Communicating Thorny Issues to Customers and Media

How does your business communicate about controversial food production issues with your customers?
Communicating Thorny Issues to Customers and Media - Articles


If customers are interested in where food comes from, farm businesses who participate in direct to consumer sales may encounter questions about their production practices. Some of those questions may deal with controversial or thorny issues, for example, genetically modified foods (GMs) and pesticide use. Farms and food businesses are fielding questions about complex and controversial issues from concerned consumers and interested media. Improper handling of these topics could negatively impact a business bottom line regardless of what production methods are being used. Proper handling can protect sales and the reputation of a farm or food business.

It is important for business owners to train management and staff to communicate the message they want the public to receive. It’s especially important to train frontline staff because they will have the most interaction with customers. If staff does not have the depth of understanding that the grower/owner does, it is possible that they will inadequately communicate farm production methods to customers. Train staff to know when it’s appropriate for them to address questions from customers or media and when to defer to owner or senior management.

The issues of GMs and pesticide use have been and continue to be hot topics of conversation in the public realm, and may be issues that customers have strong feelings about. When communicating farm production methods to customers, growers should be prepared for strong opinions, and prepare truth-based answers in plain understandable language. Growers also must remember that while customers may have strong views about production methods, the complexity of the issues often leads to misunderstandings. For example, many people do not understand that an organically certified farm still sprays pesticides.

In a 2014 study, the Hartman Group found that 40% of consumers are “avoiding or reducing GMs in their daily diet.” Consumers who were avoiding GMs 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%) and that 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 and tell the story of their businesses, and the story of agriculture. Some of those conversations and questions can be tough to navigate. Share with customers your method of production without disparaging other forms of production or offending people who may not have all the information.

Social media is one accessible arena for customers to voice their opinions on these thorny issues. While social media should not be used as a platform to discuss controversial issues, farm businesses can take advantage of social media by showing customers what they do every day and promoting positive aspects of the operation. This can be a wonderful start to bringing customers “into the fold” and giving them an inside, close-up look at your farm’s production methods.