“The media, in my opinion, is the
most powerful force in society.”
– kevin stewart
On the list of most trusted occupations in Canada, farmers generally make the top three, after firefighters and nurses, according to public opinion polls.
“People like farmers,” said Agvision TV host Kevin Stewart, in a keynote speech titled “The Cost of Doing Nothing” at the annual Manitoba Conservation Districts Association convention recently.
“What is changing, however, is that people do not necessarily like what you do and how you do it.”
Sobering opinion poll research by Ipsos-Reid found that 95 per cent of Canadians admitted that they know absolutely nothing about farming.
That’s a problem, said Stewart, because activist groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and others of their ilk are moving in to fill up the information vacuum.
They are becoming larger and more influential each year, and their emotionally based messages are reaching an ever-wider audience via the Internet, as well as traditional media.
“I don’t want to tell you that the sky is falling,” he said. “But the organizations that oppose what farmers are doing are increasing in number, their funding is increasing, and their organizations are becoming more complicated and more effective.”
Food recalls aren’t helping, either. In 1993, there were 30 allergy alerts and recalls compared to 30 per month in 2009.
“The media, in my opinion, is the most powerful force in society,” he said.
He pointed to the Walkerton tragedy, which was the result of cow manure being washed into a municipal well. Immediately, activist groups pinned the blame on large-scale farming, and succeeded in getting their message out via TV news reports, even though it was later determined that the E. coli-infected manure originated from a small farm that was following environmental guidelines.
“They said, ‘We told you so. People are going to die if you build these large, factory pig farms.’ Of course, pig farms had nothing to do with the disaster that killed seven and made 2,000 people sick,” said Stewart. “In this particular case, the damage was done.”
The doctrine of crisis communications as studied by public relations professionals states that if anything is repeated three times – and is left unchallenged by an opposing viewpoint – in the public’s mind it becomes the truth.
Now, almost a decade later, polls say that 63 per cent of people are concerned about the risk of water contamination from livestock farming.
What used to be the domain of obscure left-wing publications, has now spread to the big screen, home video and even media monoliths such as Time magazine, in the form of articles and even feature films that “make sweeping generalizations based on a bad example” and attack the “cheap” food production model.
He noted that the Toronto Star this fall ran a series that attempted to link modern farming practices with junk food consumption and rising obesity.
The cost of doing nothing, said Stewart, can be seen in two examples.
Talk show host David Letterman, when accused of marital infidelity, openly addressed the accusations on his program and it was quickly forgotten, he noted.
Tiger Woods, on the other hand, hid for days as his story grew.
“Who’s talking about Letterman? Nobody. It’s over. But everyone is talking about Tiger.”
Immediate communications to set the record straight delivered by a credible spokesperson is critical to public relations success and crisis management, said Stewart. What’s more, it helps if lines of communication with the public already exist, pre-crisis.
This helped with the Tylenol scare of the 1980s, and the Maple Leaf listeria recall earlier this year.
Letting bad events “nibble” away at farming’s positive image will end up costing a lot of real money. For example, an estimated 85 per cent of the market value of the S&P 500 is intangible, compared to just 15 per cent in real assets held by those companies.
A U. K. research firm found that 55 per cent of consumers in that country believed that they could “force” farmers to change their production practices by altering their purchase habits, he said.
Farmers and farm organizations need to do more to let the public know about the good things they do, because “ethics” has overtaken taste and quality in the minds of consumers.
“You can do whatever you want, but if you don’t tell anybody about the good things that you are doing, you’re wasting your time,” said Stewart.
“It’s like wetting your pants in a black suit. You feel warm all over, but nobody knows you did it.” [email protected]