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What producers need to know about the media

Charlie Powell Published on 01 August 2011
Farmer on camera

Cattle producers are a proud bunch with a history woven into the fabric of the U.S. They’ve battled weather, markets, feed shortages, pests and disease, generally coming out on top.

But there’s a new threat and it’s not one cattlemen understand well or normally choose to deal with very effectively – it’s called the media.

Most cattlemen don’t know what media are today. They’re certainly aware of TV, radio, newspapers and the Internet.

But today’s media encompass several hundred online and mobile services that move unfiltered information at the speed of light with no checks or balances in place and no expiration date.

Some scoff and say, “I never look at that stuff and I think not many folks pay attention to it either.” That’s fundamentally a flawed assessment. In fact, electronic, citizen-generated media have a profound impact on products, especially if that product is food.

Traditional media have grown and fragmented, and some have closed, with the advent of the Internet and mobile devices.

There is simply too much ground to cover and it is too expensive for most traditional media to have the reporters, editors, producers and staff previously used to cover their marketplace.

The risk to cattlemen is how today’s traditional media regularly ask citizens to send in photos, video, or add their comments on stories.

With fewer in-house resources, media outlets today often take their leads from “social media,” with less respect than ever to principles of integrity.

This makes industries remarkably vulnerable to opponents of animal agriculture who create their own media.

Here’s a recent example. A veterinarian was called by the local sheriff and asked to accompany him to a residence to perform a welfare check on some horses.

The sheriff had received a complaint from a concerned citizen. On arrival, they found two several-days-dead horses and two more that were what lay people call “skin and bone.”

The vet issued a Body Condition Score of 1 to the sheriff, said they needed to be fed, and went on with life. A few hours later, a TV station called the vet wanting an interview.

Long story short, TV was tipped off to look at a blog where there were photos of the horses, strong condemnation of the veterinarian, and even criticism of his mother, also a veterinarian.

The number of people reading that blog numbered in the thousands – simply too big to ignore for TV in that market.

This has since ignited a firestorm of complaints to the body that licenses veterinarians, calls to boycott the vet’s practice, and blog comments as vile and threatening as one can imagine – all for doing the right thing.

The bottom line is, if anything attracts enough attention in any of this vast space we call social media, traditional media cannot afford not to cover it.

Please don’t make the mistake of labeling blogs, Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook as trivial kid stuff that can’t impact the animal industries, because they can.

Facebook has more than 500 million users. YouTube attracts two billion views a day and has 24 hours of video uploaded every minute.

Twitter, a service that limits messaging to 140 characters, has more than 110 million users and moves more than 55 million messages a day; 37 percent of which originate in phones, not computers.

And what about blogs, those electronic journals open to the world on the Internet? There are about 1.3 million of those out there. More than 12,000 of them are devoted to food – your product. Do you know what they are saying?

Certainly, breed associations, producer groups, and state and federal legislative advocacy groups affiliated with beef production are keeping up – as best they can. But the sphere of media is expanding so fast it is hard and costly to keep up.

Shifting gears for a moment, let’s discuss information. Misinformation is information that is not complete or accurate, but the intent was there to be so.

Alternatively, there’s disinformation, or information that is intentionally false, inaccurate, incomplete or misleading information created to shift people’s beliefs and behaviors away from correct information.

Both misinformation and, more importantly, disinformation can have the same effect on consumer behavior. Some can be positively motivating.

Our concern in the animal industries is with the negative impacts of misinformation or disinformation. Because beef is a product people eat and feed to their children, the effects are magnified.

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Recall in 2003, when the U.S. had its first BSE case, there was no social media and the Internet didn’t have near the reach or influence it does now.

Still, the first traditional news broadcasts on that day speculated that there was some profound risk to people who eat meat, even meat from animals that can’t contract a spongiform encephalopathy, such as poultry. Sales plummeted initially but recovered quickly when no one was getting sick and prices dropped.

At the same time, a former slaughter plant worker started seeking out media himself. His message was alarmist, telling any who would listen that he remembered the one cow in question, it wasn’t a downer, and implied there were many more that probably had BSE that he saw every day. He stated the beef supply was contaminated.

Despite the lack of evidence to support his claims and the fact we’ve had no problems since, one can still find his name and message all over the Web and his video on YouTube.

In today’s world, that message would get far more play in spooking the consumer. What Baby Boomers once saw as a one-in-a-million occurrence of death or disease is now seen and heard by millions instantaneously until it is no longer saleable information, and still it will persist.

Of course people will perceive a greater risk and some will react accordingly, despite the odds.

So here’s my best advice to the animal industries and affiliated groups:

1. Get in the game. At some level there must be a significant presence and constant monitoring of what is said about the industries and their products.

One does not need to issue a running commentary on each activity in your life; I don’t. I do however monitor a lot of media in all forms on behalf of veterinary medicine and rarely am I surprised by something I haven’t seen long before it becomes a crisis.

2. There is no incommunicado. In today’s world if you are in the animal industries, you or your designate must be reachable 24/7. Quite simply, information that could negatively impact your enterprise can occur at any moment. The more you know, the better you are prepared.

3. Realize the public does not know how its food is produced. We all know this and agree they should know more.

But experience has shown they don’t really want to know much more until a crisis occurs. This does not mean we should stop our continuous education and marketing.

When a crisis does occur, people will draw upon their collective experience to seek an explanation. If we in the industries have done enough, they will bank on that information – not the rantings of people who oppose animal industry.

4. Know the players. With whom in the community have you talked with on such matters as reportable disease, hold orders, quarantines or depopulations?

Consider that at least initially, law enforcement will enforce boundaries and traffic flow. If you’re a veterinarian, does your biggest producer know how you must by law respond if you diagnose a reportable disease? Now is the time to have those discussions.

5. Know the opposition. Certain people and groups out there despise the animal industries. Swallow hard and learn more about them and their activities.

Who are they? What are they saying? What has their level of activity been in your state or region? Are they actively seeking signatures in states that have the initiative process to saddle you with a burden like California’s Prop 2? Unless you know the plays they will run, you can’t expect to prevail.

6. To critics, tradition means nothing. How beef was and is produced, and how many generations you’ve been in business, are irrelevant to anti-industry activists.

They care about upsetting the uninformed consumer and disrupting your business. Similarly, how you have traditionally conducted business must change.

Don’t let a challenge that you can affect positively be your tipping point. Be prepared to speak on behalf of your industry by seeking training and opportunities through industry partners.

7. Condemn the poor producers among us. You know that for every 20 rock-solid folks in the business, there is a bum that needs to move on.

They’ve never run a sound operation and they are an embarrassment to the industry. This is not to say a person can’t have a couple of bad years and things might get a little shabby.

It is, however, unacceptable to blatantly disregard the forces unseemly media provide that can drag the industry down.

8. Accept media in all its forms. I didn’t say you had to like it. But don’t pretend it doesn’t exist and you can’t be affected by it or that you can’t have influence.

You just have to step up. When one of you speaks up for the industry, 10 of you must be willing to support the rational message.

So for example, let’s say fuel jumps up again. You’ve got a couple thousand head in a feedlot considered large in the county.

Invite media out to discuss the impact to your operation. Rangeland grazing allotments in the news and you’re a cow-calf producer that stewards and uses public land?

Then step up and show the world what really goes on by calling media yourself or building your own “media” in a blog or Facebook page for your ranch. Take a look; others have done so.

9. To the unknowing public, a dairyman is a cattleman … and a poultry producer. When the public makes no distinction and calls everyone “farmer,” there’s little value in infighting among the various industry sectors.

Critics want cattlemen to dislike dairy producers and vice versa. The more divided you are, the more vulnerable you are to disruption.

If the price of feed corn goes up, both the feeder and the poultry producer feel the effect. Shouldn’t we then mutually support the entire industry and not just our sector?

10. Most Americans love your products. Repeatable surveys show that more than 90 percent of people eat and otherwise use products from animal agriculture.

The critics are a small minority with a major ability to influence unwanted or unnecessary change among an unknowing public.

Most importantly, they can only do that in the absence of any other information. Each of you have an opportunity to influence that power.  end_mark

PHOTOS:

TOP: Today’s producers need to be media savvy and be accustomed to interviews where they can explain their product.
BOTTOM: U.S. Meat Export Federation CEO Philip Seng holds interviews with the media at the 2011 NCBA Trade Show. By proactively knowing how commodities are produced and sold, allied industries stay at the forefront of media reports about beef.  Photos by David Cooper.

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Charlie Powell

Public Information Officer
College of Veterinary
Medicine Washington State University

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