When Moe Russell went to a public hearing in 2002 to get a building permit for his proposed 7,200-head hog facility in eastern Iowa, he was met by 42 angry community members. Five years later when he went through the procedure for a new permit, only one person showed up—and that person was in favor of the second facility. What made the difference? Russell, president of Russell Consulting Group, went home and did what he coaches his clients to do: build a public relations plan.
"As most any farmer knows, there are going to be cycles, good times and bad times,” Russell says. "It's important to build positive thoughts about your company in good times so they will pay off in tough times.”
Julia Nolan Woodruff, an Ohio State University Extension educator in the Agriculture and Natural Resources office, agrees there is power in creating a mission and communicating your message.
"Even though the public may lack agricultural knowledge, they do have an interest in learning more about farms,” Woodruff says. "Developing a farm public relations plan will provide an organized and meaningful way for farmers to deliver this information.”
How to Start. Woodruff encourages producers to create SMART goals, which stands for: specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic and timed. She says it's important to decide who in the operation will develop and implement each section of the plan and to identify the key audience to be targeted.
"Basically, a public relations plan is an organization of thoughts and goals. It's a way to try to look at the big picture before delving into any one little piece,” Woodruff says. "It's just one more thing on a long list for farmers to do, but it's time we give it some priority.”
Examples of proactive public relations include letters to the editor, press releases, speaking at public events or community groups, farm tours, brochures and communications with neighbors.
Leroy Shatto of Shatto Milk Company, located near St. Joseph, Mo., has welcomed thousands of visitors to his farm as a result of his public relations efforts. This past year more than 40,000 people toured his dairy farm and to date the company has 8,400 fans on its growing Facebook page.
"My wife and I started and still today go to grocery stores with sample products,” Shatto says. "At first, all we were doing was going to stores and doing tastings, and that got people hooked. We'd hand out brochures about the farm with the samples. If we can let them taste our product and they come out to the farm, they are my customers.”
Shatto Milk Company also publishes an electronic newsletter, Moosletter, as another way to educate consumers about what's happening at the farm. More than 14,000 people receive the newsletter.
In addition to thousands of farm tours, Shatto Milk Company can be found at road races or runs almost every weekend once the weather is warm enough.
"It's time-consuming, but it becomes fun because we get to talk to customers who drink our milk and get new customers that way too,” Shatto says.
Media Dealings. While planning and putting into place a solid proactive public relations strategy, Russell advises farmers to also construct a reactive plan. This involves thinking through what could go wrong before it happens and outlining actions to take.
"We live in a glass house, so to speak, in production agriculture, and years ago we could have a John Wayne attitude, but that's not the case anymore. Plus, you perform better when things do go wrong if you've thought through the issues beforehand,” Russell says.
When dealing with the media, it's important to be honest, straightforward, brief and positive, Russell adds. He recommends never saying "no comment” and never making off-the-record remarks. Woodruff urges farmers to use plain language so nothing gets lost in translation.
"Like any other industry, we have our own language, and it's important to use language the general public will understand,” Woodruff recommends.
Top Producer, Spring 2010