by Sally Colby

If you haven’t put much thought into what to do in case animal rights activists show up at your farm, it’s time to develop a plan. Activists are becoming more emboldened, and as new groups form, members are developing new tactics. Unfortunately, when activists reach their goal of making headline news, they often receive more favorable coverage than the farmer.

Nancy Daigneault, former reporter turned media trainer, presented information about how to deal with media at this year’s virtual Animal Ag Alliance Summit. Daigneault is familiar with animal activists’ tactics and explained why news stories tend to favor activists rather than representing both sides fairly.

“Anything to do with emotion is what sells in news media,” said Daigneault, adding that young children, vulnerable populations and animals evoke the strongest emotions. “Scientific facts and figures and how animal agriculture works are very difficult to explain because reporters are always looking for the most emotional story possible. If it’s conflict, controversy and emotional, that’s the story.”

Reporters are taught to identify the villain, victim and hero in framing a story. The unfortunate truth in animal agriculture is that animals will be portrayed as victims, animal rights activists as heroes and the animal-use industry will be the villain.

Activists will often tell reporters their plans in advance and show up at farms or meat processing plants with reporters at their sides. “You’re already behind the eight-ball and will be painted as the villain,” said Daigneault. “You have one chance to deal with the story and get your message out clearly. That first chance to deal with the media, when the microphone is in your face, is the most important time, so you have to be prepared in advance with a strategy.”

A clear strategy and message from the farmer will help reporters and the general public question the villain narrative. “You want to manage the issue so people are questioning whether you really are the villain,” said Daigneault. “Villains run away, say ‘no comment’ or try to hide and evade responsibility.”

Daigneault listed three rules for dealing with media: “Admit and fix it,” “Don’t minimize” and “Third party.” The first step is to admit there’s a problem or convey concern. “If you’re dealing with undercover video that’s been given to a reporter that depicts what they call animal abuse, you’re admitting there’s a problem, and that problem is undercover footage,” she said. “It doesn’t mean you’re accepting what the narrative is – you’re accepting responsibly and not running away. You’re going to give your side of the story – your clear, concise message to help deal with the problem.” Daigneault said this can be a fine line – you aren’t accepting the responsibility or the narrative but accepting that there’s an issue and will deal with the issue properly.

“The ‘fix it’ part is important,” said Daigneault. “If there’s a very clear issue, you have to show how you’re going to fix it. If you’re being accused of being an animal abuser, bring in an outside third party to help fix the problem and show you’re open and transparent with nothing to hide.” The third party could be a veterinarian – they have a high credibility factor. The police or an association that represents the commodity you produce are also credible third parties.

Unfortunately, when the farmer is already cast as the villain, vowing to fix an issue is not a good enough response. Daigneault said the farmer must show how it will be fixed. The role of the third party is to validate that animal welfare protocols are being followed.

“Never minimize the situation,” said Daigneault, “especially if visuals tell the story. In the beginning of a crisis, you may not have all the facts to know what has happened. Be careful about using words like ‘minimal’ or ‘modest.’ It’s better to say ‘I understand the concern – we’re investigating with a third party and taking precautions for every eventuality.’”

Daigneault said the “Admit and fix” without a legal admission can be handled with five simple words: “I understand there are concerns.” She suggested stating, “We share any concerns you have, and that’s why we’re bringing in a third party to investigate.” By using such a statement, the farmer isn’t accepting legal responsibility for something they may not agree with. If the farmer is shown footage of what someone refers to as animal abuse, an appropriate response might be “I understand the concern. We’re going to bring in veterinarians to investigate.”

Journalists tend to be aggressive, which makes it more difficult to remain calm and answer questions without becoming emotional. “Gotcha journalism is a thing,” said Daigneault. “They’ll ask very negative questions. Never repeat the negative premise of the question because that’s what will get you in trouble. The best thing to do is turn negative questions into positives. If they ask ‘Are you animal abuser?’ say ‘Animal welfare is a priority.’” Daigneault admitted this is difficult when faced with a microphone as someone is asking aggressive questions and making accusations. While the most automatic answer is saying something like “No, I’m not an animal abuser,” those words aren’t ideal because activists then have just the clip they want, and it’s a clip you don’t want out there.

Questions are also asked about guarantees. “They’ll say ‘Can you guarantee this won’t happen again?’” said Daigneault. “Don’t fall into this trap. They’ll try to trip you up and come back to you later. Give them a guarantee you can keep, such as ‘I guarantee we’re going to follow all recommendations stemming from this investigation.’”

Daigneault recommended having a “B roll” of footage, which is video of normal, daily farm operation. Video footage doesn’t have to be expensive – good cell phone footage from your farm is enough. Good still pictures and fact sheets outlining husbandry practices should also be available in the beginning of a crisis.

Some farms that have made an effort to reach consumers through telling their story on social media have been attacked by activists. If this happens, it’s critical to continue getting your story out. “Activists can overwhelm an account quickly,” said Daigneault, adding that the sheer number of them with nothing better to do can make a fast mess. “All they do is sit behind a computer and type. They know people in ag don’t sit in front of a computer all day long dealing with social media posts. That’s where strong network helps, with others designated in the supply chain, available to answer questions and get the correct message out.”

Daigneault recommended planning for the worst scenario. Develop one-on-one coaching with others on the farm and think about the questions you might be asked. Assign tasks to people in your organization in case the worst-case scenario happens so they’re prepared to act quickly and respond appropriately.

“Think proactively,” said Daigneault. “Get to know the local reporters and reach out to them beforehand. Let them see what your operation is about – have an awareness day. This is what you can do to prepare for the crisis.”