Has it ever occurred to you just how important your story is to the public?

The average American now thinks about topics such as animal care, foot-and-mouth disease, bovine somatotropin and even your environmental practices. Suddenly, consumers are taking a second look at how their foods are produced.

The consumer and the marketplace are changing. Dairy producers are not only accountable to their customers and employees, but a whole new range of audiences, including the media.

Silence is not golden
When you decide whether or not to tackle the avalanche of questions poised by the media, keep in mind that the questions will be answered. According to a survey by Opinion Research Corporation, 58 percent of the public believes an industry is guilty when its employees say “no comment.” Needless to say, silence is not golden.

More important, if you don’t answer the questions, someone else will. Just envision how many activist groups would love the chance to speak out against your industry. When you don’t answer, you basically say, “Our competitors and opponents will speak for us.”

Give accurate information
Smart business people know that answering the public’s questions is more than just a nice thing to do. It is essential for growth.

With funding from your dairy checkoff program, Ihave been conducting communication workshops for dairy producers nationwide.                          

Here are a few techniques presented in the workshops that you can use to answer questions from a position of strength.

1. Speak with one voice. You earn trust by being consistent. Mixed messages or lack of coordination within an industry creates confusion, and an impression of ineptness. Industries that are aligned in their messages are two to three times more likely to survive than those that are not.

2. Tell your story. Brag about your farm the way you brag about your grandchildren. In fact, national surveys show that consumers feel “dairy farmers are the backbone of society,” second only to firefighters. Consumers also prefer to hear directly from dairy producers, not government, academia or state veterinarians. Remember, a faceless industry is a perfect target.

3. Show while you tell. Why do special interest groups weave images into every message? Television has conditioned an entire generation of Americans who listen, learn and remember only if the message is both sound and pictures. People remember 20 percent of what they hear, but 50 percent of what they see. When visuals are used, people are 43 percent more likely to be persuaded.

4. Greet ignorance with education, not anger.  Negative questions are often based on a lack of knowledge. Instead of getting frustrated at others’ ignorance, it’s your job to turn “industry-ese” into simple messages the public can understand. Ignorance breeds suspicion and fear. Knowledge brings trust and favor.

5. Be a thermostat, not a thermometer. You must control the temperature. The minute you get angry, you lose. Practice the “Law of Inverse Proportions.” The hotter the other person gets, the cooler you get. The faster the other person speaks, the slower you speak. The louder the other person speaks, the softer you speak. Composure under fire speaks louder than words. 

6. Don’t poison your own well.  If a question contains negative language, never repeat the loaded words. Instead, use positive or neutral terms. Just consider if former President Nixon had said, “Nothing is more important to me than honesty,” instead of his immortal words, “I am not a crook.”

I urge you to step up to the microphone and in front of the cameras because if you don’t, someone one else will. No one can tell your story better than you can. 

Now go out there and do it. The public is waiting.

Joan Horbiak, president of the Health & Nutrition Network, is a top media communications advisor as well as an established speaker, trainer and writer.

Attend a communications workshop

The dairy checkoff, in conjunction with Joan Horbiak, is conducting dairy producer communications workshops throughout 2003. If you are interested in participating, contact David Pelzer at (847) 627-3233 or by e-mail at davidp@rosedmi.com