Communicating Thorny Issues To Customers And Media

Posted: July 27, 2016

A growing percentage of consumers are very interested in understanding how and where food comes from. This trend is a cue to farm and other agricultural producers to prepare to answer questions from customer about production practices.
To achieve customer satisfaction, growers need to be able to communicate effectively.

To achieve customer satisfaction, growers need to be able to communicate effectively.

This interest from the general public and the media usually has a basis in food safety and concern for environmental sustainability, leading to questions dealing with controversial or thorny issues, often around genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and pesticide use. As these issues are complex and controversial, agriculture producers need to think through a communications strategy to protect the farm brand and bottom line.

Business owners should train management and staff to communicate the message they want the public to receive. Training frontline and seasonal staff in talking points ensures a business is properly represented. Often this level of staff does not have the depth of understanding that the owner does and might not adequately or accurately communicate farm production methods to customers. Train staff to know when it is appropriate for them to address questions from customers or media and when to defer to the owner or senior management.

GMO and pesticide use have been and continue to be a hot topic of conversation in the public realm. In the US, there is pending legislation at state and federal levels regarding labeling requirements. Many countries ban GMOs in food products or require labeling. When communicating farm production methods to customers, growers should be prepared for strong opinions, with truth-based answers in plain, understandable language. For example, many people do not understand that an organically certified farm still sprays pesticides.

In 2014, a Hartman Group survey found that 40% of consumers are “avoiding or reducing GMOs in their daily diet.” Consumers who were avoiding GMOs listed the following reasons:

  • don’t know enough about them (27%)
  • concerned about their possible impact of the environment (33%)
  • don’t want to support companies that use GMOs (40%)
  • want to know exactly what goes into the food they eat (48%)
  • they are concerned about their personal health and well-being (71 % of those surveyed).

Consumers may have very strong opinions about production methods, but they may not be “Ag Literate.”

There are many opportunities for farm and food business owners to connect in person, through signage, traditional and social media to tell the story of an agricultural business. Share the ups and downs of the growing season with customers and media through pictures and newsletters. Cultivate relationships with media to reach new customer bases, and become the ‘go to’ for local foods. And, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure in equipping staff with the tools needed to communicate effectively and build positive brand image.

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Contact Information

Heather E. Manzo
  • Extension Educator, Agricultural Entrepreneurship and Community Economic Development
Phone: 412-482-3458
Rachel Samuels
  • Program Assistant
Phone: 412-482-3464