If you’ve read the news lately, you’ve see headlines like these, “Health ills abound as farm runoff fouls wells” and “Dairy farmers plead not guilty to animal-cruelty charges,” gracing the front covers of magazines and newspapers across the country.

You likely agree that this is not the image you want to cultivate for yourself or your industry. You would also agree that this is only a reflection of a few bad actors. But, it’s ultimately your image and your reputation at stake even though you had nothing to do with these events or actions.              

Here are four things you can do to control the reputation of your dairy.

Develop a mission statement

John Pagel, owner of Pagel’s Ponderosa in Kewaunee, Wis., believes that large dairy farms have gotten a bad reputation and he is making strides on his operation to change that reputation, beginning with his farm’s mission statement.

The mission statement at Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy reads: “It is the mission of Pagel’s Ponderosa to provide a safe wholesome dairy product that fulfills the necessary requirements for the development and maintenance of a healthy body. In addition, we will always be careful to monitor the farm’s by-products in an effort to benefit the community and provide a safer environment.”

This mission statement underlies everything the dairy does and is adhered to by everyone who works on the operation.

Therefore, when creating a mission statement, you should involve everyone in the operation — from senior management all the way down to the newest employees, says Stan Erwine, vice president of producer relations at Dairy Management, Inc., which manages the national dairy-checkoff program and the Telling Your Story dairy public relations training program. Get everyone’s input and use that input to craft a statement that outlines the goals, principles and values of your dairy.

Communicate with your neighbors

“We have an open-door policy with our neighbors, community and friends to come and tour our facility,” says Liz Doornink, co-owner and human resources manager for Jon-De Farms in Baldwin, Wis. “We pretty much never say ‘no’ to visitors. Instead, we use it as an educational opportunity.”

Over the years, Jon-De Farms has developed a number of actions and activities to spread goodwill and to become an integral part of the neighborhood and community fabric.

“We first started by going door-to-door, dropping off tulip bulbs and introducing ourselves,” says Doornink. “Sure, there were neighbors we already knew, but there were others we’d never met before.” (She explains that they dropped off tulip bulbs because they were getting ready for spring planting and she wanted her neighbors to relate to what was happening on the farm.)

Now, the dairy sends two or three letters each year to its neighbors and members of the community keeping them up-to-date with happenings on the farm. In the letters, the Doorninks include a note asking neighbors to call if they have an event or special occasion so that the dairy can rearrange manure-hauling schedules, if needed. And, when the dairy upgraded its facility to include cross-ventilated barns, the Doorninks kept their neighbors informed with letters so that the information about the facility changes was coming from them and not the local media.

“Some of the things we do cost money, but we felt, despite milk prices, that it is important. We’ve clearly seen the benefit our public-relations efforts have brought us and how we’re perceived in our community,” says Doornink.

Reach out to other local stakeholders

Keep in mind that anyone who does business with you is an ally. Team up with these people so they will help spread the farm’s message. 

“Working with local stakeholders is important,” says Matt Iager, veterinarian at Mid Maryland Dairy Veterinarians. “It’s important for not only the dairy, but also veterinary practices. We maintain strong relationships with allied management advisers, such as cooperative extension, feed companies, bankers, nutrient managers and special consultants.”

When people understand your mission, they are more likely to say positive things, according to Erwine.

When a third-party speaks positively about the dairy, it adds credibility. And, veterinarians, nutritionists and educators are considered very credible spokespeople.

Develop talking points

Finally, you should be able to articulate how you care for animals and natural resources, and that you are committed to producing safe high-quality milk. Be able to cite specific examples. Write them down if it helps you to remember your points.

For instance, if a community member comments on a recent video of alleged animal abuse, think of how you might respond and comment on your farm’s commitment to animal care and animal-handling procedures, suggests Erwine. Or, if someone happens to comment on environmental pollution or the use of antibiotics, know how you will respond. Key talking points are available from DMI and your state and regional dairy-promotion organizations.

Just like reproduction, herd health and nutrition, reputation management is an important part of your operation. Don’t look at it any differently than you would lowering your somatic cell count or improving your reproduction program, recommends Erwine. Set goals, identify someone to do the work, and then work toward achieving those goals.

Create the reputation you want for your operation. Don’t let someone else create it for you.

The rules have changed

It’s important to understand that consumers have changed. Today, only 1.8 percent of consumers are directly involved in agriculture. And, the number involved in dairy is even smaller than that. 

Consumers have more disposable income than they’ve had in the past.

And, they are more likely to spend money and place values on their pets. Humanization of pets is a $40 billion industry, notes Stan Erwine, vice president of producer relations at Dairy Management, Inc., which manages the national dairy-checkoff program and the Telling Your Story dairy public relations training program.

According to one study, 50 percent of dogs sleep with their owners, and 19 percent of these owners have bought these animals clothing. More than 250,000 people have purchased Neuticles, (testicular implants for neutered pets). And, iPhone users can now purchase an application that plays acoustical music for their pets.

On a positive note, consumers still trust farmers. They’re just not sure what we’re doing is still farming, and that is a challenge in building consumer trust, says Charlie Arnot, chief executive officer for the Center for Food Integrity. “As an industry, we’ve tended to rely on science and attacking our attackers. That’s not working. We need to build consumer trust and confidence in the food system.”

Don’t lead with science. The public responds better when we acknowledge our ethical obligation to do what’s right and provide examples of how we do this. Then back these practices up with science. Activists and opponents use as much science as we do, notes Erwine. The public doesn’t care if there’s scientific evidence behind what you do, until they know more about you. They simply want to know that you care about the animals.