The following commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of AgWeb or Farm Journal. The opinions expressed below are the author's own.
Before I started at Farm Journal almost two years ago I spent nearly 15 years at an advertising agency. I did a lot of different things, but most of what I did involved helping agriculture companies do a better job of communicating to current and prospective customers. A majority of that work was in public relations, but I also managed several crisis communications events. No, it wasn’t anything like Mad Men.
My team encouraged clients to focus on two critically important strategies: being proactive and being transparent. There are many other strategies that go into effective communications, but those two are probably the most important. If communications are not proactive and transparent, messages from competitors and adversaries will block any otherwise positive messages.
We counseled a lot of companies. It’s obvious there are still many companies within the dairy industry that could have used our advice.
As industries go, the dairy industry is a relatively small community. Small towns and rural communities are still the backbone of this business. Neighbors talk to neighbors. While that thread of communication weaves the fabric that strengthens rural America, it’s also a great conduit for gossip and innuendo.
What's worse is, in this day and age, the talk that was once confined to the local coffee shop now spreads through social media where it's picked up as gospel by a much larger audience. Social media doesn't fact check to make sure the story is right - it's just out there for everyone to read and believe.
If you don’t think this is true, let me share with you an example that just happened today. Our editorial team has been following the conversation around supply management. Nothing has happened on the national level, but we’ve heard about cooperatives implementing different supply management programs to limit over production and save some of their capacity. We’ve even heard of some cooperatives implementing quota systems similar to what goes on in Canada.
Like any good editorial team we reached out to different cooperatives for comment. Here was the perfect opportunity for them to be proactive and transparent, to get out in front of the rumors and set the record straight.
What did we get? We got the response most often heard in the old days of public relations when the best practice was to keep everything closed up: No Comment.
When I was working at the agency I helped a company through a significant product issue that had the potential to cause concern among a wide consumer audience. Through our counsel the company decided to take the situation head on. We met with every customer face to face, explained the situation and offered our assistance to help alleviate the situation. Customers were angry that they had to go through this process, but were thankful that our client took control of the situation. We were proactive and transparent.
Had the cooperatives been proactive and transparent with communications, there would have been an opportunity to get in front of rumor and innuendo. Maybe even an opportunity to guide conversation and grow understanding. Instead small talk and rumors continue on, unabated.
Unfortunately this isn’t limited to just cooperatives, or just the dairy industry, or just agriculture. It’s endemic across all industries. We’ve made progress, but there is still a lot of work to be done.
Maybe companies could follow the lead of their patrons and customers? Dairy producers are infinitely more open and transparent than they were even 10 years ago. Scores of dairies open their doors for tours, are active on social media and engage with consumers in a proactive, transparent way. Some even have hired public relations agencies to help in their outreach efforts.
And I do have to admit that there is a long list of companies that do a great job of communicating the what’s and how’s of their business in an effective, engaging way. And they do so in a way that doesn’t give up trade secrets or proprietary information. Ask them and they will tell you that being transparent benefits their business and their industry. They would tell you that transparency leads to trust, and that brings loyalty and a deeper customer relationship. I only wish that there were more companies like that.
What do you think? Could companies be more transparent, within and outside of the dairy industry? Do you have an example you would like to share? Drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org