BEST OF SHOW PUBLIC RELATIONS
FARMERS, FARMLAND & YOU: 'SUPPORT TRADE' WITH GLOBAL MARKETS
Compiled by Agri Marketing Editors
It was the summer of 1999. The U.S. ag economy was struggling. Grain prices were tumbling. For farmers and businesses dependent on the agricultural economy, the threat to the pocketbook was real. At Farmland Industries - representing 600,000 farmer-owners and 16,000 employees - the facts told the tale: U.S. share of world export markets was shrinking, off 18 percent from 20 years ago. Yet international trade accounted for nearly one-third of Farmlandís revenues. Clearly, support for global trade among Farmlandís employees and farmer-owners was critical to the long-term success of North Americaís largest farmer-owned cooperative.
Compounding the matter, prevailing U.S. sanctions policy blocked American farmers from significant percentages of global markets. Although Kansas City, Mo.-based Farmland actively works to influence policy-makers on an ongoing basis to develop rules that support U.S. farmersí pressing need to expand world markets, senior management realized they needed to enlist involvement from their network of employees and farmer-owners to amplify their voice on international trade issues.
Farmland executives well understood the mission-critical role of international trade to their business. Its importance was evident as the leading attribute of Farmlandís mission, "To be a global, consumer-driven, producer-owned, Ďfarm-to-tableí cooperative system." However, soundings of the co-opís constituency revealed people at all levels of the organization did not understand the significance of world trade to the company, or to their own economic well-being.
TAPPING THE GRASSROOTS
To meet this challenge, the Farmland corporate communications team led by Sherlyn Manson and David Eaheart initiated a three-pronged communications program, "Support Trade: For Farmers, For Farmland, For You." The "Support Trade" program was divided into farmer-owner communications, employee relations and media relations. By educating employees and farmer-owners about international trade issues, program developers reasoned their audience would be more likely to influence policy from a grassroots level.
The program operated on a strategy of ongoing education capitalizing on peaks of activity just prior to important policy-setting events. This flexibility allowed Farmland to educate by conveying softer messages throughout the year, then crescendoing to effect intense, hard-hitting communications when Congress was ready to act.
The program also focused on several key trade issues Farmland identified as focal points of company policy. These included permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) with China, sanctions policy reform, admittance of China into the World Trade Organization (WTO) and global market access for biotech products.
HUNGRY FOR INFORMATION
Benchmarking research proved Farmland faced a considerable task in its drive to help internal audiences understand the significance of international trade to agriculture - and how they could personally influence expanding agricultural trade. A December 1998 survey of Farmland farmer-owners found an audience not inclined to agree Farmland was a global company. Nearly half indicated they needed more information about international trade issues.
Farmland deployed electronic and print media to help deliver that information. Articles explaining Farmlandís position on key trade issues and outlining policy-making procedures focused readersí attention in the Farmland System News. This medium, reaching 175,000 readers monthly, was supplemented with information Farmland provided cooperative managers to use in local co-op newsletters. Farmlandís then President and CEO Harry Cleberg contributed a bylined article on sanctions to Feedstuffs magazine, raising the issueís profile and extending audience reach. Farmland also distributed to farmer-owners an informative brochure about permanent normal trade relations with China.
A Support Trade page on www.farmland.com provided detailed information on important trade issues. By clicking on the link, farmer-owners could learn about permanent normal trade relations with China or sanctions reform. The speed of the Internet enabled a series of exclusive daily updates from the strife-riddled WTO ministerial meeting in Seattle from Scott Shearer, director of national relations, Farmland Government Relations.
As a delegate representing the United States, Shearer lent the WTO advice on issues important to agriculture and participated in meetings and forums with other delegations and nongovernmental organizations. Closely monitoring the conference and providing relevant information for its member-owners and employees demonstrated Farmlandís role as a global, consumer-driven cooperative system in a tangible way.
Affecting policy on a national level requires that the voices of many be heard. So Farmland added a hotlink at the foot of the Support Trade Web page to the Farmland Legislative Action Center which facilitated easy communication on trade issues between Farmland constituents and their legislators. The Farmland Legislative Action Center generated more than 2,200 letters and nearly 300 e-mails supporting the measure.
After Congressí vote in favor of Chinaís permanent normal trade relations status, Shearer said: "Grassroots involvement was a key to the positive and successful vote. This was a tough issue, and representatives were looking to their constituents for opinions about the importance of PNTR to American agriculture and the Farmland System."
Cleberg further contributed high-level visibility to the effort when he briefed 3,500 farmer-owners on trade issues during Farmland System conferences in January and February 2000. "Our farmer-owners depend on trade," Cleberg says. "U.S. ag producers receive 30 percent of their gross receipts from exports, and that amount will grow to 35 percent in five years. Thatís why itís so important that we support trade for Farmland, our farmer-owners and our employees."
HIT íEM IN THE PAYCHECK
Despite corporate statistics showing international trade contributes fully one-third of employeesí paychecks, another survey - this time of Farmland employees in mid-1999 - highlighted a disconnect. While 75 percent of employees maintained trade had a significant impact on Farmland, only 41 percent thought trade affected them personally.
The Support Trade program answered that with a direct approach and began printing a series of international-trade messages on employee paycheck stubs. A quiz during National Trade Education Week tested employeesí knowledge of past paycheck messages.
Before the House vote on permanent normal trade relations for China, program organizers staged a rally for supporters among Farmlandís employees. The co-opís employee publication, brochures and e-mails all reinforced overall Support Trade communications. Daily Intranet transmissions kept employees up to date during the Seattle WTO meetings, World Trade Week and National Trade Education Day.
"Trade is important to all of us, and thatís why we made trade education more than a one-day observance," says Bob Honse, Farmlandís new president and CEO. "Itís extremely important for Farmland to re-emphasize with our own farmer-owners and employees the importance of removing trade barriers which could prohibit American agriculture exports. For that reason, we made trade education an ongoing effort."
Interest in Farmlandís innovative employee-paycheck trade messages snowballed when lobbyists started carrying samples to representatives on Capitol Hill. Media sat up and noticed when the president, the commerce and agriculture secretaries, and members of Congress began referring to the messages. A content analysis indicated Farmlandís trade messages reached more than 2.5 million readers via key publications, including the Washington Post and BusinessWeek.
Support Tradeís messages resonated in other ways in public policy circles, contributing to Farmlandís bid to be recognized as a leader in international trade issues related to agriculture. Besides being appointed a private-sector delegate to the Seattle WTO meetings, Farmlandís Shearer traveled with President Clinton to a rally in support of permanent normal trade relations for China, and he was asked to serve as an agricultural adviser to the White House staff on the issue.
"Through our trade education program, we emphasized the importance of removing trade barriers that prohibit the export of American agriculture products," Honse says. "As events unfolded, we continued our aggressive efforts to educate our employees and farmer-owners about the benefits of international trade."
MOVING THE NEEDLE