Would you know what to do if a crisis — whether an animal rights campaign, natural disaster, or something in between — occurred at your farm or business?
Though most agricultural leaders are concerned about the effect activism and misinformation could have on their company, fewer than half feel prepared to respond if that threat were to happen, described Tricia Sheehan during the Animal Agriculture Alliance’s Stakeholders Summit. She defined that a crisis is something that has immediate and widespread impact on consumer confidence, product consumption, and even farmers.
Sheehan works on Dairy Management Inc.’s issues and crisis planning and farmer communications teams every day to make sure the industry is more prepared for these unfathomable events that, if not addressed, can cause severe damage to a business or industry’s reputation and credibility. And that’s no small task, as there are plenty of potential threats that could surface: animal care concerns, food safety, cyber security, undercover employees, alternative products, and activism are just a few examples.
“When we think about today’s crisis environment, it is a lot different than it was just five years ago and extremely different than it was 10 years ago,” Sheehan said. There are more areas to keep an eye on but also more outlets for damaging information to be spread. People don’t just get their news from one source anymore; we use dozens of websites, groups, and authors to follow information all day, every day.
The speed information moves and the cross-channel approaches news outlets use also changes the way we respond to these events. Sheehan noted that the rule of thumb used to be to respond to a crisis within 24 hours. “I would say if something happened and it took us 24 hours to respond today, we kind of missed the boat,” she said. “There’s a lot of people out there wondering what’s going on and why aren’t they hearing from us.”
That puts tremendous onus on a farm or business that has experienced a crisis to know how to respond quickly and effectively. Sheehan outlined a few major tips to help organizations be more prepared in those scenarios.
Her top recommendation is to put together a crisis team to identify the people you will call on when a crisis occurs. These will be the people who will evaluate the situation, work on a response, and let other people in the organization know what has happened and that a plan is being formulated.
Next is to consider the timelines you’re working with. “We need to think about what do you need to do within that first hour of that crisis? What do you need to do within the first four hours of that crisis?” Sheehan described. Knowing what action steps you’ll need to take as soon as possible will help you be prepared if the situation were to happen.
Similarly, your farm or business should identify which people are most important to reach out to in mitigating the effects of the crisis. “Who are those key audiences that are the most important to reach out to first, second, and third?” she said. That may be consumers, the local community, or an organization’s members. Having those groups prioritized ahead of time will help facilitate your response.
When you’re not actively handling a crisis, consider what the top areas of concern might be, and have materials ready to share on that topic. Photos and videos drive the digital landscape of a news item, Sheehan explained, so examples of things like positive instances of animal care can be useful to have on hand. She cautioned against trying to explain footage in undercover videos if that is the crisis you face. “We’re not really going to win a battle there if we go in and pick apart the pieces,” she said. “We’re better off just talking about how we do operate on our farms and how we treat animals on an everyday basis.”
Crises are impossible to predict, so a plan will not provide everything you’ll have to do. But it will give you a place to start so that if your farm or business is dealing with one, you can start at Step 4 or 5 instead of Step 0, Sheehan described.