When it comes to building public trust, the message needs to come from every player in the agriculture and food value chain.
“Every part of the value chain has a role to play. We need a co-ordinated approach when it comes to building trust with consumers because fragmentation reduces our strength, reduces our efficiency and reduces our effectiveness,” said Kim McConnell, founder and former CEO of AdFarm, one of the largest agricultural marketing communications firms in North America.
McConnell spoke to attendees at the Canadian Forage and Grassland Association’s (CFGA) national conference, held in Winnipeg on November 14 and 15, about how agriculture needs to develop better communication with the public in order to build trust in the industry and its products.
“We have a challenge here in front of us. Less than one per cent of North America’s population is on the farm. They don’t know us and we don’t know them,” McConnell said. “Consumers think big is evil and technology is scary.”
So, where do you start when trying to do your part in building consumer trust? According to McConnell, start at home with continuing what you do on your operations every day, have conversations with family and friends and get involved in your value chain.
“Getting involved in your value chains, as farmers, as industry players and as an association is vital. Then we need to tell our story. We need to learn from other industries, like forestry, that have been investing in public trust. What was their advice to us? To take this seriously, work as a whole and start now, before it’s too late.”
He says it is important industry members have a trusted assurance system in place that can demonstrate operational procedures and then communicate that to the consumer.
“If we don’t tell anyone about the good things we are doing, it won’t make any difference. We need to have a communication program that supports us and we must do all of this on a foundation of transparency,” McConnell said.
When it comes to communicating what you are doing on your operation, McConnell suggests being as honest as you can be, talk about what you know and don’t shy away from controversial issues because in most cases, that is the information the public needs to hear the most.
“When we are speaking up about our industry we need to be positive, know who you are really talking to, what their concerns are and be able to address those concerns. Talk about what you know and use your own farm or experiences to provide some easy-to-understand examples with common language, not just ag lingo,” McConnell said. “All of us have a way of telling our story. We need to speak up and invite discussions. The fact that you don’t know all the answers don’t worry about that, say I don’t know, let me find the answer. Don’t BS, never guess or generalize, that is the only way to truly begin to build trust.”
He adds that communicating shouldn’t be all about telling the consumer the details of what you are doing on your operation, but more of a conversation around their concerns.
“We, in industry, don’t always understand the public. Remember, it’s a two-way street here,” McConnell said. “Communicating is more than just telling the consumer our story. It is also about listening to the consumer and tangibly demonstrating trust building.”
From an association point of view, McConnell says organizations need to make sure their industry partners know all about the sector’s story.
“Make sure your colleagues in the value chain understand your story and the contributions that you make. Make sure your story is provided to these amplifier groups that can take your story to the consumer and educate audiences,” said McConnell.
Cedric MacLeod, executive director of the CFGA says better communicating the sector’s story is something CFGA is looking at improving in the future and part of the reason why the organization brought McConnell in to speak at its national event.
“We have a fantastic story to tell, we have heard this throughout the entire conference. What we haven’t done is gather up those stories and put them in a cohesive package that the rest of the value chain can pick up and spread through their networks. So, that will be a major focus for us moving forward,” MacLeod said.
“It is important for us to be an active part of the value chain and play our role. It is not just one group that is going to lead this charge, it needs to be everyone pulling their weight.”