Media training: Telling the dairy story

by Stephen Wagner

“You need not think of interviews as a debate,” Johnna Miller said at the outset of this topic presented by the American Dairy Association, “nor to butt heads with a reporter. That is not what interviews are about.” In other words, you are there to tell your story. This is particularly important if there are two points of view being shared. You want to be telling your story in a more compelling way than the other side telling theirs. You want to garner more of the sound bites, more of the quotes, than the other guy gets. You want to come across as more likeable and people will be more willing to listen to you.

The language of food is important. “We talk so often about commodities, and use jargon that doesn’t make sense to folks,” Miller said. “Instead of talking about something in a measure of a hundredweight, we need to think more about gallons and cups of yogurt in your food message.”

Nate Chittenden, a third generation dairy farmer, appeared on “The Laura Ingraham Show” to rebut some careless remarks from actor Joaquin Phoenix about treatment of dairy cows. “Why is he misguided?” Ingraham wanted to know. “I mean ‘plundering the environment,’ being mean to these cows, ripping the calves from the mothers. It sounded positively violent.”

“I guess I have to thank him, because if he hadn’t said what he said, I wouldn’t be here tonight being able to share what we dairy farmers do every day on our farms, which is taking care of our animals,” Chittenden replied. “Before I came here today I was feeding a brand new calf, just born, with its mother right there with me. We’ve been working with these animals for generations. They look at us as part of their herd. I’m not a predator, I’m not something that they are fearful of. They trust me to take care of their calves.”

Miller posited that this is a good image, that the mother is standing right there, knowing this man is not a threat.

“Producer” is another confusing word. When the average American hears that word, they think of Steven Spielberg. If you Google “producer” images, see how far you have to scroll to find anything that looks like agriculture.

“We need to use the words that are easy for outsiders to understand. Sure, they would eventually figure it out, but in the time it’s taking for them to connect that disconnect, they’ve missed part of what you’ve said. They have missed a really important part of your message,” Miller said. Don’t make the listener do the extra work. Call it your farm, not your “operation.” The word “yield” is another one that most people don’t understand.

Miller isn’t saying “sustainability” and “yield” are words you shouldn’t use at all. But when you use them, explain what you mean. U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell was trying to persuade a group of his home state Kentuckians of something. He said, “By passing individual appropriations bills, you don’t precipitate a certain government-wide shutdown scenario which really empowers the president. We’re not going to do that. But it doesn’t mean we are going to capitulate.”

“In essence, he was talking to people on Capitol Hill … he had forgotten that the audience in this case were folks in Kentucky,” Miller explained. She doubted if he persuaded anybody of anything.

When President Barack Obama proposed the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) legislation, it meant more unnecessary paperwork geared to delay cattle movements. Every puddle on a property had to be accounted for. Miller’s eloquence cut through to the other side of the argument when she said, “We have to have water to grow food. That’s the way it is for every farmer and rancher. If we can’t use our water, and we have to go through permitting and paperwork to get it, we won’t last that way. When it’s time to plant a crop, it’s time to plant a crop. When it’s time to move cattle, it’s time to move cattle. We can’t wait three weeks, a month, a year for a permit for something that is ordinary for us. It’s something we need to do every day.”

She didn’t just answer the question; she took control.

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