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Farmers advised to take the high road when replying to attacks

Jan. 13, 2014 | 0 comments


Agriculture and the dairy sector in particular have the potential of encountering a public relations risk on a multiplicity of topics. To cope with those risks, a few public relations specialists have developed strategies and suggested messages.

One of them is Wisconsin farm native Jane Hillstrom, who operates a public relations firm, which has advised such clients as farm and dairy organizations in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, California, and Utah along with Dairy Management Inc. Her office is at Sturgeon Bay in Door County.

At a recent session sponsored by the Brown County Dairy Promotions Committee, with support from the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, Hillstrom asked attendees to list the topics, which involve some controversy and challenged them to create responses to them.

Among the topics mentioned by workshop attendees were the handling of livestock, manure application practices, livestock housing facilities, milk pasteurization, raw milk, organic foods, genetically modified organisms, antibiotics, environmental pollution, well contamination, and terminology and phrases such as "factory farm" and "industrial agriculture."

Response strategy

When consumers pose questions or state points of view on those and related topics, Hillstrom advises representatives of agriculture to first ask themselves "What do consumers want to know?" The formulated responses could be written or spoken, she noted.

In the cases of conflicting opinions where there is direct contact between the individuals, be patient, Hillstrom emphasizes. This means listening to what's being said rather than choosing to make an instant response, which essentially says "I'm right and you're wrong," she indicates.

Instead of directly responding to the person's claim, ask questions about where the information was obtained or how an opinion was formed, Hillstrom advises. This could allow the parties to find some common ground and should help the person hoping to respond do a better job in doing so, she suggests.

Difficult questions

When dealing with difficult questions or a second party who expresses strong beliefs, applying finesse can often be a crucial and successful way of replying, Hillstrom promises. "People will remember how you handled a difficult situation even more than what you said."

Before responding, repeat or restate what the other party has said so this can serve as some common ground, Hillstrom says. This not only assures the second party that "you are listening" and makes sure that there is mutual understanding of the point under discussion, she notes.

When responding, don't repeat any of the negative terminology that the second party probably used, Hillstrom stresses. Repeating such a phrase or using the same terminology in effect affirms what the other party has claimed or believes, she explains.

Finding support

Hillstrom subscribes to the three-legged stool approach when responding. By that, she means including a personal example of one's experiences pertaining to the topic and offering references to at least two public or private resources such as websites.

When giving a response or "telling your story," identify key words or phrases that "you want to communicate," Hillstrom advises. Focus on a key message, don't get bogged down in details or use jargon that the second party probably doesn't understand, provide the supporting references or "pillars of proof," and have a convincing final statement, she notes.

In coping with difficult questions, Hillstrom believes that "the best defense is a good offense" is the best approach in many cases. She includes being the first to bring up the subject as an indication of being willing to discuss it and as a way to control the tone and show transparency.

Keep the message simple, Hillstrom stresses. Realize that, on average, the consumer has no more than the equivalent of a third grade understanding of the topic, she points out.

When "the heat is on," one or more of those techniques could work well to diffuse the situation, Hillstrom remarks. In some cases, however, she acknowledges that the best the parties can achieve is to agree to disagree.

Recognizing reality

In dealing with specific topics, Hillstrom and the attendees agreed that the controversy about the appropriateness of consuming raw milk must be viewed in the context of how exposure to pathogens and the development of human immunity systems have been reduced from decade to decade, thereby leaving more people vulnerable to new bacteria.

Regarding milk safety, point out that all milk that's in the commercial market has been pasteurized to eliminate possible pathogens and tested for antibiotics (drug residues), Hillstrom advises. Instead of taking sides on conventional versus organic milk, emphasize how it's good that consumers are given a choice in the market, she adds.

On farm ownership, cite the statistics that indicate a very high percentage of the dairy farms are owned by families, Hillstrom points out. Beyond that, don't use the word "profit" but describe how farm itself provides a livelihood and support for one or more families, she says.

To prove that point, invite a disagreeing or challenging party to visit "your farm" or to attend some other on-farm event in order to get a first hand look, Hillstrom advises.

Helpful hints

Hillstrom distributed copies of the "talking points" she developed three years ago to offer ideas to farmers on how to respond when the topic is manure management. An outline with 13 bullet points describing the economic, employment, and production impact of Wisconsin's dairy industry was also shared.

When dealing with negative comments, it's not necessary to reply to each one, Hillstrom observes. Consider the source, compliment the person for initiating contact, don't be defensive, stay on message, and always travel on the high road, she advises.

Whatever the situation or topic, "don't break into jail," Hillstrom emphasizes. She can reached through the social media on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, and Four Square, by e-mail to Jane@HillstromPR.com, and by phone to 920-818-0153.

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