*Andy Vance is an agricultural journalist, commentator and entrepreneur who most recently led the broadcast team at Agri Broadcast Network and is an active member of the National Association of Farm Broadcasting. Vance grew up on a farm in Hillsboro, Ohio, and raises registered Shorthorn cattle and breeding stock. Vance's web site, "The Angle," is andyvance.com. He can be contacted at [email protected]
LAST week, I shared my thoughts on talk show host Oprah Winfrey's "vegan challenge" episode -- but without having watched the episode.
I based my commentary and observations purely on the reactions of others, including my friends and colleagues on Facebook and Twitter. My key premise came especially from the overwhelmingly positive response of my friend the "closet vegetarian" to the segment on beef production.
The segment featured a tour of a Cargill beef processing facility in Ft. Morgan, Colo., and wrapped up with an in-studio chat among Winfrey, foodie author and activist Michael Pollan and Nicole Johnson-Hoffman, general manager of the Cargill plant.
I'll be blunt: I had no intention of watching the show. I read people's pre-judgments of the show and its concept, heard some great reaction from my friend, wrote my column and thought all would be finished. Little did I know that my sister-in-law had other plans.
When I arrived at the family farm for a weekend retreat, the first words from her mouth were, "You have to watch this RIGHT NOW." She had recorded the episode, and she and my younger brother agreed that I had to see it for myself.
After watching the episode, I was shocked and amazed -- shocked, quite honestly, because Winfrey and reporter Lisa Ling did an outstanding job of presenting a fair and objective story about beef processing in this country, and amazed because it introduced me to Johnson-Hoffman, a woman I've come to describe as agriculture's "PR rock star."
Johnson-Hoffman led Ling's tour of the facility. That segment was outstanding, and the Cargill team provided a case study of how to successfully communicate with consumers and the media. Four words sum up the lesson for agriculture: transparency and shared values.
I was so impressed with the Cargill segment -- specifically Johnson-Hoffman's deft handling of Winfrey's questions and Pollan's commentary -- that I reached out to the company for an interview.
I spoke with Johnson-Hoffman and Cargill director of communications Mike Martin last week, and I encourage you to listen to the conversation because the lessons they shared with me are vital to the success of the meat-producing community.
Here are some of my own observations after talking with them:
* Cargill did the right thing by opening its doors to the biggest consumer audience on daytime television.
* Cargill's decision was not without risks. Martin, Johnson-Hoffman and the entire Cargill brand stood to suffer if Ling, Winfrey or some nameless television producer decided to turn the segment into a hit piece.
* On the farm and in the processing facility, our operations must reflect our core values: animal, employee and consumer well-being.
Twenty other processors turned down Winfrey's request for a tour. What do they have to hide? Each of us should "YouTube-proof" our operations by making sure we are doing everything to the best standards, not the lowest common denominator.
Cargill's PR rock star also demonstrated some valuable lessons for handling potentially volatile situations or discussions.
When Pollan attempted to give credit to the vegan lobby rather than the meat industry for investing in animal well-being, Johnson-Hoffman warmly replied, "That's a great example of how all of us who care about food and animals worked together to do a better job."
Rather than conceding Pollan's point or striking back, she chose to find common ground.
Johnson-Hoffman connected with Winfrey, she connected with Pollan and, most importantly, she connected with millions of moms, wives, sisters, daughters, men and consumers across the country. She did so by embracing the concepts of transparency and shared values.
When Ling asked about ground beef processing, Johnson-Hoffman concluded her explanation with a stellar line: "Then, we make it into the hamburgers my kids eat for dinner."
Note that she didn't refer to anyone else's children but her own. In other words, Mr. and Mrs. Consumer watching at home, the executives at Cargill don't feed your family one product and save the good stuff for themselves. We all eat the same food, drink the same water and breathe the same air. This is a critical point in many farm-related controversies.
By producing food in such a way that we have nothing to hide from our consumer customers and by seeking to understand values those consumers share with us -- like animal well-being and a tasty, wholesome food product -- we can all move toward "PR rock star" status. Taking on that challenge is everyone's responsibility.