As a communications professional nothing can be more frustrating than being informed that one’s communications strategy is just not getting through to people.

Yet, that ugly truth was driven home in a new poll that has found that a different approach may be needed for farmers and ranchers to more effectively communicate with consumers.

As communications director for the Western Plant Health Association I have attended countless communications meetings discussing the proper ag messages that should be developed. I have attended seminars, conferences and workshops learning how better to convey agriculture’s benefits and opportunities to the general masses. I have produced videos for public consumption extolling the virtues of best management practices, the safety of food products, and the inroads made in commercial crop production that aim to protect the environment.

However, I see the wisdom of this new information and realize that I might have to make some adjustments in our attempts to assure the public that farmers and ranchers are sincere and hard at work in feeding the world in the most affordable and safest way possible. But wait — that sentence just might not be heard by consumers in the way I meant it.

Case in point: Keith Yazmir of Maslansky Luntz & Partners recently gave a presentation to Charleston/Orwig, a large strategic communications consultant, about his firm’s research on the messages agriculture uses to communicate about food production and agricultural practices. The research was funded by the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance and provides insight into the messaging that agriculture is spreading and the actual translations that consumers are hearing.

The poll found that while a message can be presented in what seems like a clear, well-stated way, it often can be heard and interpreted much differently than intended. In fact, agriculture’s standard 'go-to' messages aren’t providing peace of mind for consumer audiences, and fighting emotion with science and facts has not moved the needle. Since I frequently use “science” to refute misstatements from environmental groups, I found this last bit of information more than troubling.

In arriving at his conclusions, Yazmir used the same research methodology employed in political debates to track changes in agreement or disagreement with an idea or statement — the reactions of influencers in the food industry were tracked as a farmer discussed current farming methods, phrases or ideas. The Instant Response Research uncovered emotional reactions to messaging in real time. Study participants included chefs, restaurant owners, food bloggers and food writers, among other food influencers.

Among the key findings

There is trust in farmers but lots of questions about farming. Yazmir said Americans question the practices used in farming and ranching. The negative words used to describe farming practices included: mass production, pesticides, big business, subsidies, chemicals, factory farming and animal cruelty.

Consumers want wholesomeness, but romanticization of farming isn’t the answer. Many campaigns try to attach the wholesomeness of the farmer directly to the food, but consumers separate products from producers. The conversation about food is very emotionally charged, and consumers, seeing beyond the romance, fear unknown farming methods and their potential long-term health impacts.

Current messages aren’t resonating. The polling exercise concluded that what the farmer is saying is completely different from what the consumer hears. One common message farmers use is that agriculture delivers a “safe, affordable, abundant food supply.” Yazmir said the testing exercise found that this message was outdated and did not resonate with consumers because the U.S. has had an abundant, inexpensive food supply for quite some time. He added the “silver spoon” mentality of the U.S. consumer is a result of never being concerned about having a safe food supply available. Other examples of what is said and what is heard: Farmer — Our methods are proven and safe. Consumer hears — Your methods tamper with nature; Farmer — Most farms are family run. Consumer hears — But beholden to big processors; Farmer — We keep food affordable. Consumer hears — But at what expense to quality? Farmer — We have the safest food supply in the world. Consumer hears — Pesticides, antibiotics and hormones may not be safe in the long run. Yazmir said rather than talking about food being safe and affordable, the conversation should focus on food’s long-term impact on health.

Future-focused conversation topics tested positively. Poll participants strongly agreed with messages related to continual improvement to reduce the environmental impact and more open dialogue regarding the future of production agriculture.

Old-fashioned food

An interesting discussion point that came up was how virtually every other industry has a license to talk about modernizing their product, but in agriculture, consumers want the wholesome, old-fashioned food that was on their grandparents’ tables. While agriculture has modernized, the language used in its messaging makes consumers uncomfortable with the modern practices that have been implemented. Yazmir advised not going into a lot of detail about current practices when talking to consumers as it may generate more concern than necessary.

Bad actors must be punished. Farmers must recognize wrongdoing and stand firmly against it. Condemning those who misuse pesticides or mistreat animals sets the broader agricultural community apart from the bad actors and builds credibility.

Common interests exist between farmers and consumers. There are topics about which both consumers and the farming community care deeply, and these areas should be a main focus. Yazmir said that while motivation behind their interest may be different, the end result will offer benefits to both groups. For example, with reducing the use of pesticides, the farmer is motivated by lower input costs, and the consumer is motivated by reducing potential health dangers. Also, a farmer is motivated to take better care of animals and land because it protects the farmer’s greatest investment, while consumers believe it is simply the right thing to do. Yazmir explained, “It’s not personal; it’s business.”

There’s no doubt that there’s a lot of pertinent and new information contained in this newest poll. Ag communicators need to study it and make the adjustments. In the war of words between certain environmental groups and the agricultural industry, the more succinct and understandable we can deliver our messages so consumers have no confusion as to what we mean, that is a plus for farmers and ranchers and the agriculture industry as a whole.