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If you don't mind being scared by what the public thinks about agriculture (and fertilizer in general), please read on. If you want to see how one fertilizer company is using public relations to put an end to misinformation in the halls of government and the streets of our cities and towns, keep reading down the page. If you want to close your eyes and ears to the lack of common sense outside of rural America, skip this column.

Now here's a public relations practitioner's dream case history. Take what appears to be a totally misunderstood product - commercial fertilizer - and help consumers and lawmakers better understand what it does.

Chicago-based PotashCorp. has been working for the past year on its Fertile Minds initiative, an educational program designed to enlighten key audiences about the value of commercial fertilizer and, hopefully, debunk the myths and misperceptions about it.

Let's see what consumers on the streets of Chicago have to say about commercial fertilizers:

Definition: Comes from potatoes, the middle or peel part (depending on whom you talk to). It's a pollutant, a byproduct or what's left after smoking marijuana. According to one consumer, Potash was defined and named after Larry Potash, a morning news anchor at WGN-TV in Chicago.

"I know it can be pretty toxic. It's made with pesticides, pretty potent stuff to kill things;" or "We get E coli, mad cow disease. It's all happening because of fertilizer."

It comes from sulfate, soap, potash, laboratories and the algae in the water that lights up the phosphate.

It comes from people, cows - their stomach, residue and birds.

Fertilizer vs. Crop Nutrients
Which is better? Consumers interviewed say nutrients - it's healthier, more appealing, and more natural. Crop nutrients sound more benign than fertilizer. Fertilizer implies that your fruit or vegetables "are gonna be more dirty when you eat them."


The on-the-street interviews listed above show us the worst. Anyone who watches Jay Leno do his weekly segment embarrassing the public on the "Tonight Show" easily understands that.

How about a survey of top lawmakers in the U.S.? Surely these bastions of intelligence and shapers of public policy understand how America works and can show us aggies they grasp even the simplest details of the fertilizer industry.

Here's what PotashCorp's survey of 150 national lawmakers found:

70 percent had no idea where nitrogen originates
70 percent couldn't say where potash originates
61 percent had no idea about the origin of phosphate

It gets worse. The survey also asked them to rate organic fertilization methods and conventional fertilization methods on a scale of one to 100. Organic fertilizers scored a higher favor ability rating than nitrogen, potash or phosphates.


With this background, PotashCorp, with the assistance of its agency, Fergus/Peters Group, Inc., in suburban Chicago, began the marketing/public information campaign - first with regional ads in national consumer magazines, then with all sorts of publicity and promotional tactics.

The whole idea began with focus groups of ag retailers. After hearing that they were getting beat up pretty badly because of the misperception of "overuse of fertilizer," a decision was made to have the largest fertilizer company stand up for fertilizer.

In today's economic realities, long-term commitments to a program like this are not the easiest to approve with upper management. "It does take quite a bit of discipline to focus on the long-term objectives of your communications activities," Betty-Ann Heggie, senior vice president of corporate relations, says. "I have to compliment our senior management for being able to recognize the need for a program like this.

"That being said, I think when we saw the depth of misperceptions from our research, the decision to move ahead more or less presented itself. As we all know, lack of understanding sparked public backlash against GMOs, and we're hoping to prevent a similar reaction in our industry."

Heggie calls this effort "our most ambitious communications effort" because the scope of the program reaches the general public. Before, the company spoke only to its customer base - ag retailers. It started with ads appearing in Washington, D.C. issues of Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report.

The ads coincided with the first Fertile Minds Ideas Expo in San Antonio, Texas, where media, several hundred ag retailers and other ag leaders were invited to hear a panel of eight agricultural experts provide answers to assist them in dealing with the misinformed public. A video of highlights was produced from the expo for key audiences.

What followed from that effort was direct mailers, educational materials, media hits, and promotional and publicity-related efforts to set the record straight and attempt to change public opinion.

"Washington offered us two key advantages," says Heggie, "one being a cost-effective market to fine-tune our message and creative development. In the meantime we reached a high influential audience. The other benefit was accountability - we conducted benchmark qualitative and quantitative research among lawmakers and their staff. This revealed an alarming lack of understanding."

Brian Peters, account manager for PotashCorp at Fergus/Peters Group, says the survey showed no clear idea why lawmakers had such negative impressions of fertilizers, but it was clear "there was passionate opposition to fertilizer." Peters adds that the key messages that needed to be communicated to lawmakers and consumers were:

Crop nutrients were a necessity, not a luxury.
Crop nutrients were a benefit to land conservation.
Those in the business of producing, distributing and selling fertilizer have as much at stake regarding a healthy environment as anyone else.

"Dr. Norman Borlaug, the only Nobel Peace Prize winner for ag research, gives us thumbs up for what we're doing," Peters explains. "He backs all the key messages of Fertile Minds."


"We're finding there is an incredible editorial appetite for this program and its key messages," Heggie says. "Frankly, fertilizers were one of the last sectors of agribusiness to address misperceptions, and I think that's gained the interest of publications."

Since it was initiated in January, has seen considerable activity.

The media efforts and promotional campaign will continue in July, when the Fertile Minds Idea Expo will again coincide with the beginning of the Southwestern Fertilizer Conference in San Antonio. A new panel will likely look at fertilizer use from an expanded perspective. "We don't want to re-cover the same material as last year," Peters says. "We want to broaden the perspective and confront new issues for retailers."


In the first quarter of this year, a CD-Rom was made available to interested parties. The CD has a number of segments, including a glossary search by word, highlights of the July conference and other useful information to relate to consumers about the fertilizer business. "The CD acts as an ag advocate," Peters says.

He adds that phase two also includes a Fertile Minds starter kit for ag retailers. "We'll provide formatted press releases that can be customized to each market and town, and provide talking points on issues to cover with media. There's going to be presentations that dealers can take to local meetings. That's a big part of phase two."

This misinformation about fertilizer may be funny to the public and our lawmakers. But in reality it's a horror movie waiting to invade rural America. Hats off to PotashCorp for taking this initiative.

"The biggest challenge we encountered is the enormity of the problem - the depth of misperception we discovered during our research," Heggie says. "Virtually 90 percent of the people we spoke with had little or no awareness of what fertilizer is, where it comes from and the benefits it offers. And 70 percent of lawmakers are in the dark when it comes to understanding where fertilizer comes from. These are people regulating our industry - it's scary."

Finally, measuring the effectiveness of this program is an ongoing process. "Short-term, we will be relying on the benchmark surveys we conducted prior to the program," Heggie says. Specifically, Washington is where we will be most interested in gauging the impact of the program. Long term, we'd like for people to be able to talk about fertilizer without cringing or laughing." AM

Den Gardner owns Gardner & Gardner Communications, New Prague, Minn.

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