Everyone likes an advocate, especially if they are advocating for you. One advocate group has repeatedly earned its reputation of helping farmers. Ohio Farm Bureau (OFB) has been instrumental in working with farmers across agriculture to promote ag, advocate for farmers and lobby legislation to improve farming, not hurt it. Most recently OFB had its hands full dealing with media asking questions about the Mercy For Animals footage that was taken on an Ohio dairy farm.
“The first thing is we felt obliged to speak out publicly, and we did so, and our message was pretty simple,” said OFB Senior Director of Corporate Communications Joe Cornely. “The abuses shown by that employee on that video were atrocious. Nothing about that is anything short of stomach-churning. And we called for that person to be punished.
“The second thing that we did, and continue to do, is try to be a voice to anybody that doesn’t live on a farm and help them understand that these horrible actions are an aberration; that’s not standard operating procedure on a dairy farm,” says Cornely. “We know that there are people who have beliefs different than ours, who are going to try to portray this horrible action as commonplace. We felt obliged to say, ‘No it isn’t. The people who raise those animals for food care about those animals in a responsible fashion, and please don’t be led to believe that one bad actor portrays the whole industry.’
“The other thing that we did and are continuing to do is call for a complete investigation of everything surrounding this incident,” he continues. “We want law enforcement to look at every aspect of what happened out there and provide answers.”
After the video was thrown out on the Internet, OFB was inundated with media calls. Being an advocate means not just waiting for calls, but also providing information where it could. It also wanted to help its 235,000 members, only 60,000 of which are farmers, understand the facts as OFB had.
“There was, as you would imagine, a flood of media attention,” says Cornely. “And that took up a considerable amount of our time – meeting the needs of the media, helping them get the information and talk to the people they needed to talk to. And we have had a lot of contact from our individual Farm Bureau members, farmers and non-farmers alike, so we have been corresponding with them. And then in this day in age, a considerable amount of our time was [spent] in conversations in social media, primarily on Facebook and to some extent on our website. A lot of people have a lot of questions and we try to live up to our responsibility to have that conversation and answer what we could.”
Finding the roses among the thorns is an important task after working through a difficult situation. Since this wasn’t OFB’s first run through the gauntlet, Cornely offers some sound advice that starts long before the problem escalates.
“We work with our members in the area of media relations regularly,” says Cornely, who worked as a farm broadcaster for 20 years before joining OFB. “The single-most important thing we always tell our members is build a relationship before you need it. Don’t make the first time you meet the local farm reporter or news reporter a crisis. Get to know them. Create a bit of familiarity, so that when something happens you at least have some common background on which to draw. So that’s always important.”
Cornely, who was the president of the National Association of Farm Broadcasting in 1995, points out that in a time of crisis, when working with the media, farmers should be honest, but don’t say anything before you are ready.
“It’s a two-sided coin,” he says. “You have to call a spade a spade. When something is so plainly wrong, you have to say so ... you should say so ... it’s the right thing to do.
“The flip-side to that coin is you need to have your facts in place before you say anything,” Cornely continues. “We still are being called upon by folks we don’t necessarily agree with to make some kind of public statement beyond what we have said and we are not going to be baited into that. We are not going to express our opinions until we know what the facts are.
“Those are a couple of things [we tell members], one’s general and one’s semi-specific,” he says. “Even if they are one of our own, if something is wrong, they need to be called on it. For instance, in this specific case, the farm employee is plainly torturing those animals. We have said so. There are a lot of people that want to vilify the farm owner and we are not doing that. We aren’t saying he’s innocent, but we are not going to say he’s guilty. That’s an example of the facts not being known yet.”
Ohio is headed for some rough waters this election season. In November, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) is pushing for a vote on an Ohio Constitutional Amendment that will be very similar to Proposition 2 that was passed in California.
“As you know, Proposition 2 primarily impacted the poultry industry and it’s also aimed at pork and veal, but we also saw that immediately after they got Proposition 2 passed, then they started doing some things that were more specific to the dairy industry,” Cornely says. “I say all that to say this – the Farm Bureau, the dairy producers, the corn growers and every commodity group in Ohio, is up to their necks in a fight with the HSUS.”
This ballot measure comes on the heels of an ag-backed ballot proposal that passed last year that established a committee of real experts – veterinarians, producers, nutritionists and consumers – that would research and propose animal welfare measures for the ag industries. Now HSUS is pushing to overturn that system and force a set of guidelines that will only make animal agriculture more difficult and expensive. OFB has a formula for success and it would be good for other states to take note, since animal activists don’t really care what state dairies are in.
“We had a successful ballot measure that we, the ag community, proposed last year,” Cornely explains. “The single-biggest lesson we learned then, that we will be applying this year, is the importance of agricultural unity. The dairy farmers can’t be off doing one thing, and the pork producers doing another and the Farm Bureau doing a third. There are too few of us. That’s why agricultural unity, collaboration between all the farm organizations, is absolutely essential. So that’s going to be our method of operation; everybody working together. [We] work together closely and regularly, and that is absolutely essential. I know it doesn’t work like that in all states; that all the farm groups don’t all get along. We have been very lucky here in Ohio that all parties understand the need to stick together. There are just too many of them and too few of us for us to bicker amongst ourselves. ... [We are] preparing our farmers to reach out. It’s one thing for a paid mouthpiece like me to say something, but when it comes from authentic voices like our farmers, I think it carries much more weight. The problem is they’re busy trying to feed the world, and now they have got to fight an out-of-state activist organization.”
Cornely says that social media has vastly changed the landscape of public information and campaigns. Social media allows producers to tell their story without a gate keeper. You choose how you want to tell the story. That’s why OFB is constantly training its members on how to use the tools effectively. He cautions there are those out there that will want to fight and aren’t interested in your story.
“We have also learned in the whole social media arena the majority of the conversations we have are pretty civil, but some aren’t. You have to make your own judgement how far your obligation to be open extends. Some people, it doesn’t matter what you say, they are not going to be satisfied and they are going to continue to try to beat you up a little bit. That’s fine. We didn’t shut down our Facebook page, we allowed our critics ample opportunity to have their say, but at some point enough is enough.”
Cornely sees the next step for farmers on social media as being a step out of ag and into consumer circles.
“We are already talking to one another in social media circles, and that’s great,” he says. “We have dairymen following cattlemen who are following sheep ranchers, who are following Farm Bureau communications specialists. We have our internal network going pretty well. Where I think farmers as individuals can do they and their industry the most good is to find other communities to engage in. Connecting with nutritionists, mothers, youth groups, anybody that has a connection to the dairy industry outside of producers. Those are the communities that I hope all farmers will find and become active in as well.”
So look for opportunities to bring up milk and cheese with friends of the family. Tell your hunting buddies about the benefits of dairy products. Share your pride in dairy farming with the world you work so hard to feed. They will be voting on ballots and in supermarkets, so tell them your story.
“Reach out to those that don’t normally hear our message,” Cornely concludes. “It’s never bad to preach to the choir, but you have to preach outside the choir sometimes too.” PD