THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX
AWARD-WINNING ENVIROQUEST TELLS 'GOOD STORIES' ABOUT STEWARDSHIP EFFORTS
by Den Gardner, Contributing Editor
When the Walkerton, Ontario water contamination crisis broke out a couple years ago (the E. coli outbreak that resulted in the death of seven and the serious illness of more than 2,000 people), Pioneer Hi-Bred Limited in Canada decided to do something about it to help turn a negative situation for agriculture into an educational experience for consumers in rural and urban areas.
The result was an award-winning public affairs information campaign that began with a one-page advertorial series in a leading Ontario monthly farm magazine. That advertorial series, titled "EnviroQuest: Stewardship in Action," was the 2001 Canadian Agri-Marketing Association (CAMA) Best of Show winner in the Public Relations category.
"The Walkerton water crisis was the worst of its kind in Canadian history," says Art Stirling, government and industry affairs manager for Pioneer, based in Chatham, Ontario. "When the source of the contamination was quickly identified as a livestock operation near one of the small farming community's wells, the event quickly became a public relations nightmare for agriculture. Even though it was later learned the farmer followed best practices and unusually heavy rainfall and a poorly located well were among many problems that led to the unfortunate situation, a media firestorm ensued. Agriculture was being criticized as a part of the problem, not part of the solution."
Stirling, who by coincidence also was named 2001 Agri-Marketer of the Year by CAMA, took the so-called bull by the horns and met with his agency - Kahntact Marketing of Guelph, Ontario - to develop a program to promote the positive environmental stewardship activities of those in agriculture. Stirling has a history of creating and developing programs for Pioneer that benefit both the company's image and the agri-food industry as a whole.
The result was a series of one-page advertorials in Better Farming, a relatively new 42,000-circulation monthly farm publication in Ontario. Different EnviroQuest advertorials ran nine times in 2001 and four times to date in 2002.
"Art [Stirling] came to us and said there were plenty of good stories to tell about innovative practices and projects being adopted or undertaken by proactive farmers and their organizations in the area of environmental stewardship," says Jane Robinson, PR and editorial manager for Kahntact Marketing. The agency has worked on the Pioneer business since 1997. "We chose Better Farming over other ag publications because their editorial staff were developing a reputation for quality investigative environmental journalism."
The advertorial was designed to increase awareness of Pioneer's long-standing commitment to the Ontario agricultural industry by profiling good environmental initiatives on-farm and within the Canadian province's rural communities.
"From Pioneer's perspective, we knew the stewardship initiatives we wanted to profile had been going on for some time," Stirling recalls. "But, with Walkerton and other ongoing public policy debates around manure management and endangered species legislation at both the provincial and federal levels, agriculture was getting dragged through the mud and the image in the mainstream media was poor. As a company, we wanted to let the broader community know that we knew farmers in Ontario and all of Canada were responsible caretakers of the land and water under their stewardship."
The resulting series of advertorials highlighted a cross section of individuals and organizations working on, among other things, increasing conservation tillage adoption by farmers, communicating to consumers how farmers are using safer crop protection chemistries and plant biotech products for environmental benefits, protecting fragile ecosystems such as watersheds, developing nutrient management plans and helping to build habitats for endangered species.
Robinson says finding the topics for the series was not a difficult thing to do. "We covered just a small part of what's happening," she says. "These stories weren't hard to find."
EXTENDING THE MESSAGE
Equally important to the actual advertorials in Better Farming were various communication tactics developed after they appeared to leverage the content and get it in the hands of a range of influential audiences. For example, many of the advertorials were combined in a booklet and disseminated to many potentially interested groups across Canada.
Those groups included producer organizations such as AGCare, the Ontario Environmental Farm Coalition, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture and the Innovative Farmers Association of Ontario; conservation groups such as Conservation Ontario, Ducks Unlimited and the Federation of Ontario Naturalists; the media; government department officials and key politicians in both Ontario's provincial parliament and the Canadian parliament.
The booklet was distributed at a key conservation conference in Ontario, where an EnviroQuest-themed exhibit was also on display. "We wanted to be at the conference to reinforce our message to conservation authorities, environmental activists and academics about the balancing efforts of agriculture to protect and enhance natural resources while managing viable economic farming operations," Robinson says. "This effort wasn't really about selling seed and crop protection products. It was about recognizing the industry's environmental champions and getting their stories into the hands of people that affect public policy."
With that mission in mind, Pioneer also ran EnviroQuest in a special Nature Conservancy of Canada issue of the country's leading national newspaper, The Globe and Mail. For more information, visit http://enviroquest.activeweb.net . The site also links to a number of environmental and other organizations featured in the series.
Stirling says that, with Better Farming, Pioneer realized it was telling these "good news" stories first to an audience that already knew what was happening in rural Ontario. "But, from the beginning, our plan was to leverage this important content with key secondary audiences external to agriculture - media, elected officials, conservationists, environmentalists, professors and others who influence policy. We wanted to raise the profile of the proactive work that was being done. But we were also careful to note that there remains lots of opportunity for additional improvements. We were factual and sincere Ö qualities important to our core constituencies."
Stirling is convinced EnviroQuest has been both effective and successful. "It's nearly impossible to conduct a public affairs program of this nature and evaluate it in terms of dollars and cents," he says. "But after almost two decades of managing programs such as this for Pioneer in Canada, you know through anecdotal evidence and sales success that they are a great way to build and maintain corporate goodwill in the communities we serve."
It's also a way to get more subtle messages out about a subject such as agricultural biotechnology. "At the end of the day we have to be profitable as a business entity," Stirling says. "Selling the story of how biotechnology is delivering both economic and environmental benefits to corn, soybean and canola farmers in Canada is important."
Robinson says she considers the program and efforts by Pioneer as "somewhat altruistic. This isn't really about selling more seed. Pioneer is a firm believer in supporting the industry. It's a treat for us to work with a client that sees the importance of public relations and provides the opportunity to just write good stories. Who gets to do that much anymore in this business?" she asks rhetorically.
Stirling says that EnviroQuest is on a "bit of a hiatus now." The focus is certainly consistent with the culture of social responsibility and the emphasis on sustainable development encouraged and promoted by both Pioneer and its parent company, DuPont. "I'd like to see this effort carry on in some capacity in the future." AM
Den Gardner owns Gardner & Gardner Communications, New Prague, Minn.