How producers can control anti-animal agriculture press
The pork industry of Illinois faced a major challenge when the Chicago Tribune published a critical investigative series. Together, local and national actors put together a strong response to minimize the damage.
When a major newspaper publishes an article panning an animal agriculture industry, what's the best way to respond?
Jennifer Tirey, executive director of the Illinois Pork Producers, faced that challenge in August 2016, when the Chicago Tribune published a series called “The Price of Pork.” The paper’s own short description of print and online series reads, “hundreds of hog confinements have been constructed across Illinois in recent years, using a factory-like system to grow millions of pigs and put inexpensive bacon on your plate. But a Tribune investigation finds all that cheap meat is coming at great cost to rural communities.”
Tirey – who spoke as part of a panel on handling negative press at the Animal Agriculture Alliance Stakeholders Summit in Kansas City, Missouri, on May 3 and 4 – said she was shocked to see the stories turn out so one-sided, in spite of working with the reporters for months prior to ensure the industry had a voice in the articles. However, all of that preparation came in handy, she said because the collective efforts of the local and national pork organizations and Illinois pork producers helped to stymie the piece outside of the walls of Tribune Tower.
Tirey, along with Cindy Cunningham, assistant vice president of communications for the National Pork Board (NPB), and Phil Borgic, of Borgic Farms Inc., a hog farm in rural Illinois, explained how the stories came to be, how they crafted a response and how the story ultimately failed to gain traction nationally or even in the Chicago area.
Finding a silver lining
Tirey said the project started in fall 2015, when a pair of Chicago Tribune reporters – David Jackson and Gary Marx – contacted her organization to discuss a story they were working on. The reporters said the article would focus on local control of hog farming, animal welfare practices, the environment and the pros and cons of contract growing. She said saying “no” was not an option, so she proceeded to work with the reporters and put them in contact with growers, such as Borgic.
The pork farmer said he spent a lot of time with the reporters at a state pork expo, discussing the history of the industry and how modern intensive techniques created a more productive industry, and even had them visit his farm twice. Despite his efforts, Borgic was not mentioned or quoted in the four main articles of the series. However, he did play a central role defending gestation crates in supplemental content.
Tirey said the fear was the stories would be used as inspiration for legislation that could potentially damage the industry or that they would turn off consumers from pork. She said the reporters assured her they would work with the organization and wanted her help to tell a balanced story.
The organization responded by sharing the positives of the pork industry, mentioning everything from economic impact to food bank donations. Whenever negatives came up, Tirey said, the organization countered with positives.
Developing a plan to counterpunch
With so much potentially riding on how the stories turned out, the pork organizations didn’t want to leave anything to chance. Instead, with the help of the NPB – the check-off supported organization charged with promoting the industry – and the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) – the industry’s lobbying organization – Tirey developed a sophisticated plan to limit any potential damage caused by the story and dispel any falsehoods in the story.
The plan included: having potential producer sources, like Borgic, as well as state officials and organizational representatives ready for comment when the story came; preparing a series of videos to be shared on social media the day the stories came out; contacting state legislators ahead of publication to educate them on the industry’s value to the state and inviting them to visit farms; bringing public relations professionals out to farms to educate producers on working with the press and a letters to the editor campaign.
The key to all of the preparations, she said, was transparency.
“This is what I tell all my producers in Illinois: We cannot go around in blinders. We have to move forward. We raise our animals indoors, but we need to tell our consumers why. We have biosecurity issues so we can’t bring a whole busload of people into our barns, but there’s the internet, people,” Tirey said. “There’s a lot of different ways we can share this information and that’s how we have to continue to be transparent because we were able to neutralize, we were able to form partnerships and work together and we were able to learn from this for future issues.”
Limiting the damage and learning for the future
Ultimately, the stories did not get the mileage expected.
Borgic said it was obvious the largest newspaper in the Chicago region and one of the largest in the country invested hundreds of man-hours and plenty of effort into the piece, but he thought the timing was flawed. The stories published in August 2016, while it competed with the Olympic Games, a virulent presidential campaign season and other major stories. Borgic, who’s also a member of the NPPC board, said he thought the paper’s editors made a poor choice in the timing of the story, which helped reduce its impact with readers.
Cunningham said a comprehensive analysis of social media engagement showed the piece had very little impact outside and inside the Chicago area. Outside of those employed by or affiliated with the Chicago Tribune, the story received very little attention online or on social media. The story also underwhelmed in terms of its presence in the total online discussion of pork and the pork industry. Cunningham said that can likely be attributed to social media campaign orchestrated in response to the story.
Cunningham said this situation was unique because they had about nine months to flesh out a strong response to the story. Often in crisis communication situations, there’s only a few hours or less to form a cogent rebuttal. Regardless, the experience created a number of lessons that can be used in the future.
- “Just say no” is not an option: In a situation where reporters are working on a story and there’s a strong possibility it will not present the industry in a positive light, denying interviews and ignoring media requests is not a winning strategy.
- Be transparent and tell your side of the story: When working with the media, the industry has a duty to tell its side of the story and represent itself positively. If not, there’s a strong chance it won’t be represented at all.
- Collaborate: When facing down a negative story, work with like-minded industry organizations to form a unified, intelligent response. It’s not easy to get everyone together and on the same page, but it pays off when the industry’s collective reputation and credibility are on the line.
- Don’t let friendly organizations make the story bigger than it already is: If there is a negative story circulating, then don’t share it and make it worse than it already is.
- After publication, evaluate: After a story is published or aired, the actors should take a moment to reflect on what went right and what could have gone better. A simple reflection will pay off in the future.
- Kill them with kindness: Even after a negative event comes and goes, chances are high the same reporters will continue to cover the story and interact with the same industry actors. Rather than being bitter, the smart move is to be polite, unrelentingly positive and willing to keep sharing the industry’s side of the story.