THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX
FOOD FORETHOUGHT FOUNDATION CREATES 'AGTIVIST' PROGRAM TO COUNTER ANTI-AGRICULTURE MOVEMENTS
by Kelly Dean
This past election year reflected how divided our nation has become. Red and blue served to further alienate rural and urban America, confirming that more of America is generations removed from the family farm. Despite the fact that consumers rank farmers as one of the three most respected professions, 75 percent of consumers feel the agricultural industry is doing a fair or poor job of communicating to consumers (Farm Bureau Federation and Altria, 2002 Food and Farming Study), leaving them vulnerable to receiving misinformation regarding food and farming from organized activists and the media.
The Food Forethought Foundation (FFT) has built a viable bridge between the farmer and the consumer through a variety of media:
Susan Allen of Allen Media, the public relations company hired by the foundation, is the driving force behind FFT and has served as the voice of the FFT radio program for nearly three years. She has had the thrill of watching the foundation grow atypically, from its start funded by agribusiness into what has now become a growing grassroots AGtivist -- a term she coined labeling activists for agriculture -- movement that resonates with the consumer on the street and the farmer in the field.
"My defining moment with FFT, when it became intensely personal, occurred when I saw a letter written in response to one of my columns in a regional newspaper. A farmer who sells produce direct at a roadside stand in Humboldt County, Calif., wrote to thank me for valuing his agricultural contributions," says Allen. "In his letter, he expressed how much it pained him when 'organic-only' proponents pulled off at his stand and put him down for his conventional farming methods, saying, among other things, that he was poisoning their children by using pesticides. The farmer did not understand why there needed to be such a deep line in the sand between organic and conventional. His letter made it crystal clear that FFT exists to give validation to the exceptional ability of all American farmers to produce high-quality food, regardless of whether they market their produce at an organic farmers market or in a bulk shipping container earmarked for a Third-World country."
JoAnn Cunningham, Allen Media vice president of operations, says validation of American farmers is critical at a time when imports are slowly and silently stealing shelf space. "Here in the state of Washington, apple growers are anticipating the onslaught of Chinese apples. Florida citrus growers have been devastated by two disasters, the hurricanes and the flood of juice concentrate from Brazil. If we lose our ability to produce food for our citizens, we lose control over the safety and price of food, not to mention the fact that we leave ourselves vulnerable to a terrorist attack through a food or transportation source.
"Consumers want to support the American farmer, but being fickle, they need to be continually reminded of the farmer's contribution through a variety of media they come in contact with on a daily basis. The reality is that the media are the public's number one source of education and headlines change from day to day. That is why daily communication is one of the most important missions of the FFT Foundation," Cunningham says.
Under Marketing/Promotions the focus is on consumer outreach activities such as joint retail promotions. One example the FFT team has developed unites a major food manufacturer with farmers by featuring header cards and cut-out point-of-purchase displays of a typical American farm family stating that they are proud of what they grow and how it becomes brand XYZ's product. This gives grocery store shoppers a "warm and fuzzy" visual of today's farmers. Another promotion targeting different demographics is "Farmer Appreciation Day" at Major League ballparks. The focus of all FFT marketing/promotions campaigns is to maximize visibility for agriculture by getting in front of the public sector using a unique, "catchy" approach.
The Media Monitoring and Response Team concentrates on staying abreast of what is being said about agriculture in general market magazines, newspapers and television, then righting the many misconceptions the public is subjected to. The long-term goal for the Media Monitoring and Response Team is to have FFT communications specialists available to issue sound bites, participate in press conferences and appear on the talk show circuit to present agriculture's side of the story to the public.
Allen feels strongly that the FFT Foundation will be perceived as more believable and, by virtue of its design, will be able to react more quickly in speaking to the public on behalf of agriculture than a farm commodity association or commission. She adds, "Living in the Northwest, I have experienced how farming issues can be sensationalized by biased media. Fifteen years ago the '60 Minutes' Alar story nearly destroyed Northwest apple growers. Biased reporting, which misrepresented the facts, sent consumers into a panic causing fearful mothers to stop buying apples for their families. No one in the industry had the skills or media contacts to counter the misinformation fed from a high-profile Hollywood celebrity in the '60 Minutes' report. Another more recent example was the first case of BSE discovered near my home in Washington state. Mad cow hysteria streamed across my TV night after night. It was after this last episode that it became obvious how imperative it is to have a neutral response team in place to provide the media with a source for the facts."
The third leg of the milking stool is an ongoing Public Education effort. This includes the current radio and print commentary campaign created to keep a constant flow of positive agriculture industry information in front of the public. In addition, to reach a younger segment of the country, an internship program has been created to reach U.S. universities, where communications students have the opportunity to become local spokespersons -- "AGtivists" within college communities on behalf of the FFT Foundation.
The FFT Foundation is unique in its capability to effectively use a variety of tactics to promote the education efforts of agricultural organizations and commodity groups and, while doing so, remarkably unites industry groups that have never worked together in a collaborative effort. This creates a unified voice for agriculture, one with incredible depth and reach.
Cunningham adds that she has taken a long, hard look at anti-farming activist movements and recognized the need for FFT to model some of its efforts after PETA's, Greenpeace's, Earth First's and Sierra Club's successful communications tactics. "While we don't support their radical actions, we find validity in many of their tac-tical media campaigns," says Cunningham. There is a lot to be learned from these activist groups that raise in excess of $1.9 billion and are highly successful at promoting their agenda to the public.
The FFT Foundation is positioned to tell the other side of the story. For more information on how you or your organization can become a part of the FFT Foundation, visit http://www.foodforethought.org/ or call 888/509-6397. AM
Kelly Dean is a contract writer for Allen Media.