I have worked in agricultural communications for most of my professional career – well over 35 years. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that we still have a lot to learn when it comes to communicating with the public about modern production agriculture, and where our food comes from.
In those 35 years, I’ve gained a lot of experience as an agricultural journalist, an industry communications specialist for agricultural organizations, and a communications trainer for farmers, veterinarians, food safety experts, dietitians and communicators, among others.
On the positive side, agriculture has a wealth of wonderful people who are committed to telling agriculture’s story. A major reason I gravitated toward agriculture as a profession is that, by and large, farmers (and those who work for them) are hard-working, dedicated and sincere in their love of the land and the food that comes from it. Today’s farmers are a marvel, as they must be skilled not just at farming the land, but also in science, engineering, accounting, computer technology and overall business management. Yet, in today’s world, farmers and other agriculturalists need additional critical skills– effective communications and public relations.
Here’s the rub. Most people today have never been on a farm, and don’t fully understand or appreciate what it takes to have a safe, affordable food supply. Because they don’t personally know a farmer, they don’t have a foundation of trust to rely on when they hear conflicting information about whether today’s food supply is safe and healthy for their families, or whether it is socially responsible for the planet. Without that foundation of trust, people do not necessarily believe the supporting scientific evidence agriculturalists bring forth to attempt to “prove” that farmers and others are doing things right.
A fundamental approach in our communications training is that, in order to communicate successfully with people outside of agriculture, we must start by establishing common ground based on shared values.
Years ago, I accompanied a group of people in an Illinois agricultural leadership program to the office of Harold Washington, the first African-American mayor of Chicago. I went into the meeting thinking it would be a real struggle for the mayor to connect with these folks in any more than a superficial way. Harold Washington was the head of a major U.S. city, and the agriculturalists were all from rural parts of Illinois. The mayor started by relating how his visits to his grandparents’ farm gave him a love of the land and the soil; he also talked about his experiences working as a teenager in a Chicago meatpacking plant. Mayor Washington connected with this group on an emotional level by establishing a common bond. The resulting discussion was both entertaining and informative. Issues such as the urban-rural challenge of getting enough safe and nutritious food to hungry people in the cities remained unresolved, but the group was able to discuss this from a framework of shared values.
This is what we must do in order to re-establish trust in our food system, and to show that farmers and others in agriculture are socially responsible. We must first seek to understand, in order to be understood.
While that may sound like a lofty goal, it’s not that hard to get started. Step One is understanding why traditional ways of communicating with consumers about agriculture (“just educate them”) are no longer effective, and why we need to communicate in a new way. With that as a foundation, we can build a new way of communicating that not only will improve public understanding and appreciation of today’s agriculture, but also help us in communicating with our employees, colleagues and family members. These principles, practiced daily, can form help provide immediate, more effective results. This will have an impact on your interpersonal communications, community relations, media relations and social media presence.
This work involves building a values-based “core story” that will help you in relating one-on-one with non-agricultural audiences, conducting media interviews, and building your “brand” on social media. It can also entail preparing yourself for communicating effectively in responding to difficult questions, and in crisis situations. We will deal with these topics in subsequent posts.