THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX
FROM THE GROUND UP
by Den Gardner, Contributing Editor
My wife works in the crop protection sales business. She's been with the same company for 21 years in several positions. She likes her job, enjoys working with retailers and farmers, and likes the freedom of growing her business in her territory.
No, you aren't going to get a history lesson on my marriage, how the kids are doing in college and what I did on my summer vacation. But I've always been intrigued by her responses over the years when asked by people what she does for a living. Although she's quick to point out the name of the company and that she's in sales, until recently, she's always neglected to mention the part about "what" she sells.
But that's changing. Instead of being vague about her business, she's now more open about the fact that she sells "farm chemicals."
IT'S BENEFITS, STUPID
One of those first tactics will be to arm those in the business with the tools to speak responsibly, accurately and with conviction about this business - and be proud of it!
CHANGE IN DIRECTION
"One day at a board meeting, someone said, 'We should be proud of what we do,' and that our industry has a great story to tell," says Carl Casale, vice president and general manager of North America for Monsanto Co., St. Louis. "Rather than being defensive, we need to be positive and proactive.
"We've [the crop protection chemical and biotechnology industry] been tremendously successful in this country and part of that success is due to having abundant yields, which are possible because of the products we produce. We have to start talking about the benefits we provide to consumers."
Casale is a member of the board of CropLife America and a vice chairman of the association. He's also the co-lead of the group's benefits project, along with Eric Wintemute, president and CEO of AMVAC in Newport Beach, Calif. "As an industry, we spend an awful lot of time maintaining our freedom to operate," Casale says. "We have to ensure we're advancing our messages and be at the forefront to drive them ahead. We have to drive the effort as members."
TAKEN FOR GRANTED
Pat Getter, vice president of communications for CropLife America, a former television news reporter and corporate spokesperson for DuPont for many years, is leading the staff effort. "Everyone in our industry knows only one in 20,000 compounds makes it to market. Pesticides must pass up to 120 health, safety and environment tests before EPA grants registration. And pesticide development, testing and registration take eight to 10 years to complete and cost manufacturers $35 million to $50 million per final product.
"Don't get me wrong," Getter says. "This is good, solid safety information. But the benefits story has been largely untold. The more we talked to people, the more we realized how many people don't think past their local supermarket when you ask them where fruits and vegetables come from." Further, she adds, they don't associate pesticides and plant biotechnology with increased yields, while protecting the environment and safeguarding public health.
Getter says the change of focus from safety to benefits is a real paradigm shift for CropLife America. "There is a real important lesson here," Getter says. "We've got to change our mindset. We need to do a better job of selling ourselves, and we need to begin with our member-company employees."
It's time for CropLife America to help the people who need to know how to "connect the dots" and realize that "fruits and vegetables and other crops, which provide consumers with a safe, nutritious and healthful supply of affordable food, are produced in large part because of the pesticide industry," Getter says.
The first effort was an employee survey to get a cross-sectional idea of what employees in the crop protection business thought of their industry. "We needed this as a starting point to see the bigger picture," Getter says.
What CropLife America found was somewhat alarming. "We discovered that the employees of our member companies don't have the kind of information they need to talk comfortably with neighbors and others about their business," Getter says. "We owe it to our employees to get them this information. This was eye- opening to us. If the employees don't fully understand the benefits, how can we get the message across to anyone else?"
Casale agrees. He's spent 18 years with Monsanto and realizes the job ahead. "We contribute greatly to the safe, abundant and affordable food supply that our country enjoys. Our employees have to understand and be able to communicate that. They want to be ambassadors as long as they have the information. That's been the disconnect. This is as much a public affairs issue as anything else. The bigger picture here is that if we don't do a better job of selling ourselves and our benefits, we'll let others position our industry for us."
Casale says whether a member of this industry is in an elevator, at a backyard barbecue or at a school or church function, he or she has to be able to support our industry. "The message must be simple, we must be able to say it in 30 seconds and it must have impact," he says. "We live in a world of sound bites. People have to be able to relate to what we tell them for it to have impact. If we can articulate our messages effectively, using this public relations benefits campaign, we can become ambassadors of the industry. We need to empower our employees to proudly tell the benefits of what we do and how we contribute greatly to safe, abundant and affordable food."
CropLife America is, in a sense, trying to emulate what the Plastics Council (the association representing the plastics industry) has done to show that it produces a product with benefits to consumers. "But do we have the dollar resources of that magnitude to tell our story?" Casale asks. "No, we don't. We have to be creative and search other means to get our information out. Public relations is core to our strategy."
Getter agrees that a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign isn't going to happen. After company employees, the next step in this benefits campaign is to get CropLife America board members committed to this new approach. "We will distribute a PowerPoint benefits presentation to board members for use with organizations, schools and other groups," Getter says. "We intend to ask each board member to sign a contract pledging to make at least one benefits presentation outside of his own employees." The presentation should be distributed about the time this publication is mailed.
"We are going to approach this in a strategic way. It's nice to say we're going to change the public's opinion with this presentation. But that's not realistic. What we want is to get this to the people - policy and decision makers, local business groups, school folks and others - who need to know the impact our products have in providing affordable food and fiber, while protecting the environment and public health.
"If along the way we make a mark with consumers and public groups, then great. But we're going to start out with a very targeted audience and be realistic. Buying an ad in a national newspaper is not going to do it."
This industry gets battered daily from environmental activists and uninformed consumers. Will the industry ever turn the corner in getting the necessary and accurate messages to the people who need to know? "We have the strength of conviction that we're doing the right thing," Getter concludes. "Without these products, food consumption, the environment and public health as we have come to appreciate them wouldn't exist. People need to understand the depth and breadth of impact our products have on their lives." AM
Den Gardner owns Gardner & Gardner Communications, New Prague, Minn.