What will you say when the media call your farm?

“Would any crisis be a crisis if not for media coverage?”

Public relations professional Norman Birnbach posed that question recently while discussing recent crises like the BP oil spill and p.r. efforts in their wake.

Agriculture has had its own set of p.r. problems recently: witness the massive egg recall, and the Mercy for Animals’ videos filmed undercover on two Ohio farms.

Individual farms are not immune. You might overapply manure and trigger a fish kill. Your cow or horse could get out and cause a fatal crash on a road. There might be a tragic accident involving a visitor to your farm. Or someone gets sick after eating produce from your farm market.

So what do you do when I call?

First, talk to me. If only one side of a situation is talking, only one side can be reported. Refusing to talk to the media does not mean the story will not be reported. It simply means that your side of the story won’t be told.

Big mistake.

“I don’t think ‘no comment’ is ever an acceptable response,” says Melanie Wilt, owner of Wilt Public Relations in Springfield, Ohio. And she’s no stranger to the farm, either, as a farm wife and former communications director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture.

“There’s always a way of saying something without getting yourself in trouble.”

Second, don’t stall. You don’t have a day, you have maybe an hour. In today’s instant online news world, the story’s going to get out quickly.

Before Mercy for Animals even released the footage filmed at Conklin Dairy Farms, the Internet was abuzz with the one-sided news. Hours after the release, there were Facebook groups and pages created to express outrage.

I recognize you can’t talk until you know the details, but you at least need to make a statement that you’re trying to figure out exactly what happened and will talk more at that time. Check your facts, talk to all relevant parties, and then respond quickly. (But don’t use this excuse as a stonewalling ploy.)

Third, when something bad has happened, acknowledge it. All of it. Tell the truth. Including the parts you’d rather not talk about.

In other words, ‘fess up and take responsibility. People can respect someone who admits he made a mistake, or there’s been a problem, and has taken XYZ steps to make sure it won’t happen again.

Fourth, be ready to talk to us again. This may be an ongoing situation that will require you to talk to the media more than once. If your farm has a website, consider posting brief statements online and update them regularly. Facts trump rumors. (Read more media handling tips.)

Ask questions

Wilt reminds farmers to ask their own questions during interviews to get a better idea of the reporter’s perspective: Where are you getting your information? Who else are you interviewing? Who have you already talked to for this story?

“The interviewee can actually be in control of the interview,” Wilt said. “You don’t have to let reporters push you around.”

Create a plan

Perhaps the most important thing you can do this winter on your farm is create a public relations plan, she adds.

Take an hour and write down three things you want people to know about you or your farm (“There have been four generations on this farm since 1902.” or “We truly care about our animals.”).

Identify who will represent you or your farm to the media, and write down all contact information for that individual.

“Then, get that person some training,” Wilt said. She recommends checking with commodity groups, Farm Bureau, or trade associations to see what they offer.

Brainstorm five to 10 scenarios that could happen on your farm (like the fish kill we mentioned earlier, or foodborne illness from food purchased from your farm). Then write down how you would respond. And not just words, Wilt says, but actions.

(This may also uncover some vulnerabilities on your farm that you can fix now to prevent such a scenario.)

When you’re done, you’ll have at least a two-page public relations plan in place.

“When you’re busy, it seems like it’s something you can put on the backburner forever,” Wilt said, “but the minute a crisis happens, you’ll be sorry you didn’t.”

For most farmers, talking to the media is akin to a tax audit: You hope it will never happen, but you have to be prepared in case it does.

What will you say when the media call?

About the Author

Farm and Dairy Editor Susan Crowell has been with the paper since 1985, serving as its editor since 1989. Raised on a farm in Holmes County, she is a graduate of Kent State University.You can follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/scrowell and follow Farm and Dairy at http://twitter.com/farmanddairy. You can also find her on Google+ and Facebook. More Stories by Susan Crowell

2 Comments

  1. Great article — too many people think they can avoid crises or the media’s questions if a crisis occurs.

    Based on our experience with family farms and ranches as well as family businesses in general, we’ve seen that the sons and daughters and grandchildren take criticism or potential crisis much more personally than people running a business that has not been in the family for generations. And because they are more personally identified with the business, they may respond more emotionally than is warranted. That’s where identifying possible scenarios and developing a plan to address those potential scenarios — such as a salmonella outbreak connected to your farm — can help. The plan can keep people focused on what they need to do. Here’s a link from my blog on lessons from recent crises: http://bit.ly/cMVZIt.

  2. K9Psych says:

    Ms. Crowell,

    How do you expect readers to take your comments seriously, when you begin an article suggesting that the BP oil spill is no big deal and is ONLY an issue because the media covered it? Why don’t you go tell that to the fishermen whose livelihoods are lost? Why don’t you go tell that to the countless non-human animals suffering and dying due to BP’s neglect? Get real!

    AGBIZ and all of Ms. Crowell’s farming buddies SHOULD be under CONSTANT PUBLIC SCRUTINY, unless, of course, Ms. Crowell doesn’t care what we put into our bodies. Watch Food, Inc., and inform yourselves, before you 4 y/o dies of ecoli poisoning, and you discover that AgBiz beat the media to the punch and prevented you (through legislation) from recovering any losses. You canNOT sue the farmer who is responsible for causing your child’s death. You cannot even touch the corporate interests above that farmer who bear ultimate responsibility.

    Ms. Crowell wants you to think farming is still the same as it was in 1950. Corporations control politics. Now, they can even LEGALLY pay off politicians. Under those conditions, under the conditions where GIGANTIC CORPORATIONS can LEGALLY HIDE their farming practices from the public eye, would we want to shun media attention to the enterprise that puts food in our mouths?

    Ms. Crowell is right . . . if you really have nothing to hide, talk to the media. Help them understand the dynamics of MODERN FARMING, and lead them to the MANY examples around you who do have PLENTY to hide. Send them to places like Conklin, where the truth can be revealed, and perhaps the suffering of some animals can be prevented or stopped.

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