Communication Goals are Elusive

By Will Verboven, Contributing Editor

As a longtime observer of communication within the agriculture industry, it would seem this is an activity that has its trials and tribulations. It’s an endeavor that is costly and forever changing, especially when it’s not the primary focus of the organization. There was a time when even large livestock organizations had little need for more than a single staff person responsible for communication. Connecting with members was usually done through mailed newsletters or industry trade publications. The needs of members today haven’t changed all that much, but the medium used and the outside audience is new.

It was once stated that it doesn’t matter how much saturation communication you apply, the real problem is getting the membership to actually read what they are being sent. I recall the efforts of the Canadian National Cattle Identification program to advise cattle producers that new legislation required every bovine to be identified with mandatory ear tags. Millions were spent on media of every kind, endless informational meetings were held across the country, and organization staff and government bureaucrats spent years trying to get the message to producers. Yet well after the deadline, thousands of cattle continued to arrive at markets with no official ID tags.

Amazingly, cattle owners were angry that they were not informed about the program. I would suggest that, to this day, cattle organization communication staff and the committees and boards that direct them continue to struggle with how to get their members to read what they are being sent. Ironically, as hard as they try, those same folks are often criticized for spending too much on trying to communicate with members. The reality is most producer groups are not in the communications business – unfortunately many anti-meat and anti-agriculture lobbying groups are.

Whenever some real or invented cattle industry issue appears in the mainstream media, there is usually a knee-jerk reaction by producers to fight back and set the record straight. The communication staff of industry organizations make valiant efforts to get the facts out to the media, but the effort is usually futile and too late.

It was a difficult situation years ago but it is even worse today with the deep reach of social media technology. Many agricultural organizations have expanded their communication outreach with more social media savvy staff who can engage with some of the more egregious anti-livestock fake news. They can also create a positive and enlightening image of livestock and meat on the social media stage. But the onslaught from anti-industry groups and some mainstream media to disparage cattle and beef is relentless, mainly because that is a core business. We are kidding ourselves if we think the agriculture business can ever react to the millions anti-agriculture groups spend. Greenpeace, WWF, Sierra Club and their ilk have budgets in the hundreds of millions – most of it earmarked for communication and propaganda.

Perhaps the livestock industry needs to look toward national communication consolidation to better advocate and respond to nationwide issues that impact the livestock business. I expect the response will be that we already have myriad national livestock, industry and marketing organizations in place that defend and advocate for livestock issues. Each, I am sure, has dedicated communication staff working hard on various fronts, but the industry’s overall ability to respond effectively against our foes is still fragmented.

When a beef issue hits the national headlines, the pork and chicken industries tend to go into hiding, hoping not to get hit by any crossfire. Compare that to anti-ag groups – they look at any livestock or meat issue as a PR opportunity and then find ways to pile on. Sure, they do so for their own self-interest, that being fund raising, but the negative effect on the livestock industry is compounded.

How about this approach – green and anti-ag lobbying groups in North America at times coordinate their campaigns by creating dummy advocacy entities. They use names like Physicians for Better Health, Defend the Wildlife, etc. Sure, such groups are notorious for creating fake news, but that’s not what is being suggested. From a PR perspective, it’s this type of creative communication approach that should be examined. I understand the conservative nature of the ag industry and its principles of truth and honesty on issues, but there are times in communication when you need to fight fire with fire. That includes preventing the fire in the first place.

Industry foes are good at what they do in disparaging livestock and meat; maybe we should encourage our own national organizations to use some of their opponents’ PR methods to their advantage. Just food for thought.