Dan Murphy: Avoiding the Obvious

The US Department of Agriculture projects exports of US agricultural goods in FY 2018 will reach $139.5 Billion; Imports at $118.5 Billion
( MGN/Pixnio )

I’ve spent a fair amount of my career in what could be broadly defined as public relations.

Whether it’s in a marketing context, from a news media perspective or an initiative tied directly to advertising, the goal of PR is straightforward: Provide a compelling message that will influence the way a target audience thinks and feels about a pertinent issue.

Without lapsing into a tutorial here, let me briefly unpack a couple points in that definition.

The goal is to affect both how people think about an issue AND how they feel about it. Both are critical, and each requires different tactics. Thinking involves absorbing information — data, statistics and logical inferences. Feeling, however, involves emotional triggers, best accessed by offering brief but powerful talking points and/or visual imagery.

Second, PR needs to be aimed at specific audiences. To paraphrase Abe Lincoln, you can’t influence all the people all the time. Effective public relations targets identified groups with messaging tailored to their specific concerns.

All that said, there’s one constant that applies universally: As is true with news reporting, you don’t “bury the lead,” ie, you don’t make your audience wade through an entire press release or most of a video clip before making your key point.

With all due respect to the fine work typically done by the National Wheat Growers Association, their recent release is Exhibit A in how not to deliver effective messaging.

Tackling the Tariff Wars

In a news release titled, “USDA Aid Package Fails to Consider All Commodities,” NAWG outlined the highlights of USDA’s $12 billion aid package to farmers hurt by retaliation from the imposition of U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods.

But its audience needed to scroll through a fair amount of detail before the release addressed the elephant in the room, beginning with quotes from its leadership.

“USDA Secretary Perdue stated that the federal aid package for farmers being harmed by our current trade war with China won’t seem like it’s equitable,” wheat farmer Jimmie Musick, NAWG president, said in the statement.

He went on to explain that while his association “appreciates the administration’s steps to hold China accountable for unfair trade practices,” the tariffs and the “subsequent self-inflicted need to provide aid aren’t the answer.”

Musick was reflecting the reality that nearly half of all wheat harvested in the U.S. ends up exported to various trading partners. In Washington State, the No. 3 wheat-producing state after Kansas and North Dakota, that percentage is even higher: as much as 90% of the state’s more than $700 million annual crop is exported.

Meanwhile, China hasn’t purchased any wheat from the U.S. since March, and as a result, NAWG estimated that the price of wheat could drop by 75¢ a bushel.

The Economic Analysis

The fallout from the trade wars goes beyond the impact on wheat farmers, of course. Here’s an analysis of the larger farm sector, done by ag economists from the Ohio State University Department of Agricultural, Environmental and Development Economics; and the University of Illinois Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics:

  • Soybeans have experienced the largest decline in crop value between May 2018 and August 2018; corn has experienced the second-largest decline.
  • In 2019, it is likely that soybean acreage will be shifted to other commodity crops also affected by retaliatory tariffs, putting downward pressure on their prices.
  • As the tariff conflict lengthens, the chances that it causes U.S. crop exports to decline will increase.

None of that is good news for agriculture. But consider the economists’ final conclusion:

This [farm] assistance is one-time. Assuming this is correct, long-term economic loss from the tariff conflict will be addressed through U.S. commodity programs. Crop insurance is unlikely to provide much assistance because its prices are reset each year. In deliberations over the new farm bill [the questions] are, “Will Congress feel the need to adjust commodity programs in light of the on-going tariff conflict? If so, where does the money come from?”

Let me weigh on those questions: No on the first question, making the second one moot.

To summarize the economists, the trade war is bad — period.

But it took until the very last sentence of NAWG’s 313-word press release to get to that point: “The long-term solution is to end the trade war.”

That’s the opening, not the ending.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.