Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Four Foundations for Ag Communications and Advocacy

Last week I had the pleasure of working with colleagues from agriculture-related research institutes, civil society and industry as they gathered in Indonesia and Vietnam to learn about more about communications, advocacy and issues management. 

Jill Kuehnert presenting
My session focused on the lessons I’ve learned from participating in agriculture communications and advocacy over the past ten years here in Asia. I believe that planning and implementation in four strategic areas can help teams achieve their goals for improving agriculture and food security, while navigating issues that inevitably arise. 

1.       Messages. As scientists, advocates and businesses involved in agriculture, we often focus our communication messages on describing our work in complete detail. I believe that it’s more important for agriculture communicators to frame messages around a story, one that starts with the human need behind the policy, research or product. When we jump right into describing our own work, we skip over the farmer, the consumer or the environmental impact leading us to do it in the first place. The story that stakeholders will be interested in hearing is one with a vivid need, a compelling potential solution, and a well-considered path to making it reality.

2.       Questions. The second core component of good communications strategy is being prepared to answer questions and address concerns. Risk communication theory says that the vast majority questions have been asked before or can be predicted based on what we know about our issues. Yet we often rely on our general knowledge and ability to think on our feet to quickly come up with the right answer to tricky questions. Spending time to gather questions and prepare answers (with partners if we are collaborating) is time well spent. When a topic is complicated, having our knowledge well-organized in advance helps us respond with empathy and care.

3.       Allies. All agriculture projects, businesses and research initiatives need to be supported by stakeholders. We often ‘sing to the choir’ when we talk to people who are already familiar with our issues, or are even working in the same areas. However, communications only becomes effective advocacy when we share our knowledge and our values with potential allies in fields related to ours. I encourage colleagues to take every opportunity to understand the programs and priorities of others and talk to them about our own work. When an issue arises, we can then connect with stakeholders who know us, rather than introducing ourselves in a moment of crisis.

4.       Issues and urgent situations. Despite our best plans, things go awry. To improve our chances of successfully managing potential issues, we should identify areas of vulnerability and make plans to manage the worst-case scenarios. Intense consultation with team members closest to our weak areas is vital. Building standard operating procedures or a checklist system can help those on the front line to focus on priority actions such as ensuring safety and gathering and sharing information to help manage the issue. 

It’s my belief that thoughtful and thorough preparation in each of these four areas will benefit the research, projects and businesses we support, especially when issues arise. I see exciting progress ahead for agriculture, farmers, consumers and the environment here in Asia – and it starts with sharing a story.

Finally, I'm very grateful to the good people at v-Fluence who invited me to take part in the workshops last week.  Combining decades of practical experience, a vast network and up-to-the-minute intelligence on agriculture issues, their team is without peer in this space and it was an honor to work with them.
From left: S. Johnson & J. Byrne from v-Fluence, and me! (Jill Kuehnert)