Agriculture needs to show the world it has some great ideas for improving any perceived problems facing the industry, rather than trying to find creative ways to silence its critics, says a leading world consultant and communications specialists.
Rather than trying to persuade skeptics that foods produced with genetically modified (GMO) crops are safe, the angle might better
be to show people the industry recognizes there are concerns and it is leading the way to insure all safeguards and proper monitoring is in place, says Avrim Lazar, an Ottawa-based consultant.
Lazar, speaking at the Canada’s Outstanding Young Farmers (OYF) conference in Regina, says taking a defensive position that GMO foods are safe won’t gain much ground with critics or a concerned consumer. “You can’t fight concepts with facts,” says Lazar speaking to about 100 OYF alumni and regional nominees at the OYF annual awards program.
Environmental activists, whether dealing with facts or not, have created a perception there may be something wrong with producing foods from genetically modified crops. Or on the animal agriculture side, there is a feeling that meat produced from animals supplied antibiotics or growth hormones, may not be as healthy as natural or organically produced products. That cat or that concept is already out of the bag, so now what do you do about it?
NOT WHAT YOU ARE, BUT WHAT YOU WANT TO BE
Lazar who is working with forest industries and salmon producers in different parts of the world says people don’t want to know how good you are today, they want to know what great ideas you have for improving things tomorrow.
The former president and CEO of the Forest Products Association of Canada has been down this road before. The association gained world-wide recognition for a landmark agreement it struck with environmental groups a few years ago. Rather than fight the environmentalists by simply saying the forest industry was doing a good job, the industry took the approach “we know there are concerns and here’s how we are going to improve things.” The agreement meant giving some concessions to the environmentalist, but it also allowed the forest industry to go forward and flourish and create a whole new image as good environmental stewards.
CREATE THE NEW IMAGE
The “story line” of the forest industry was to present itself as an industry that was in transformation, says Lazar. It sought out new markets, reducing its reliance on the U.S. market and shipping much more product to China. It not only harvested more trees but it also developed a new very green biofuel industry. It didn’t hang its hat on the great job it was doing today, it positioned itself as an industry with innovative ideas to make things better tomorrow and yet it is still in the tree harvesting business.
He had a similar experience with eucalyptus tree producers in Brazil as they moved to produce faster growing genetically modified trees in that country. Rather than saying “we’re doing a good job” the industry recognized the concerns about GM crops and began to promote itself as a responsible, highly regulated sector of the forest industry.
He used the analogy of brushing your teeth….if you don’t brush certainly people around you are eventually going to find that a problem, but at the same time if you do brush your teeth no one is going to give you an award because that is a hygienic practice you should be doing anyway.
Similarly he says it isn’t enough for an industry to tell the world it is a good steward of the land, or a humane producer of livestock — that’s the brushing your teeth, you’re supposed to be doing that anyway. The industry needs to recognize there is a concern and develop a message that says “we can always do better and here are the things we are changing to make it better.”
“The message has to be about what you are becoming, not about what you are,” says Lazar. “Never tell people they are wrong, it is counter productive.” He says it is way more effective to acknowledge concerns and develop a meaningful strategy to address those concerns. “By telling people what you are doing is not good enough and you need to do better, is way more effective than telling them they are full of crap,” he says.
MESSAGE WITH MIND, BODY AND SPIRIT
He says it is important for the agriculture industry to get a message out, that in light of the concerns, this is how it is working to make things better. The story line has to be developed with three important components he described as mind, body and spirit.
He said the story needs to include science and facts, it needs to be told with passion, and needs to include an action plan. The story has to be real and substantive. The old belief that “bullshit baffles brains” just isn’t true”, says Lazar. “It needs to be truthful, the whole-truth-theory works.”
To go along with the story line about the new, changing, transformation of agriculture it needs also to include anecdotes of how real people are making this change happen. “And as I look at this room of farmers today I am sure there are 50 or 60 different stories or anecdotes — human stories — of how people are changing and working to improve the industry,” he says.
Once the message of transformation has been developed he says all players connected with the agriculture industry need to consistently carry the message — government, politicians, industry associations and farmers should all be delivering the same message of how the industry is changing and working to address the concerns. Repeating the message and demonstrating that change is happening will quickly shut down the critics, and win consumer confidence, he says.
Lee Hart is a field editor for Grainews in Calgary, Contact him at 403-592-1964 or by email at [email protected]