Many in agriculture have asked me the same question over the years, “How can I avoid a crisis?” Few like my answer, “Sometimes you can’t.”
If you raise something that others are going to eat, there is a good chance someone will object to one aspect or another of what you do. If you process that food, there are those who will not like how you do it. If you sell food to the public, someone will have a bone to pick with your operation. Throughout the entire food system, of course, the ugly spectre of contamination always looms. We all hate the thought of a food recall.
So what’s a farmer to do?
First, take a hard look at your operation. Whether you raise animals or crops or cultivate bees, are you performing at the highest standards of your industry? Not, do you want to, but are you? If not, do something about it. Doing nothing sets you up as a target for those looking to prove people like you are bad operators.
Second, assess and accept your real risks. Are you big? Are you prominent? Then you better be vigilant. You have aggressive opponents.
So let’s say you are doing everything right from an operational point of view—there’s not a blade of grass out of place; you still need to prepare for the worst. Strong groups oppose the practices used to produce the vast majority of America’s food. They may nab undercover video, picket or attack you in the media. You can also be the victim of a natural disaster or the foolish act of an employee.
Preparing after lightning has struck is too late. You will waste time trying to figure out what to do while your reputation and that of your industry spirals downward.
Any plan should have three parts: Preparation, Crisis Management, Follow-up. (As part of our Reputation Management practice, Charleston|Orwig has developed Rules of the Road for managing thorny issues. )
Before you do anything, though, make a solemn commitment to transparency. Be honest. If not, you will be caught, which only multiplies your problem. Below is an outline of a very basic plan:
1. Scenario planning. Determine your biggest threats. If you raise animals, for example, think about the media hot buttons—animal welfare, antibiotics, E. coli—which are most likely to affect you? Are you well versed on the issues?
2. Decide who will speak to the media Make sure that any family members or employees know who this is. (Commodity associations often can help with training.)
3. Draft a simple statement about your farm. What you do, how long you have been around, why someone should believe you run a good operation.
4. Prepare a contact list—who sells to you and who are your customers? Include the public affairs person at your commodity association.
5. Are you on social media? If not, you should be. Having connections and followers is a good way to reach out with YOUR story.
6. Determine expert partners ready to help—collaborators such as other farmers, commodity groups, industry supporters.
1. As hard as it is, pause, take a deep breath and think before acting or responding.
2. Talk to your inside audiences first—family, employees, other farmers, industry association. These are your allies. Make sure all understand your situation.
3. You will need to talk to media. You do not need to answer leading questions—think presidential debates. Be honest, humble and forthright.
4. Carefully and thoughtfully tell your story online.
5. Set up Google Alerts to monitor what is happening.
2. Tweak your crisis preparedness plan. Hope you never need it again, but use what you have learned.
3. Conduct a hard assessment of your operations. Could you have prevented your crisis or had a better story to tell if you had done things differently?
4. Make any changes required.
Managing a crisis is tough. You can do your best to avoid one by operating at a gold standard. You can do your best to survive one by preparing in advance.