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How to engage with the public about animal agriculture

Learn about effective communication strategies and how to reach the "moveable middle."

digitalista |

Learn about effective communication strategies and how to reach the ‘moveable middle’

In a polarized environment, it’s sometimes difficult to engage with average consumers about animal agriculture. However, according to Emily Solis, manager of communications and content at the Animal Agriculture Alliance, the majority of consumers are willing to learn more about the industry and engage with it.

Solis spoke March 8 at the American Feed Industry Association’s (AFIA) Purchasing and Ingredient Suppliers Conference (PISC) in Orlando, Florida.

She explained that most consumers fall into one of three groups. At one end of the spectrum is people who work in animal agriculture and advocate for it. At the other end is steadfast opponents of animal agriculture, such as animal rights groups and other adversarial groups. In between those, Solis said, is the “moveable middle” – the reasonable majority of people which is the target audience that is willing to learn about and engage with the industry.

“It’s important to know that those … adversarial groups are trying to place a wedge between us and our target audience,” Solis said. “They’re trying to erode the trust that the general public has in the farming community. So the same target audience that we’re trying to reach, they’re trying to reach as well.”

The moveable middle is made up of people who may not have an agriculture background but can have a meaningful conversation and be persuaded on the benefits of agriculture by learning new information. They may be aware of certain farming practices but don’t know enough about them to make an informed decision.

“They’re also not necessarily actively looking for information,” she said. “They might be on Google trying to find more information, but there’s a good chance that they’re not. So that’s why a lot of communicators and influencers will really recommend that you meet these people where they’re at. They might not come to your farm page or to your website, but if you’re at church and you’re just talking to the person next to you, that might be a really good way to build a connection and build a relationship.”

When communicating with others, Solis said it’s important to focus on engaging rather than educating.

“I hear a lot of people, especially in agriculture, say that we need to educate consumers on a certain topic, on a certain issue. But when you think of educating, that just sounds like you’re talking to someone, it’s not a real conversation, you’re not making a connection, you’re not building a relationship,” she said. “You really do have to go a little bit further than just wanting to share your side and share the facts. You’re going to need a voice, you have to be able to really connect with someone and really try to build that relationship.”

Do’s and don’ts of consumer engagement

When engaging with consumers about agriculture, Solis said you should:

  • Put a human face on agriculture.
  • Try to relate your subject matter to something the general public has experience with.
  • Think of your three key points that you want the audience to walk away with and then repeat them.
  • Try to truly understand their questions and concerns before responding.

In order to have a meaningful conversation, don’t:

  • Use industry/medical/technical jargon.
  • Speculate. If you do not know the answer, say so and offer to help find the information or refer them to someone who can.
  • Be negative toward different industries or production methods. We’re all in this together, and we need to increase consumer trust in agriculture as a whole.
  • Get drawn into debates. Politely end the conversation if the discussion is turning unproductive and adversarial.
  • Show or discuss sensitive topics without proper context.

Solis also offered some pointers for handling contentious issues:

  • Don’t shy away from a topic just because it’s tricky.
  • Lead with your values, not the facts.
  • Respect differences of opinion while sharing accurate information.
  • Know when to walk away.
  • Acknowledge that emotions and concerns are valid.
  • Prepare for tough questions.
  • Realize it’s OK to not have an answer.
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