‘Agvocacy’ is a made-up word but it works nicely in this case. When I visited with the folks at the American Angus Association a few days ago, the main topic of conversation was communication. One of the critical questions we batted around the lunch table was how can agriculture define itself more effectively to the 98% of Americans who are ‘non’ ag?
The table talk was driven partly by the recent and very strange hook up announced by the Humane Society of the U.S. and the Organization for Competitive Markets. Both groups are against the beef check off and they’ve filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction, aimed at the U.S.D.A’s Agricultural Marketing Service, Cattlemen’s Beef Board and the Beef Promotion Operating Committee.
Almost immediately the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association issued a press release that said "USCA will not support OCM's willing involvement of HSUS, a known opponent of U.S. ranchers and animal agriculture, in this lawsuit partnership. We doubt that HSUS has any true concerns about how checkoff dollars are administered and, in fact, if the organization's long-term goal is to eliminate animal agriculture, then the complete demise of commodity checkoff supports that plan.”
We all remember the lean, finely textured beef (LFTB) controversy. ‘Pink slime’ it was called by people who knew almost nothing about the product. The label stuck and the damage was done. Beef prices took a hit and a company that was a major contributor to food safety was knocked to its knees.
Both issues were tied to communication – or rather a lack of it. In the HSUS/OCM/USCA donnybrook, the HSUS was able to define a wedge issue and use it to create ill will among industry segments. As for LFTB, a product that had been around for two decades and gained a flawless reputation for safety? When we let others define the term for us, we lost the battle before it was joined.
The ag-driven parts of social media are all about ‘agvocacy’ and the need to tell our story first and best. Unfortunately, much of that chatter is amongst the choir. More of it needs to be pointed outwards, aimed at people who really believe a good steak or chicken breast comes from the supermarket, neatly wrapped in plastic. No relation to a real live animal implied, understood or accepted.
It’s all about effective communication, of course, and one of the most effective and forward looking programs comes out of the American Angus Association’s headquarters in St. Joseph, Missouri. A longtime producer of an excellent printed magazine and an active issuer of press releases, they realized several years ago that modern communications had evolved well beyond paper and ink.
The difference was pointed out to me by AAA PR head Eric Grant. He noticed I was taking notes by hand using a pen on a small yellow notepad. He pointed to the iPad that I had placed on the table. There, in less than two square feet, was the beginning and the future of mass communications.
So I sat down with Crystal Albers, the director of AAA’s weekly television news program, The Angus Report, to talk with her about how they handle communicating with their members as well as the general public through a not-as-complicated-as-it-sounds multi-media plan. Talking with people about the Angus breed and the cattle business in general and using many different platforms to deliver their message is not as hard as it might seem – you just need a plan. AAA is writing the book on how to manage the process so a conversation with one of the authors of that book seems like a worthwhile pursuit. So read on and think about your agvocacy.
Q. Crystal, tell me about your background.
A. Well, I grew up on a farm in northeast Kansas, where my family raised corn, soybeans, commercial Angus cattle and hogs. I'm the oldest of four, and family and farming continue to be significant factors in my life. My childhood was spent doing all the things you’re not supposed to do anymore, like riding on the fender of my dad’s open-cab International. (Shhh. Don’t tell the Department of Labor.)
I attended Kansas State University where I received bachelor's degrees in print journalism and public relations, with a minor in agronomy. After graduation, my husband, Mark, and I settled back in northeast Kansas and today we have two wonderful children and farm in the community in which we both were raised. It's not always easy, but there's really no better way to raise our family.
Q. Has that farming and college background helped you at the American Angus Association?
A. Yes, I joined Angus Productions Inc. in 2003, helping write and edit for one of the leading beef cattle publications in the business, Angus Journal. In 2009, I was fortunate to join the American Angus Association’s public relations and communications department. We started ramping up the organization’s traditional communications efforts and expanding our capabilities in other areas like television. It’s been a fun learning experience.
Today, much of my focus centers on development of AAA’s weekly television news program, The Angus Report. It’s a news-style show composed of the latest information affecting the cattle business, along with information from Certified Angus Beef LLC and CattleFax, management and marketing features, events coverage, ranch profiles and other pertinent information.
Q. Your job description seems to have been continuously ‘redefined’ driven by the Association’s decision to expand beyond traditional journalism. Your transition from magazine writing and editing to television writing and production is a pretty dramatic professional change. Why did AAA choose to expand and what motivated you from a personal perspective?
A. Several years ago, we began noticing that our readership with traditional press releases was relatively low. Even though we were sending them to a list of nearly 800 media outlets, they were much lower than anticipated. Despite our best efforts to increase our communications with members and commercial cattlemen via traditional means, we weren't seeing the responses that we wanted. We weren't effectively reaching the people who could benefit from our information, and we wanted to improve.
With approval from our Board of Directors, PR Director Eric Grant launched our organization into television with our flagship program, I Am Angus in January 2010 and later our weekly news show, The Angus Report, which we started in September 2011. Both air on RFD-TV; I Am Angus airs six times per year, and The Angus Report airs every Monday at 7:30 CST. We’ve started a new project, too, distributing a radio program to broadcasters.
It's been a successful venture. We're now reaching more people than ever before, and using a variety of media to do it. Today, we maintain our traditional print communications, which remains an important vehicle, but we've been able to expand our message through more broad-reaching yet nimble means. As an organization, this exponentially improves our capability to serve our members, their customers and consumers.
Of course, there are always a few challenges associated with change. It's been a learning curve from a personal perspective, learning how to write for television versus print media, but I've enjoyed every minute. Getting in front of the camera has been an altogether different challenge. I'm actually quite shy but we have a great team here, and I’m learning that if what you're doing isn’t scaring you at least a little then it's probably not worth doing. This is definitely a challenge worth doing.
Q. It's a challenge for ag organizations and publishers to stay ahead of the changes sweeping across the media. How has the Association adapted?
A. Successful farmers and ranchers constantly monitor their business and track performance. The same holds true from a communications standpoint.
Working for a progressive organization like AAA has given me a better appreciation for numbers and what they can tell you. Our team monitors viewership numbers daily. The trends tell us the story. They tell us if our message is effective -- if we're giving Angus cattlemen the information they need. That data helps us stay on track. At the same time, if we see we’re not getting desirable feedback, we can respond quickly.
I think that self-evaluation process is necessary for any organization given the evolving media landscape. Online and mobile technologies like smart phones give users instant access to any message they're willing to receive. That means we're competing against more and more messages all the time. You really have to evaluate and know your audience to maintain a foothold in that competition. Knowing how they use and prefer to receive information is imperative. People are busy. We try to eliminate the roadblocks and get them the information when and where they want.
Q. What is the role of social media in what you do? Are there relationships you can establish between what you see on social media and what you do on TV?
A. Social media has become a key component of what we do here. Our Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest pages support our PR platform and allow for more immediate communications with those with a stake in the Angus business.
Also, our YouTube channel is fundamental to our ability to distribute our videos as well as monitor how viewers are receiving and using them. Viewership stats have given us more valuable insight into our audience engagement. We’ve discovered a significant correlation between our YouTube views and Nielsen ratings that we continue to monitor.
Q. What’s the future of ag media? What new technologies are on the horizon -- and how will they transform the way you communicate with farmers and ranchers?
A. I’m not an expert on the subject, by any means. There are smarter people within ag communications who are probably better qualified to answer that question. But I do believe that regardless of the mediums that evolve, writing will always be the underpinning for what we do. There will always be a place for good writing, whether it’s used on a television show or in a press release. The evolution of mobile and online technologies will allow more of our audience to take our information with them.
From an Association standpoint, we’re working toward making our videos more mobile-friendly so when you’re checking cows or hauling feed and have five minutes of downtime, you can watch a quick segment of The Angus Report on your smart phone and learn something about grid marketing, for example, or the latest genomic-enhanced EPD.
We think that capability offers some advantages for Angus cattlemen, and I’m proud to be a part of it.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Chuck Jolley, a veteran food industry journalist and commentator.