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by Debby Hartke, Contributing Editor

Instant messaging, slogans, sound bites. Short and snappy. Yes, that’s what communications is all about today. So it may seem a little odd when agri-marketers tell you they value farm publications because a story can go on and on.

That doesn’t mean they think print is boring. On the contrary, they say a magazine article can communicate to a reader with depth, detail and long-term staying power. And sometimes that’s exactly what is needed.

For example, the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), like most ag associations and companies, uses a number of media tools to reach its audience of pork producer members. But the NPPC relied on print to keep producers informed on the complex issues surrounding the recent contested pork checkoff referendum.

"Whether dealing with explaining environmental regulations or the checkoff settlement information, print has the space to carry the detailed information that’s needed," says Cindy Cunningham, assistant vice president, communications, for NPPC, Des Moines, Iowa. "It provides the details of what this really means to a producer in his or her own operation."

Joseph Burkett, public relations manager with Pharmacia Animal Health, Kalamazoo, Mich., says Pharmacia also counts on print’s ability to explain.

"In the animal health business we sell programs, not just products," he says. "Some of those product-use programs can be fairly complex and technical. Often it requires a thorough explanation as you can only do in print to get the concept across."

Those who write and edit play a key role in the print communications success story. Readers know and trust ag editors and writers, which makes them credible sources. Agri-marketers applaud having editors and writers who understand the industry and the issues. It makes life easier.

"It was important that, in the magazines, there were a lot of editorials based on the pork checkoff and referendum," Cunningham says. "Having that information and the credibility of the editors was very important to us. It’s great to have the kind of relationship where the writers really understand the industry. It helped us to appreciate the ag print media because of their depth of knowledge. With some media people, we have to explain what a checkoff is, for example."

Cunningham and other communications professionals at NPPC, other associations and at agri-businesses know that good working relationships with editors and writers don’t happen overnight or with one quick phone call in an emergency. The relationship must be nurtured, with trust built on both sides over time.

"It’s very important to have the kind of working relationship we have with ag reporters and editors," Cunningham says. "When it comes time to do an interview, we already know that reporter and know their needs, and they know we’re going to be a credible source. In the end, good, accurate information is going to be the result."

A great opportunity for some relationship building is the upcoming Agricultural Publications Summit (APS), a joint meeting of the American Agricultural Editors’ Association (AAEA), the Livestock Publications Council (LPC) and APA: The Association of Leading Ag Media Companies. The third annual APS will be held in Grand Rapids, Mich., Aug. 1-4, 2001.

The meeting offers educational sessions, writing and photography clinics, keynote speakers, receptions and the InfoExpo trade show, where representatives of ag companies and associations are available to talk with attendees about their latest products and programs.

This is Pharmacia’s first year as a sponsor of APS. Burkett views attendance at APS as another opportunity to get to know editors and writers. He says the event is important because of the networking and relationship building that occurs.

"Our public relations efforts are often dependent on the relationship we have with an editor," he says. "Of course, we need to have something worth offering when we make those calls."

NPPC exhibited for the first time at last year’s APS. The association had been involved in both LPC and AAEA in past years and thought it would be appropriate to participate in this joint meeting.

"We were very pleased with traffic through our booth and with everyone who stopped to talk with us," Cunningham says. "I think having this joint meeting is great way to get the groups together."

Cunningham says she appreciates the relaxed environment for talking with editors found at InfoExpo.

"It’s good when both sides want to get acquainted with each other and then are more comfortable in dealing with each other," she says. "It’s not a situation where a reporter calls and needs something in five minutes."

BASF Corp., Agricultural Products Division, Research Triangle Park, N.C., views its involvement in the APS as the company’s opportunity to tell the three participating organizations "Hey, you’re very important to us," according to Larry Lintner, group communications manager. BASF has been a financial supporter of the APS all three years, each year expanding its contribution.

"The trade show is a good opportunity for us to get to see some editors individually and develop our relationships," Lintner says. "If the editors have specific questions, we can handle them at that point or set up a time for a future interview."

Jerry Harrington, sales/public relations manager for Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Des Moines, Iowa, says communications staff at Pioneer and at agency Meyocks & Priebe talk with editors regularly by phone. But face-to-face meetings at the APS are essential in strengthening those connections.

"Attendance at an event like this is mandatory to advance human relations," Harrington says. "Personal interaction is the key with these professionals who are so important in communicating with our customers. There’s nothing to replace this face time. Nothing."

Holding a meeting in the upper Midwest, in Grand Rapids, not far from the Lake Michigan shore, may be timely for an escape from summer’s heat the first week of August. But Harrington points out this is also an opportune time to meet with editors who are starting to plan fall and winter stories.

"You can talk to them about company locations they may want to visit or field days they may want to attend," he says. "You want to have that connection with them when they’re going to be writing for bigger books in the winter."

John Deere has participated as an APS sponsor for all three years of the event.

"One reason I thoroughly enjoy APS is because the people I deal with are all the editors who are attending," says Barry Nelson, manager of public relations, John Deere Agricultural Marketing Center, Lenexa, Kan. "They receive our releases. All the major editors are in one place."

Just as APS offers a wide reach to "all the major editors," print offers a wide reach to readers-the customers agri-marketers want to connect with.

"Farm magazines have the largest reach of any of the media," BASF’s Lintner says. "Print is the opportunity for us to contact or communicate with the largest number of growers in any one place. Magazines have a standing tradition of carrying product information and trends in the market that growers rely on very heavily. It’s really one of the first places that we must look when we’re providing info or advertising to the ag media."

Burkett says print helps Pharmacia reinforce its customer connections and reach beyond its "first tier" of customers as well.

"This organization has always been incredibly good at working with key accounts," he says. "When we’re one-to-one with customers, we’re extremely efficient at closing the sale. But we also need to take advantage of indirect communication with customers, those maybe not in our first tier of contact, but who get information from the print medium."

Print has staying power, too, since producers tend to keep copies around.

"Producers can go back and recheck a fact and check what they thought they read," NPPC’s Cunningham says. "That magazine is always around for them. The other media are quick and then they’re gone. Producers can go back a month later and say, ‘See, this is what that regulation said I need to do.’" AM

Debby Hartke is a writer and communications consultant based in St. Louis, Mo.

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