Six Steps to Build A Better Activist Defense Team

Animal rights activists have constantly threatened animal agriculture over the years with 2019 being a prime example. Undercover video footage shot at Fair Oaks Farms took the media by storm this past summer and shook the dairy industry to its core. 

For some producers, seeing a well-known operation attacked by undercover activists was a wide awakening. For others, however, it was simply brushed off because it would “never happen on their farm.”

According to Dr. Marissa Hake, Staff Veterinarian for Midwest Veal LLC. and Straus Veal Feeds, there is no excuse for any farmer to not be concerned about a potential animal activist attack.

“I often ask farmers if they are genuinely concerned about activists visiting their farm and many of them aren’t,” Hake said in a recent Dairy Girl Network webinar titled Building Your Team for Activist Defense. “Most of them said it was because of their location and that they were too far away for activists to find them, but I just don’t see that as an excuse.”

During the wake of the Fair Oaks animal abuse videos, Hake’s team at Midwest Veal LLC. also had an undercover animal activist film footage of their operation. During the webinar, Hake took time to share with the group what she had learned throughout her experience. 

“You definitely should be worried about [animal activists] because anything can be taken out of context in a video or picture,” Hake says. “We’re obligated as farmers to show transparency; our consumers are demanding it from us. By showing some of this transparency on social media, we can build connections with the consumer and we can also listen to their concerns.”

According to a 2018 Forbes article titled Five Reason Social Media Is A Powerful Tool In Your Marketing Strategy, reviews, comments and word of mouth have forced brands to become more candid on social media platforms. Hake agreed saying that these comments should not be ignored because consumers give them more weight than any paid advertisement. 

“Does being transparent and honest and open with our consumers put us at risk for activist activity?” she asked. “Yes. But I think the bad outweighs the good. If we want to set ourselves and our farms up for success, then we should feel comfortable putting ourselves on social media. Telling our story sells our product and we’re trying every single day to build consumer trust.”

In order to help farmers better tell their story and avoid animal activist attacks, Hake provided these six tips to build a better activist defense team:

Know Who You’re Up Against

“It’s hard to know sometimes who we are up against because a lot of these [animal activist] organizations are linkedand some of their names sound like they are connected with our industries,” Hake says. “So, it is definitely confusing out there as to who we need to watch.”

Make no mistake, Hake warns, these different animal activist groups all have one common goal: To end all forms of animal agriculture, regardless of how well animals are cared for.

“All of the things we are doing to improve animal welfare will never satisfy the activists,” she says.

Find the Holes

Every operation has one area of their farm that they are not super proud of. Whether it be a crowded heifer barn, a not-so-clean maternity pen or even just an older facility in general, Hake asks producers to look at their farm as if they were a consumer. 

“I encourage you to think about an area on your farm that you would avoid showing to the public,” Hake says. “Find where the holes are. Where are your big risks if someone were to step foot on your farm with a camera?”

Audit. Audit. Audit.

Hake suggests that producers consider conducting a third-party audit on their operation. 

“Have someone outside of your operation come and look at your farm,” she says. “Utilize industry representatives such as veterinarians to help conduct these audits. Consumers see veterinarians as a very trusted profession, so they give you some extra credibility on your dairy.”

Preach the Protocols

After having an undercover activist film footage at one of her farms, Hake and her team did a total overhaul of all of their protocols and policies.  

“We came up with an animal care commitment for our company stating our beliefs and how we feel these animals should be cared for,” Hake says. “If you don’t already have an animal care commitment statement posted somewhere on your facility, I strongly encourage you to do so.”

 By providing some sort of animal care statement and displaying your standard operating procedures, this showcases the high standards you have set for your dairy.

Train. Then Train Some More.

Once the new protocols and polices are set in place, Hake suggests going over them several times with both family members and farm employees.

“You cannot audit what you did not train for,” Hake says. “Make sure everyone knows what your standards are and what to do if they notice something suspicious.”

Evaluate Your Stakeholders

“If you are coming up with these protocols and putting them in place on your farm, then you need to have everyone at the table and they all need to have buy in,” Hake says. “Your owners, your experts, your herdsman, your office staff. They all have to agree on what your standards are and they all have to have buy in.”

Hake also suggests talking to your veterinarian, nutritionist and cooperative to talk through a potential crisis scenario. 

“They can help you respond to a crisis,” she says. “Make them a part of your team.”