Who Cares What the Neighbors Think? Here’s the Value of a Public Relations Plan for Every Dairy

Walt Ogburn

Jane Hillstrom

Why does a dairy farm need a public relations plan?  What is a public relations plan, anyway?  Can I be a good neighbor without one?  Most dairy farms across the country haven’t had a plan and have gotten along just fine — or have they?

Jane Hillstrom ([email protected]) is our public relations coach at FYP Consulting and helps producers become and stay good neighbors.  I had a conversation with Jane about the how’s and why’s  of public relations planning.  We also talked about what’s needed to prepare for a crisis that may strike a dairy business.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Walt Ogburn Let’s start by defining a public relations plan as it pertains to dairies.  What does a good plan look like?

Jane Hillstrom – Public relations (PR) builds relationships and trust.  It is a planned and sustained effort to communicate how well you care for your animals, land, water, air, and the safety of dairy foods. It also includes communicating your involvement in your community and your treatment of employees. It uses community relations, media relations, and crisis management to tell your story.

Ogburn – Why is a PR plan of value to a dairy?  Who cares what the neighbors or people in town think?  A cynic would say that it’s none of their business!

Hillstrom – In today’s social business environment, it is crucial for dairies to reach out to neighbors with information about their farm. I like to say, “Either you can tell your story, or you can let someone else do it.” A dairy producer in California once said to me, “I prefer to stay under the radar screen.” Dairy producers’ on-farm practices are already on the radar screen. Simply Google “Is dairy?”  and let Google fill in the rest to see how important it is for dairy producers to be a part of the conversation.

Ogburn – You mentioned crisis management earlier. What are examples of a crisis on a dairy farm?

Hillstrom – The severity of each crisis varies. Examples include manure spill, death in a farm accident, community group opposition to expansion or on-farm practices, and undercover video shot on your farm alleging mistreatment of animals. It could also include an EPA visit, hostile media interview, or odor and/or fly complaints.

Ogburn – How does having a PR Plan in place help with a crisis?

Hillstrom – Part of having a PR Plan includes having a Crisis Preparedness Plan. Some insurance companies are now requiring one. Anticipating a crisis won’t prevent a crisis but it will shorten your recovery time. During a crisis, nerves are rattled and people don’t have the luxury of time to think clearly. A step-by-step crisis plan can help you prepare your team for a crisis, develop procedures for your farm and think through the relationships that can help you during a crisis. Government personnel, such as your state veterinarian, your agronomist, nutritionist, veterinarian, and others might all be part of your stakeholder group.

 Ogburn – How does public relations translate to dairy product sales?  

Hillstrom – We’re talking about creating a brand that demonstrates values. People trust others with similar values. Trust influences sales. We’ve let others define the dairy community with negative stories. This is a fight for survival. If we want to sell dairy foods, we have to build trust with the customer.

Ogburn – In my experience many dairies don’t think of their brand — their milk goes on a truck and turns into their processors brand. Do these dairies still need a PR plan?

Hillstrom – Yes. It’s a new world. Today’s customers care more about WHAT you stand for than they do about the features of the product or services when deciding whether to listen to you or buy your product. A PR plan creates a strong positive public image for your dairy farm and thus, the products you sell.

Ogburn – It looks like a good plan has to start at the top of each organization.  As a leadership development person, I’m an advocate of the owners and senior managers driving change, especially cultural change, within their business.  You’ve given some good reasons why a public relations plan is necessary.  What else would motivate a dairy owner to make the needed investments of time and money?

Hillstrom – PR protects the dairy’s economic viability and social reputation. Issues and crisis management are part of a PR plan. The fast news cycle and the internet can spread misinformation like wild fire. A sound PR plan can’t prevent a crisis from happening, but it can reduce your recovery time which protects your business.

Ogburn – I would think that every person on a dairy has a role in good public relations.  What is that role and how do employees get brought on board?

Hillstrom – Once the plan is written, employees need to be made aware of how they are part of the farm’s bigger picture in the dairy community. Employees speak with a lot of people in the community. Ideally, you want to share your messages with them so when they talk about your dairy, everyone is using the same message. If one person says one thing and another says something else, the listener leaves the conversations confused. A confused mind doesn’t trust either person. This cycles back to the concept that trust influences dairy sales. If customers don’t trust the people who work on the dairy, it can reflect on dairy sales.

Ogburn – Does a PR plan help a dairy recruit, hire, or keep employees?

Hillstrom – If a dairy farm is known for humane animal care, a commitment to the land, proper treatment of employees, plus connections to their community, employees are more likely to seek them out versus the other way around. A strong brand can make you the great place to work.

Ogburn – How do others that work with the dairy fit in — people like the nutritionist, veterinarian, and suppliers?

Hillstrom – Research shows that veterinarians are the most trusted spokespeople regarding animal care issues. Think of consultants as partners in your PR plan. Share your messages with your consultants now rather than two hours into a crisis.

Ogburn – We’ve talked about the upside of establishing a public relations plan.  What’s the downside, if any?

Hillstrom – It is difficult to calculate a ROI on PR. It is time-consuming and dairy producers already have long days. It is the last thing on their to-do list. Think of doing PR the same way you renew any other license. Writing a PR plan continues your license to operate in your community.

Ogburn – Let’s talk about making this happen.  What’s needed for a dairy producer to create, implement, and maintain their own public relations plan?

Hillstrom – Time and a commitment to making deposits in your credibility bank. A PR plan can’t be started and then forgotten until the dairy farm is in the middle of a crisis. At that point, it is simply damage control. Dairy producers need a PR firm that understands agriculture and the consumer to get started. A PR firm can help them sustain the plan.

Ogburn – What are your closing words of wisdom for dairy producers as they consider implementing a public relations plan?

Hillstrom – Accept that every multimillion-dollar business has a director of communications.

Walt Ogburn

For generations, dairy flew under the radar screen. No longer. There are well-funded local, regional, and national organizations working to undermine dairy producers. If you produce milk, PR is no longer an option. It is mandatory. Dairy producers must be more proactive in building relationships and trust with their customers.

First step: Delegate writing a PR plan to someone on your team who enjoys interacting with the community. Contact us at FYP Consulting if you’d like to discuss how to get started. [email protected] or www.fypconsulting.com

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