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.