Why Ag Advocacy is Crucial

Posted in: Global Ag     

020414 Why Ag Advocacy Is CrucialAs many of you know, the use of social networking sites and Twitter has increased significantly over the past eight years.  It is also interesting to note that the most prolific users are the GEN Y group…ages 18-29.  This group, as well as those in the next age category, are also the most ‘cause motivated’ demographic out there.  These are the people who “occupy” whatever cause they can.  It is an important part of their demographic make-up and we need to pay special attention to those groups. 

It is heartening to note, though, that recently the demographic groups that are a bit ‘longer in the tooth’ are beginning to adopt social networking and social media platforms at a high rate.  They are catching up.  

What does this mean for us ‘agvocates’ – advocates for ag and food? 

I see this as a reality check but also as an opportunity.

So we agree… Embedded in many of those tweets and status updates are memes and misinformation about ag and food production.  The reality of social media is that these messages are not shared once or twice like they would be in traditional media… they are shared hundreds and thousands of times….

There is a whole new kind of competitor out there - one that comes in the guise of organizations like Greenpeace or Peta or the Human Society of the US. They even come in the form of individuals like Dr. Mercola and Jeffrey Smith.

This new competitive landscape needs to be fully evaluated and new strategies need to be developed to manage it. Part of the efforts might require industry to take a more direct role in discrediting the erroneous claims that are out there.

If history has shown us anything at all, it is this: when science and industry don’t step in and proactively anticipate and manage issues, it leaves things wide-open for those with political agendas (and ulterior motives) to intercede and fill in the gaps.  Gross misrepresentation of facts and fear-mongering are key tactical strategies of any activist movement.  The new competitor plays by whole different set of market rules. 

Another problem is is that science is silent.  And these are the experts that can counter some of this bad information — at least about the science anyway.  

Most of Canada’s estimated 100,000 PhDs are employed in the public sector. It would seem that university and other public sector research institutes carry the balance of power when it comes to knowledge production and scientific and technical know-how in society. Yet, this expert ‘voice’ is noticeably muted, particularly online and public sector researchers have been very slow to move from more traditional forms of public engagement to using online communication tools such as social media. Studies show that academic scientists view social media as distractions’ or ‘passing fads’ while publication and other traditional activities are seen as the ‘hard currency of science’ and communication.

In a world where 72% of the entire adult population look to online social networks or online sources for information, however, this no longer works.  Science needs communicate – even if its only in 140 characters or less.  And institutions need to provide them with the tools and the support that they require to do this. 

How about industry? Over time, industry has consistently used top-down approaches in its marketing and communications strategies. In the agriculture biotechnology industry, focus has been on the seed market and not on the ‘grocery’ market.  These traditional approaches don’t really work in this new environment where controversy reigns.   Understanding this new environment means accepting that there are now a whole new set of stakeholders sitting at the figurative boardroom table.

Whether you are a scientist, an agronomist, a grain farmer, a livestock producer a distributor… you can ENGAGE! And there are many ways to do this!

How we socialize has fundamentally and permanently changed.  Even if Twitter and Facebook disappear, they will just be replaced with new platforms. 

If you are not on-board you will miss the train and miss the opportunities that come with that journey….

Anyway, time to self-examine.  What do you think of social media? Do you want to engage? Or ignore?

Even though we now tweet and text more than we talk and face-to-face has been replaced by Facebook and Facetime, relationships matter. And these virtual relationships matter too.

  • Interactive/engager
  • Share info / engaged
  • Part of the dialogue
  • interpret then share it
  • respond to it
  • Recombine info into a new format
  • Most dynamic approach

Many ways to do it.

If we always do what we always have done, we will always get what we’ve always gotten!

Building public trust in the science and the food system is no longer an option in this era of ‘radical transparency’. Food controversies or food scares – whether they real or perceived - deepen public mistrust of the food system. It is not enough to merely reactively manage these issues anymore. Top-down communication tactics no longer work.  Rather, actors within the system need to demonstrate and proactively communicate principally-driven values that are consistent with social expectations of consumers.  This is accomplished first by building trust and  - ONLY THEN - by sharing scientifically verified knowledge and facts.

It is important to note that humans are hard-wired to feel things for people, not abstract objects, ideas or even organizations. Everything is vetted through social media these days.  And relationships matter, even virtual ones.  Company profiles on social media (although valuable in some ways) are viewed largely as impersonal, no matter what line of business you are in. Companies need to put a human face on the corporation by empowering employees as social media ‘champions.’ These individuals can more readily connect online and in-person with people, to proactively engage in discourse and dialogue and to build relationships.

Your message matters.

Hashtags and other key logistical factors are important… they are searchable and they make you searchable. 

Be brave. Find your voice and claim your space.  Social media is not going away and we still have much to tackle in terms of misinformation about the ag and food industry.  We need to connect to the public in a meaningful way. 

Connections need to involve accuracy, accountability and — most of all — those connections need to be authentic as do the people making them. That’s how we build value.  That’s how we build trust.

About the Author
Cami Ryan

Cami Ryan is an outspoken advocate for ag, science and consumers and has worked in agriculture for over 20 years.  Cami critically investigates anti-science – especially anti-biotechnology networks and how special interest groups develop campaigns to attack specific issues.  In particular, she explores the role of social media tools (Twitter, Facebook, etc) as platforms for launching anti-science campaigns. 

Cami is the sole author of the book Evaluating Performance of Research Networks (2008) and co-author of Innovation in Agri-Food Clusters (2012).  She is currently a Professional Affiliate with the College of Agriculture and Bioresources at the University of Saskatchewan (Canada). She holds a Bachelor of Commerce (Major in Biotechnology Management) and  a Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Studies (agricultural economics, business and sociology).

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