Just as bad things happen to good people, bad things (and bad PR) can happen to perfectly good farm businesses, too. Imagine an E. coli outbreak, a disgruntled employee’s online smear campaign or worse.
Cory Cart, chief client officer at Bandwagon in New Orleans, Louisiana, has worked on agri-tourism PR campaigns and recounted one particularly harrowing story of a family farm. An accident during a fall hayride resulted in a toddler’s death.
“This happened towards the end of one week, and they waited until the following week to make a statement,” Cart says. “Because they waited too long to respond, a lot of different headlines and stories spawned from it—none of which were accurate.”
More to Lose
You may have elaborate plans for this year’s growing season or the next big holiday market. But do you have a crisis management plan in place? You should—now more than ever.
“There are all kinds of crazy things that can crop up,” says Baron Christopher Hanson, lead consultant and owner of RedBaronUSA, a PR firm operating out of Charleston, South Carolina, and Washington, D.C. “Someone has an iPhone somewhere, takes a video, and the next thing you know, it’s on the evening news.’”
These days, social media, the 24-hour news cycle and wall-to-wall litigation have changed the game. Cart’s great grandfather was a beekeeper. “Back in the ’80s when he was still selling honey, if someone were to become sick because of that, they probably just would’ve said something to him.”
And now? “If you’re not insured properly or your hobby farm is not a separate LLC or corporation and that honey makes someone sick, it’s not just a loss of profit from your side business,” he says.
“It becomes your home, your land and every asset that you own personally. Those become exposed to litigation if you don’t properly plan.”
Where to Start
Fortunately, you can prepare for many potential farm PR crises ahead of time.
“One of the things I always encourage people to do is to think through worst-case scenarios,” Cart says. “The goal is to reduce problems, anticipate threats and prevent a crisis from happening, if possible.”
“What could become a highly visible incident or topic that could impact my business?” Cart asks.
Worst-case PR scenarios could be specific to your farm or to your whole industry. For industry-wide problems, try contacting relevant advocacy organizations, trade groups or even your county extension office for help.
Having trouble considering the worst?
“Think about what your pressure points are in your business,” Knight says. “Take some of the pinpoint questions that have happened over the last few years, and come up with great holding statements that can be used across the board to address issues like that which you can just send out within a second.”
“Whatever your worst-case scenario is for your hobby farm, practice that,” Cart says.
“Who is going to be in charge of contacting authorities? Who is the first person that you’re going to call?”
The Golden Hour
You should also plan to act swiftly. “With crises, you’ve got the ‘golden hour,’” says Deja Knight, founder of Pearl Public Relations in Charleston, South Carolina. “You have 60 minutes to get it together and respond to a crisis, so you have to really be prepared.”
Ideally, that means having your messaging well in hand before you need it.
“You’re going to be measured by what you say,” Hanson says, “that first statement out of your mouth when the cameras are on you or something goes viral. You really have to have a statement together, a strategy and a polished response.”
You also need to be one of the first to respond.
“Because what you say sets the tone for the conversation moving forward,” Cart says. “You don’t ever want to let the news media or social media take that narrative away from you.”
Still, that doesn’t mean rushing things, if you aren’t ready to make a full statement immediately.
“Your first comment could be something as simple as: ‘We are investigating this. We have nothing to report at this time. We will be back in three hours to give you an update.’” Cart says. “And then show up in three hours!”
“Part of PR isn’t just crisis management. It’s positive content management,” Hanson says. “You can defend against negative publicity or attacks by proactively going out and doing something.”
In other words: Build your brand over time and establish positive relationships with your customers and community to help to insulate you against crises when they do happen.
“If people already know your story, they’re more likely to have your back or at least understand your point of view, because they already know you and your business,” Knight says.
“By using free tools—like social media, newsletters—and even if you have to pay a little bit for your website, that kind of stuff is so important.”
Knight’s firm has launched a series of free, interactive webinars to help business owners navigate social media, crisis management and more.
“A lot of PR doesn’t necessarily take a firm,” Hanson adds. “Sometimes, you can just have a PR coach come in and talk to you and teach you how to set up some of those things.”
That could include setting up social media monitoring tools and specific Google alerts to keep tabs on potential problems before they become full-blown crises.
“They can be their own little PR sleuths and do some of this side work,” Hanson says.
And if big trouble does come calling?
“[Professional PR services] can be like an attorney or an accountant that you see seasonally when there’s an issue,” Hanson says.
“But the core solution is that they’re going to have to be a lot more proactive, so if something does happen, they’ve got a strategy to say, ‘We’re sorry this happened, but here’s what we’re really trying to do on the farm.’ Then they can start to redirect and improve on the story.”
This article originally appeared in the May/June issue of Hobby Farms magazine.