Starving for Context and Translation: Lessons from the 2008 Food Crisis

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The first half of 2008 was a blur for me. When the global food crisis hit, the fertilizer industry went from obscurity to centre stage in the blink of an eye. There was little or no time to build up resources, so all of the communicators I know in the sector went into overdrive. While I think we collectively handled the situation pretty competently, I also learned a lot from the situation. Here are some of my reflections:

There is a real need for more communicators who can translate technical and scientific issues into terms that can be understood by non-experts. Everyone thinks they know a lot about food: after all everyone eats every day. My dealings with non-specialized media and decision makers made it clear to me that there is a gaping chasm between the highly complex and technical process of global food production and the simplistic and romantic views most people have about agriculture and related activities. There are a gazillion (obviously I am exaggerating somewhat) economic, scientific, social, political, environmental, legal and other factors that farmers, policy makers, scientists and others working on agricultural issues need to balance. Most “amateurs” have strong opinions about one or two specific points without an appreciation for how the whole system needs to be managed in an integrated fashion. I think this is true about any scientific sector.

If you don’t provide context, people will invent their own. In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell cites Gordon Allport’s book The Psychology of Rumor about how rumors arise from information being “leveled” (stripped of details that are essential for understanding the true meaning of something) and then “sharpened” (the details that remain are made more specific) as people try to make sense of new information. We witnessed this firsthand with fertilizers in 2008. For example, we received a number of questions from serious journalists asking if the world was running out of vital crop nutrients. The truth is that production bottlenecks kept fertilizers in short supply in the short term, but longer term supplies are expected to be adequate for generations to come. But it wasn’t obvious for non-experts how to piece together all the information needed to reach the correct conclusion, so the other view became common.

Connectors are a godsend, especially in times of crisis. When deadlines are urgent, no one can afford to lose time on dead ends or colleagues who play hard-to-get. I thank my lucky stars for the key colleagues who were easy to reach, called backed quickly and could point me to the right resources when they didn’t have the needed answers. A word to the wise in these difficult times: if you want to demonstrate how indispensable you are, become a human encyclopedia and directory in your field.

Media relations and public relations are about relationships. I spent weeks talking to journalists, explaining everything from the basics about the industry to complex technical and economic issues. I did background research, referred them to neutral third parties and did everything I could to help them do their job. The results were mixed. Frankly some journalists go looking for facts that fit their preconceived ideas (I even had one journalist from a reputable newspaper threaten to publicly accuse my organization of withholding information from the public because I told him that no one that I knew collected the data he wanted — a fact later confirmed by a representative of a relevant government agency). But I also had the pleasure of working with some excellent journalists who were working diligently to get up to speed on very complex issues. Did any of the latter mention my name in their articles? No. Some mentioned my organization, but even when they didn’t, the investment was worth it because their writing reflected a much more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the issues. By coincidence, one of those excellent journalists was from the same organization as the one who threatened me, and it was a great resource to be able to turn to someone “in-house” for advice on how to handle a very delicate situation.

You can never be too prepared and you’ll never be prepared enough. We had been working for years to make the industry’s communications more pro-active and more tuned to a generalist audience, but we didn’t predict the level of attention that we received or the wide range of questions received. In the long term, I think the sector’s PR professions were the indirect “winners”: there is definitely a new high-level appreciation for the importance of communications and PR in this sector, which was not very extroverted before the food crisis. At least for the moment, there seems to be a serious commitment to continuing and even upgrading the industry’s capacity to dialogue with its various stakeholder groups. I find that personally gratifying because I believe that sustainably feeding up to nine billion people is one of the greatest challenges we will face in coming decades. I am confident we can do it, but only if discussions about agriculture move beyond dogma and focus on joint problem-solving. And I believe that public relation professionals with mastery of the relevant issues will play a critical part in making that happen.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Kristen, this is exceptionally interesting and instructive, Thank you for sharing it.
    As you very well say, your experience is relevant to a very good portion of the issues we face day-after-day and public relators continually find themselves in the trap between hearsay and knowledge, knowing very well (when they stop to think, that is)that the latter is almost never a certainty (whatever this may be..).
    Yet, the role we often interpret has enourmous consequences on the shaping of reality.
    What a great job we have, and what a great role we play when we do it with passion, curiosity and awareness of others.
    I feel much better today, after having read your piece.

  2. Media monitoring services still play an important role in supporting PR, but this old school model comes from a day before the Internet where national media monitoring via a third party was essential, simply because there wasn’t an alternative, and in many cases, for print, radio and TV there isn’t an all inclusive alternative today. And yet blogs and consumer generated media are the children of a new age, an online age where information is accessible online anywhere in the world at the touch of a button.
    ———————–
    catherin

    Milford NH Storage Rental

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