Making the case for food industry means stepping into the audience’s shoes

October 1, 2015

Remember the “good old days” when the public’s only concerns about food were whether it was good for you, tasted great and how much it cost?

Those simpler times are long gone.

Wenatchee TourProduce growers and processors are convinced that they still provide safe, nutritious and economical products that are good for their customers and for the world they live in. Yet that message is too often getting lost in the barrage of anti-biotech, anti-food company and anti-“big farm” sentiments, along with the genuine concerns people have about what they eat.

“There’s confusion among consumers because they see so many messages and they don’t know what to make of all of them,” said Mark Gale, CEO of Charleston Orwig, a public relations firm that focuses on food and agriculture issues.

Cutting through that clutter requires an understanding of the current environment (including audiences and issues) and a mastery of the basics of communication, both person-to-person and online. This is particularly true when dealing with negative messages. Right now, the king of controversy is the use of genetically modified organisms but other issues are on the conversational menu, including pesticide residue, locally grown and what “processing” means. 

The communication landscape has been turned inside out, with new social media platforms opening up new audiences. Catch phrases and approaches that may have worked in the past don’t have as much carry today.

“It’s about communication arts – learning to tell your story, learning the words to use and the words to lose,” said Heidi Nelson, principal and founder of Harvest PR & Marketing, which works with food, farming and lifestyle brands and organizations.

Listen first. Before industry ambassadors can make a connection, they need to be aware of the concerns and comments of consumers, including the vocal opposition. Monitor the conversations that are already taking place, both in social media, news media and in person. Study consumer opinion data from organizations such as Hartman Group and Nielsen Perishables to get an overall perspective.

In tandem, industry ambassadors should have a thorough knowledge of the most important issues and where they stand on these issues.

“If you understand their questions, you can better craft your story,” Nelson said.

Be the first to engage. This applies even to engaging with organized opposition. Nelson said Harvest worked with a Pacific Northwest commercial egg producer to get ahead of the animal welfare issue and impending ballot measures that could impact its social license to operate.

“On their own, they started to enter this new era of transparency and preemptively started a dialogue with their local legislators. Next, they brought us in to preemptively open their barn doors whenever they could with media, to show their progressive hen welfare practices. There was nothing to be ashamed of and everything to be proud of. It is a new way of thinking about how to explain yourself to others,” Nelson said.

Forming relationships with influencers paid off when questions were raised by activists about the company and its practices. With the relationship built through dialogue and understanding, these informed influencers are more likely to vouch for the company in the event of a controversy.

“When there’s so much at stake and when legislation is looming, it’s much better to engage early and participate in the conversation than to shut down and wait for public momentum to cause unfavorable change to an operation,” Nelson said.

Find areas of agreement. The valuable terrain known as “common ground” may seem imaginary in an era where divisiveness seems to take up the entire landscape. But it may be more possible than you might think.

“You’re not going to convince a Steelers fan to be a Packers fan. So start by acknowledging that you both like football,” Gale said.

Areas of common ground include a passion for fruits and vegetables and agreement that each party is operating from a position of good will and desire to do what’s best for people.

“Seek common ground and then give credit that the other person’s point of view is valid, that the other person isn’t stupid. They just might have different information than you do. From there, perhaps you can begin to have a conversation,” Gale said.

Turn the conversation into a story. Segments of the audience enjoy the cut and thrust of a debate, or even a yelling contest. Others like to be presented with an array of facts.

“But most people don’t want to be educated,” Gale said. The alternative is to rely on a genre that has been around as long as humans have walked the earth: storytelling. All stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. Advocates for ag and food need to know how to describe where they are now, which is the middle.

“We have a great history but we’re moving forward and here’s how we’re going to get there,” is Nelson’s framework for the story. “As we tell the story of agriculture we need to emphasize our forward motion in conventional farming practices, what we’re doing to be better. We need to cite past improvements and talk about future goals.”

The old standby phrases don’t work anymore. The U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) has been conducting message testing using the same methods used by politicians and released a report in 2011 on their findings.

“A lot of the language and the words we use in agriculture are contributing to the problem,” Nelson said. “When we say that in the U.S., we produce the world’s safest, most abundant and affordable food supply, it’s a staple but no longer useful.”

The USFRA report cites a credibility gap between what is said and what is heard. “Our methods are proven safe” is heard as “your methods might not be safe in the long run.” “We keep food affordable” is heard as “at what expense to quality?” “Most farms are family-run” is heard as “family-run, but beholden to big processors and profits.”

“GMO” is an example of a word that can cause alarm, Nelson said. Instead, the research suggests the industry use words that sound more natural, for example, “cross-bred seeds that grow stronger plants and produce better-tasting food.”

“Get away from those lightning rod terms and explain the benefit of it and the why of it. This is not always going to work, but there needs to be a point where you can actually connect with people,” Nelson said.

Make an appeal to self-interest. The average consumer doesn’t much care about the benefit a technology or practice confers to a company or farm. Consumers want to know what’s in it for them. 

“Say ‘here’s some really interesting technology and here’s how we could use it to do some important things that will be a benefit to the consumer.’ Consumers care about what’s good for them and for their families,” Gale said.

Make your conversation a dialogue, not a debate. Winning a debate means getting mountains of evidence together and using it to support a proposition. Dialogue is about understanding why the audience feels the way it does and then speaking to its point of view, which is often motivated by fear and emotion, not logic.

One technique to consider while in such a dialogue is to pause and reflect, but to do so with a certain objective in mind.

“Think about why this person has their point of view, rather than pausing to think about your next counter-argument to prove that they’re wrong. They’re probably not going to want to hear that any more than you would,” Gale said. “That doesn’t mean you’re caving in and agreeing with them. It means you might be acknowledging that they’re deeply concerned about this.”

Then probe: what are the nuances of their fears? What points of information do they have that might be in error? Is there a way to reasonably discuss the issue and provide them some different information?

The bottom line: basic communication skills are required to bridge the gap between the tiny percentage of people who grow and process food — perhaps 2 percent of the population — and the masses of consumers.

“No wonder there’s confusion. We don’t speak the same language,” Nelson said.

“So we have to learn to speak their language and learn to distill the science into stories that emotionally connect. Language can divide us. But it can also unite.”

— Lee Dean, editorial director

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