Building Community At America's Table

Meal Three: An open letter to Big Ag on marketing, PR and effective spin

– written by Ellen

Recently, Grant and I enjoyed a late second dinner with two conventional diary farmers at Telegraph in Chicago. One farmer is from the Central Valley of California — he uses rBST. The other from the very northwest tip of Washington — he doesn’t use rBST because it is not legal where he farms. Their names, Ray Prock and Robert Smit.

Or, quite possibly Serious Joe and his sidekick, Sir Crack ’em Up.

Ray, along with his other sidekick, Mike Haley, is all about Big Ag — but he’s going a little rogue, though he refers it to as “bleeding edge.” Ray and Mike are the guys who reached out to me and Grant in the comments of a blog I wrote in reaction to experiencing the public relations stylins’ of the USFRA and, actually, those two amazing men were the catalyst for us starting One Hundred Meals.

Like most of Big Ag, Ray realizes that his side is hitting some rather critical points of total communication failure and that something needs to be done to stem the tide of fear that is raging through headlines.

Unlike most of Big Ag, Ray (and Mike!) tend to believe that what really needs to be done is not hitting talking points and managing a conversation — what really needs to be done is that Big Ag needs to start listening.

Having been on the receiving end of Ray’s listening, I have to say I agree. Which is why my Meal Three post is, really, an open letter to Big Ag on marketing, PR and effective spin.

Dear Big Ag:

“The science doesn’t support that.”

That’s the response, outta the box, by most Agvocates when peeps like me get scared about food.

If you’re curious, this is how it all looks from our side:

We suddenly discover the absolute grossness that is pink slime, overlay that with pictures of downed cows being pushed around by forklifts and we freak out about what the hell is going on in the beef industry in general — how can we believe the desperate-seeming corporate drone on the news who demands that it is scientifically safe and just go buy it, damn it or our plants will close! Really? Good! What the hell are you doing in that plant you don’t let anyone in, anyway? You seem scary!

You see, we get upset when we see pictures of cute little pigs in tiny filthy cages — how can we believe the monster who tells us it is better for the pig, scientifically, than roaming around outside? Wait, what? Pigs have the intelligence of a three year old, I wouldn’t make my dog live in a cage and my dog isn’t even close to that smart! Plus, I heard you want to regulate the farmers who do keep pigs outside, you’re obviously a greedy bastard! You seem scary!

And guess what — we don’t really believe the bunch of data  tossed in our faces about how safe the American food supply is when we read reports of people dying from tainted cantaloupe. That cantaloupe was an edge case, you say — Tough Crap! It’s what is in the news and so that’s what I know. The big Ag messaging points mean nothing to me when People. Are. Dying.

Rational? Probably not. But reality? Yes. And that is the thing, you, dear Agvocates, need to start dealing with – reality. My reality. The science you try to shove down my throat may in fact be true — as a communication strategy, it ain’t working.

Let’s break it down: I assume the Agvocates are offering up their little science nugget because they want to respond to an emotional reaction with a proveable fact. “Oh,” I assume they are thinking, “if I just tell them that the science doesn’t support their fear and then point them to a source I know will support my statement, they’ll get it and we can all move on.”

Folks, this is the epitome of bad PR — no matter how fancyass your PR firm is that is writing up your talking points.

Here’s what that PR firm should be telling you, for all the money you are spending on them: effective communication isn’t just about getting your point across. Effective communication is about understanding what the other person is thinking so you can get your point understood.

I am sure this is really frustrating for Agvocates. They feel beat down. They feel attacked. Some even are attacked, really, their farms have been burned. Logic, it would seem, should win out, no? NO!

Natasha Godard, star of Meal One, boils it down to what she calls “The Plane Crash Problem.”

Scientifically, airline travel is statistically safer than car travel by an order of magnitude. And yet, far more people are afraid to fly than they are to hop in the car. I, for one, drive a scooter around busy urban streets I know are teeming with texting, tweeting drivers — embarrassingly without a helmet a lot of the time. And yet, I am near catatonic when it comes to flying. It’s a matter of familiarity and because, she commented, humans are not very good at assessing real risk.

So, to extrapolate this to farming, I am a big frightened wussie when it comes to milk. I buy my milk from a family farm down in Central Illinois that is committed to minimally processed milk. (In fact, I visited that farm recently at Chef Camp!). I buy it because it is deliciously good milk but I also buy it because rBGH frightens the hell out of me.

But during my meal with Natasha, I found out that, quite possibly, there is scientifically nothing to fear in rBGH. The hormones, apparently, are species specific so my body can not even absorb or deal with it — I’ll politely say it is basically treated like fiber by the body, if you get my drift. I’m still investigating and learning (and my feelings are starting to lean toward the fact that the real problem with milk is the intensive farming methods, but not at all the rGBH issue) but, and this is the important point, I still have this lingering sense of doom when I even look at a carton of commodity milk.

That’s right. Doom. I can not buy it, even if I am desperate. (I find coffee undrinkable without milk and I must have coffee every morning in order to achieve functioning human being status.)

Natasha offered up a telling statement, the idea that “people don’t know what they’re doing to that cow over there but it seems scary.”

So, what’s Big Ag to do?

  • Shut. Up. and Start. Listening.
  • Stop assuming every conversation is an opportunity to hear what I say just so you can know how to respond. Start assuming it is an opportunity to understand what I think and why.
  • Start honoring the fact that I need to understand the world through my own prism (which is a rather complete lack of scientific knowledge) before I can make space in my head for even thinking about yours.
  • Fire the old school PR firms that hand you talking points and beat messaging strategy into your heads. Give more work to the PR visionaries that craft a strategy of listening.
  • And, finally, respect the fact that what you are doing to that cow over there seems scary to me — and that until you fully embrace my feelings about the matter as relevant, you are going to seem like the enemy.

Remember, at the end of the day we sustainable advocates don’t need to listen to you — really. We could just let the headlines dominate the conversation and, because all those headlines are so very scary sounding and will always be since that is what sells newspapers, slowly but surely conventional ag will have to make concessions to our side. Slowly but surely we’ll get rid of every speck of pink slime and every GE salmon and anything that might give our kids allergies. It doesn’t even matter if the reports are factual because the media will report it anyway and the real story will unravel under the onslaught of fear.

Really, I think you guys know this to be true and that is why you are all rushing around tossing sweet-looking farmers from Nebraska in our faces. Because you know you are facing a public relations nightmare that you might not be able to contain if you don’t do something significant now.

If you want a different outcome. If you want us to, at the end of the day, start understanding you — or possibly even supporting you — you need to back off with the proselytizing and start listening.


18 responses

  1. Understand the points & don’t see myself as “big ag” but have been called such. But here’s a question. I agree with your points – listen, connect, not using scientific etc. So what do we do when we do that and attempt to connect on emotion then scary sounding ‘science’ is brought up? How is out “our” science doesn’t matter but others do? What scares the most or is it kind of a food fear factor?

    Here’s a typical incident – someone says they don’t want hormones in chickens. I come forth (as a small producer) and say I get that, we don’t either and hormones haven’t been used for decades. Then some scary sounding “fact” from some research comes up that farmers are secretly injecting birds with hormones behind closed doors. Response…? I haven’t found one honestly. If I’ve got 25 Rhode Island Reds in a pen they pretty much all look alike. Grabbing each bird to inject with hormones just isn’t going to happen without mixing them up…now make it 25,000 birds (which I can’t imagine but that’s another point!). I could say it just doesn’t happen (which it hasn’t for 50some years) but that sounds dismissive…because “this report says”. I could be honest and say we don’t use it nor does anyone we know…and that’s tossed as we don’t know the BIG PLACES. I could say that people have the choice to buy from small places but that’s “self serving” and doesn’t stop the hormones from being injected into chickens, only going vegan does.

    Probably anything we do can be argued with science from either side…which is where I agree with Mike, Ray and the others in the mind that science isn’t everything. We small places don’t have PR people – nor can we afford it. I looked one time at a promotional person and it cost more then 3 months of feed. 🙂 So we strive, however imperfectly, to do better.

    I know there are some with their minds made up that are just flat out opposed to that aren’t interested in dialogue. You are, so I’m asking honestly – how do we best cross that bridge? I can’t say what Tyson’s or others do and neither can most others if based on pictures or video that is called biased. I don’t want to condemn other sizes/types of agriculture because *I* cannot provide for their market and am opposed to cutting off food from people. Which leaves at a bit nowhere. Or does it?!

    July 23, 2012 at 2:43 pm

    • elliecm

      Thanks for writing. And you are right, the headlines are a difficult problem. And not one you can “manage” right now. But you can start laying foundation. Big Ag has done a lot of damage, PR-wise, and it is a problem that won’t just fix itself overnight. This is a long-term suggestion I am making and you are doing exactly what you need to be doing — being patient and slow and compassionate.

      There are some folks who read this blog post and were convinced “the listening was over for One Hundred Meals!” And I have to tell ya, those people are doing themselves no good because seriously, they missed the point that the post was a suggestion for them to win the battle!

      You, obviously, got it. So, keep going with what you are doing — don’t expect change overnight.

      AND , BTW, BE SELF-SERVING! You are in business, you are not in charity. And if customers want what you have, you have every right to tell them that you do. I don’t get why you see that as “bad.”

      July 23, 2012 at 11:31 pm

  2. Great post and great comment Jan, I wonder the same thing.
    I listen and I get the fear, I was once just as disconnected from the farm as most everyone else. But how do I respond? What words can I use to help others understand what I do? People don’t want to hear that they are wrong, even when they know they are. What about when they just don’t know?
    I work to tell the story of dairy farming on my blog. I try to explain the who, what, where, when and why of our industry and standard procedures on dairy farms of all sizes. Then someone tells me that they know that I’m a good farmer but the other ones out there are bad. Then they go to the store and pass up the milk never realizing that the milk from our cows and farms just like ours is in the jug behind the Dean’s Food label. How much good am I doing for my industry if I earn trust but the trust doesn’t extend to the dairy farmer down the road?

    July 23, 2012 at 3:50 pm

    • elliecm

      Carrie, it is a good point you bring up that you are not necessarily helping the farmer down the road if you earn a consumer’s trust and it doesn’t extend to them. BUT! If you earn their trust, you can then start to talk, patiently and plainly. What I am talking about is “managing a conversation” and simply tossing out a talking point when someone is emotional.

      I am not saying there is no way of convincing people that they should then listen. Mike and Ray convinced me and Grant. And you yourself have done a good job of chatting with us compassionately.

      And possibly, please consider that this particular blog post isn’t for you — it is really a lesson in marketing for Big Ag in general.

      July 23, 2012 at 11:36 pm

      • I understand the post and I agree with a lot of your points. It’s much more enthralling to hear a story over talking points in a conversation. Overly polished anything bugs the hell out of me, be it singers, cars or agvocates. 😉

        July 24, 2012 at 9:42 am

  3. Pingback: Shut Up and Listen. |

  4. McLerranMD

    Reblogged this on MommyDoctorFarmer and commented:
    This is a powerful statement about the need to open conversations about what we do on our farms with the American Consumer

    July 23, 2012 at 9:13 pm

  5. Appreciate the comments. Perhaps a little ‘other’ perspective in reading your comments…points that hit me. Point taken on being self serving but for me there’s a balance there. I dislike marketing that says “you have this problem, pay me $xxx and I’ll fix it for you”. I may have this problem but it doesn’t mean that there’s only one solution. 😀 So I try to not do that, but definitely point taken. I have pointed out choices and that we offer them and it was seen as a negative thing…but everyone has their own perspective! I did draw the line when told on Twitter farmers shouldn’t ever make money because they’re producing something people need – food – so shouldn’t make money on that. I sure hope not everyone thinks that!

    The other thing that struck me – and this is a pretty big difference between even me and Carrie, let alone us and the large farms! – I don’t have to please everyone. I know that’s impossible, but I’m not marketing to the masses here. If I were to hit 150 people, I’d have to back off for the year because I may or may not fill that. So 150 people out of 308million – hey pressure’s off! 😀 (OK finding the right 150 is something else!). But point is it’s a very small niche – I don’t have to worry about 307.90million people not wanting to be my customer because I can’t serve them all anyway!

    Carrie may or may not have her milk in many gallons daily on the store – that puts a little different pressure in more people are considering her end product.

    Now the large organizations – their goal is to keep people eating beef or pork or chicken or whatever – and granted there has been many missteps (and we small peons make them too but fewer notice!)…but they do have the charge of catering to the masses. That’s a different perspective to cater to roughly 98% of the 308million who might (or might not) choose dairy or pork or beef or ??? – compared to the small ‘pressure off’ market we have. Still, everyone has to eat and people will choose *something*. It doesn’t excuse the way some things have gone down, but it’s a different kind of situation dealing with volume. We can do things with our raised beds that folks with 150 acres just can’t do…and vice versa. There are differences between big and small operations, but there are similarities too. All have an interest in connecting with consumers but not all do it well.

    Appreciate the conversation!

    July 24, 2012 at 8:05 am

    • elliecm

      The volume feeding thing is something I never seem to be able to wrap my pea-sized brain around. We DO have to feed people. But we have to feed them proper food. Our society is so off the rails. Even I go completely off the rails when I am in a seige at work. I eat crap and I eat whatever is there and cheap. And it is so scary when what is there and cheap seems poison-y. I don’t know any solution. But we really have to find one.

      July 24, 2012 at 5:14 pm

  6. Not sure I should comment with the “shut up & start listening” point up there, but I think that your letter is interesting. And I think its clear to you that I do listen to lots of other parts of the spectrum.

    I find it interesting because the style of writing doesn’t reflect your own openness to dialog and meaningful conversation. I think its easy for any of us who have some confidence in what we are doing or a passion around it to go overboard on telling our story rather than listening and having real conversations. That gets even harder as others present ideas that you feel are misperceptions. I think it happens in all parts of the spectrum and have to wonder if “big ag” has been the victim of creating or reinforcing perceptions without meaning to as well.

    Look forward to the continued conversation — I’ll make sure I’m doing my part in listening.

    July 24, 2012 at 2:01 pm

    • elliecm

      HA! Right-o yes… the idea is not to say stop talking, Janice. And it isn’t a personal note to you or anyone else. A few people took it that way, which is interesting and, really, just proves the need for the post even more because it is not a plea to shut up. It is, in fact, a lesson. Ideas to learn from. And the people who walked away and then whined on their blogs that they should defend themselves just proved that they, well, didn’t listen.

      This post is really, more than anything, a lesson in communication. My ideas about how Big Ag could start solving their massive communication problem. I decided to post it because I keep seeing Big Ag folks keep tripping all over themselves and bumbling up opportunities and, frankly, I wanted to help. I was inspired by Ray Prock to share some of his strategies for communication.

      His very, very effective strategies. He and Mike are the ones who roped in me and Grant. They willed us to start listening to you guys by listening empathetically to us. It was so brilliant — and honest — and I think lots of other folks could learn a thing or two.

      You know, listening is super hard. During the research phase of this project. Or I should say beginning research phase, we were emailing with this guy in Ohio for a while and my God it was ridiculous. Anything we brought up he mightly defended to within an inch of his life, tossing out research and studies (many that were ridiculously biased) and, at the end of the conversation when we were talking about labeling he actually tossed out that the best solution isn’t labeling, it is just for us who don’t want to eat GMOs to just not buy anything unless it is organic. Really? that’s your solution, I thought? How selfish are you?

      Now, I have learned a lot about labeling from others and am sorta in this position that I don’t know enough to know if there should be labeling or not. But Ohio guy didn’t get me there … some other people who actually listened and acknowledged my feelings and then started talking back and forth did.

      And that’s my point. The blustering defending doesn’t help. The guy getting on TV and saying “I have a right to eat pink slime! don’t take my rights away!” Doesn’t help. Those people just seem like insane people to the very people they are trying to win over.

      It’s like this — if you are at the airport and your plane is late, how do you react when they get all crappy at you and shoving their problems in your face? (Hello United!) Now, if someone walked up to you, with empathy, and said, you know, I am sorry things are this way and I want you to know I am doing my best so I would so appreciate your patience… what would you do? Man, you’d feel sorry for them and be on their side!

      That’s the thing. Here is a growing populace of scared people. We want to feel like the people on the other side are not just people, but people who care about us and our families. We’re operating in a “fight or flight” mode. There’s nothing rational about it. Nothing logical.

      To communicate with us, you have to meet our brains where they are. If you come back with logic, that’s your neocortex talking to the basic caveman part of my brain and so the message, no matter what it is, gets rejected as a threat. This is basic behavioral science.

      If you come out of the box all defensive, it doesn’t even matter if part of what you say is that you care about me and my family, the fight or flight part of my brain has already shut you down as a threat. To engage someone who is in this mode, you have to get past that natural defense mechanism of the basic caveman brain — and every brain works this way, even yours.

      I think y’all in Big Ag need to start paying attention to this kind of stuff. Because your messages aren’t getting through.

      Yes, Janice, I am really open to dialog and meaningful conversation. But I am really also a super plain and an undeniably aggressive communicator. I just say what is on my mind, the way it is on my mind, without a filter and without worrying if I am gonna hurt someone’s feelings.

      Thankfully, I am a pretty generous and honest soul so mostly, even when I am ripping a bandaid off, my intentions are good. Here, honestly, they were good.

      The unfortunate reality is, a lot of Big Aggers read this post, took it personally and decided to go skulk in a corner.

      In the meantime, Cargill had to recall more meat. More headlines. More battleground, for you guys, lost.

      July 24, 2012 at 5:10 pm

  7. Ellen-
    I’m not sure if you’ll believe me or not, but I really took a lot away from that- thanks for directing me to it! It goes along with what I said in my comment previously- going and “skulking” in my corner actually opened up a bit of conversation between us- I’m understanding your point of view more and more. I don’t think we’ll ever agree on a few things, and in my opinion that’s okay- everyone deserves to make their own decisions regarding food. But I think what I was getting at was this: If farmers/producers shouldn’t use facts, shouldn’t use emotional stories, shouldn’t use research, what should we use? You talk about PR firms, but many of us are acting as our own- what influences you? I can tell you what I have heard regarding customer concerns about GMO, environmental influences of ag, livestock treatment concerns. So what is the next step after listening? You seem to be well informed about these things as well- there are many who aren’t being given very good information. What should we do, as producers, to answer questions well– after we’ve listened of course.

    July 24, 2012 at 5:37 pm

    • elliecm

      No, the information out there is really bad. On all sides.

      As for moving forward. Empathy first and finding common ground is the best way to start. People listen to others who seem to understand and care about them. Once you have found some common grounds, bring up your opinions on the way things are and why you came to those conclusions. Make them your opinions and not THE RIGHT WAY. It is amazing how much conversation can happen from there.

      You know, I would turn to Ray and Mike and ask them for some tips. They are really successful in bridging big gigantic gulfs. They have a blog called Just Farmers. Mike, after all, is the guy who convinced me there is a rational reason for GMO corn!!!! WHAT!!! HOW!!!! But really, he listened to me, he found common ground, then he presented what his idea was — as his idea. He never tried to convince me of anything. And did, in the end!

      July 24, 2012 at 5:56 pm

  8. I read this post several times before responding, and l was unaware of your own PR background until I did a little more digging. (Thanks, Google!) I am a farmer and a PR agency owner, so you may have very well been writing to me, and I am listening!
    Most of the ”agvocacy” training I have done is based on helping farmers understand the science of communication… since we farmers so love our science. Interestingly enough, the science of communication says that we should not shove facts and statistics down throats – as you say – but instead build trust around common values. (You can only do that by listening and seeking those commonalities.)

    As professional communicators, we have to balance the need for our clients to succeed in their business (not apologize for profits) and listen to customer/consumer feedback to help shape – not just our messages – but our philosophies and operations. I often get frustrated when working with someone who (in and out of ag) wants to \”market, market, market\” but they don\’t have the operational aptitude to do what they say they do. The same thing goes in ag. PR is about changing opinions, attitudes and ideas inside and out, and sometimes that means changing who/what you are to meet expectations. Where we meet in the middle is where real change happens. PR is about both sending and receiving messages with a true focus on continuous improvement.

    If you are doing that, and we are doing that, I think we’ll find a real sweet spot where farmers and consumers can thrive with healthy and available food. Not only will we understand your message, we will ”feel” it, and vice versa.

    Also, I would invite you to join my family for one of your meals. We can either host you at our farm in South Charleston, Ohio or at my little agency in a small downtown setting. Your choice – boots or stilettos.

    July 24, 2012 at 7:48 pm

    • elliecm

      NO STILETTOS FOR ME! I gave mine up a few years ago and donated them to a brown elephant shop to raise money for AIDS patients. I still think what a shock it must have been for some unsuspecting person in that used clothing store to happen upon pair after pair of Manolos, Pradas, Jimmy Choos, Gucci, etc.

      We’d love to have a meal with you! We have a few scheduled already and Grant is taking a much deserved holiday here coming up. But we’ll reach out for sure!

      July 25, 2012 at 10:54 am

  9. A lot of food for thought here. Some parallels with training horses, which sounds really bad ’cause I don’t think it’s “training people” but effective communicating, which is needed with training horses. Some things to think over…head is swimming from an organic workshop & field day we just got back from…and some of those thoughts peeking in. Stuff to think about – thanks!

    July 24, 2012 at 10:25 pm

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