authoritative information. And confidence boils down to a perception of shared values and respect.

Arnot pointed out that the agricultural community is excellent at the competence side of things.

“[We’re] operating under the assumption that the public is logical and rational and if we simply give them the right information they’ll come to our side of the argument. If they haven’t come to our side of the argument, it must mean we’ve not given them the right information. So we go get more science. And if they still haven’t come to our side of the argument, we get more science. And we repeat that cycle over and over again.”

The research, however, does not support this. Arnot presented consumer opinion findings that confidence—a perception of shared values—is three to five times more influential than information.

Much of this confidence stems from transparency. As can be seen in the infographic below and at right, there are seven key, interwoven elements of trust-building transparency, all of which were highly rated by consumers during public opinion research conducted by CFI.

They are as follows: • Motivations. Consumers are very interested in what drives the operation and its behavior. Is it interested in the wellbeing of people rather than just itself? Does it take public interest and concern into account when making decisions?

Are those decisions motivated by a dedication to ethical behavior or just profits?

• Disclosure. A willingness to communicate information that might be harmful to the operation, as well as good information, is very transparent and engenders trust in the public. Timely, effective and easily-accessible information plays heavily into this attribute of trust.

• Stakeholder participation. While you might not see Jane Doe consumer as a specific stakeholder in your operation, she might be since the beef she eats and feeds her family could come from your ranch. If you make a point to seek out the opinions of stakeholders, provide an easy way for them to voice their opinions, acknowledge (if not incorporate) those concerns into your decisions, and explain your decision-making process, you have gone a long way in engaging stakeholders on a personal level.

• Relevance. Trust and transparency are heavily based in communication—i.e., sharing information—but not all information is created equal. It is important to make sure the information you share with the public is important to them and delivered in an accessible, understandable way. If you don’t know what information is important to them, ask!

• Clarity. Similar to relevance, trust cannot be built if the public doesn’t understand what you’re trying to communicate. Information needs to be easy to understand and suited to the audience.

• Credibility. Public trust depends heavily on the public seeing an operation as responsible for what goes on. If something goes wrong, own up to it, take responsibility and apologize. Sharing your plan for corrective action to ensure the mistake doesn’t happen again also goes a long way toward establishing credibility, as well as presenting both sides (yours and one you might not agree with) of a controversial topic in as unbiased a way as possible.

• Accuracy. Last, but not least, trust cannot be built on falsehoods. Information you share with the public must be accurate, reliable and complete.

Surviving an undercover video

The take-away of the presentation was that public trust through transparency is the only way for individual operations and the animal agricultural world as a whole to survive undercover videos and similar revelations of wrongdoing.

Arnot presented the results of one particular study wherein members of the public were presented with fictional animal welfare violations and fictional food safety lapses involving undercover videos. In both settings, articles featuring a “good actor” and “bad actor” were presented to participants, where the good actors incorporated the aforementioned seven attributes of trust-building transparency and the bad actors did not.

Despite the worse outcomes in the “good actor” stories— more people died in the “good actor” rendition of the food safety lapse than in the “bad actor” story, for example—the surveyed members of the public were more likely to trust and buy from the good actors than the bad actors. Returning to an earlier concept, the good actors had better preserved their social license than had the bad actors.

Incorporating the seven attributes of trust-building transparency into your operation and how you interact with the public is something that must be done before anything happens. In the end, Arnot summarized this necessity: be prepared.

“Assume that someone is taping on the farm all the time. If you wait until you are vilified in a video to prepare, you will be less likely to survive.”

This preparation involves building trust through transparency, developing a track record for good stewardship and animal care, making that available to the public, as well as participating in industry certifications and making sure you have a good relationship with authority figures such as veterinarians.

The full webinar is available online at The website will ask for your email address and the webinar will be presented as a file for download. The webinar is roughly 45 minutes long and includes audio and video, so the file can take some time to begin. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor