“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.
“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.)
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?