The following article was featured in the July/August issue of PORK Network magazine.

A young blond woman and a guy in shorts walked to the auditorium stage in the Scheman Building at Iowa State, where they spoke to the Iowa Swine Day audience on “The Radical Transparency of #farmtopork.” David Wescott and Cristen Slings Clark had an easy familiarity as they bantered about David arriving from North Carolina amid storms in Des Moines, sans luggage. Though they joked with each other, the message they shared was important.

As owner of Wescott Strategic Communications, Wescott was approached by the Animal Agriculture Alliance to help bring three strategic goals to fruition:

· Build relationships and goodwill with influential consumers

· Increase positive messaging

· Inoculate the industry from misleading attacks

“You can do the first two with advertising,” said Wescott, but “it’s very expensive. The last one is the hard one.”

Bring bloggers to the farm

One of the most effective ways to create attitudinal change is to show key opinion leaders what real farming is all about. Among the most influential leaders are bloggers whose audience are consumers. The tour included 12 bloggers from the parenting community (some might refer to them as “mommy bloggers,” but that’s not how they refer to themselves). “These are people who talk about food, parenting and culture, and they’re extraordinarily tech-savvy,” said Wescott.

They are experienced and tech-savvy, with a combined reach of more than 5.4 million people. They also have had very limited exposure to working farms.

Clark was a key component of the tour. As Wescott explains, “Cristen Clark was seen more as a peer than an industry representative,” he said. “Peers are more credible – that’s part of the psychology of persuasion and motivation. The bloggers were looking to Cristen to know how to act.”

Building a bridge

Clark is a vivacious and engaging sixth-generation farmer from Runnels, Iowa. She has two children, raises show pigs, and farms with her dad. She also is a prolific blogger, connecting with followers through food, farm and family. She knew the bloggers on the tour because of their reach, and although the bloggers didn’t personally know every other person on the tour, they all knew at least one other person, adding a degree of personalization.

“They didn’t trust the experts – I was their peer,” said Clark. “If you’re going to be involved in social media, you have a ‘bridge’ that connects you with others - it is the most important way to reach people.”

Bloggers connect with consumers as peers. They care about the people who are considering buying your product. They care about other moms and are interested in the same things as the people with whom they’re connecting. 

Conversely, one of the least effective ways to correct the record is to tell somebody they’re wrong, explains Wescott. It seems that agriculture has traditionally taken a defensive approach, sharing science to support modern production. But science doesn’t even come close to trust and transparency.

No stone left unturned

Radical transparency meant no details were spared, and no questions were unanswered. The bloggers ate meals together, visited Prestage Farms where they immersed themselves in the sow farm, nursery and finishing farm; went to a Smithfield processing plant where they saw the kill floor and more; and listened to a chef’s presentation on nutrition.

“We told them: You can see anything, you can ask anything. This is the whole spectrum from food to fork,” said Wescott. “We told them we would do everything we could to show them anything they wanted.”

Positive, measurable results

The tour surpassed all expectations and was an unequivocal success. It garnered more than 20 million media impressions across social platforms and blogs. It cost about $58,000 but it had a value of more than $1 million in equivalent advertising. Even more exciting is that the National Pork Board and the Iowa Pork Producers Association have planned similar tours. Continued advocacy is planned.

When asked about highlights of the tour, Clark reiterated the importance of connecting on a personal level. The bloggers’ “aha” moments weren’t necessarily during the planned activities – rather they were in the one-on-one conversations.

For Clark, one of the pivotal moments was when she was talking about teaching proper stockmanship to her kids. “That’s what really resonated,” she said. “Our children were the bridge in the conversation. I was asked, ‘How do you explain to your kids how you end that animal’s life when they’ve spent six months with that animal?’ I told them that we talk about the reverence we have for the pigs and how we take care of them while we have them. This was while we were on the bus.”

Blogger Ilina Ewen wrote, “I have a much deeper appreciation for the work, choices, values and contributions of our country’s farmers.” Other posts were just as heartfelt.

First-hand experience, engagement

“The proof is in showing non-farm consumers how animals are actually raised and letting them ask questions,” said Clark. “How many opportunities do you have every day to impart just a little bit of wisdom to someone else? Communication is the only way science can become relevant, and communication starts with you.”

In the question and answer session at the end, one producer asked, “What can we work on?”

Clark was quick to respond: “They want to know YOU. Prestage Farms did an excellent job of being warm and welcoming. Nothing was off-base. The bloggers wanted to know who does the work. Getting to know those farmers was the most important part, and following up was the next most important.”

The blogger tour put faces and names on farming. These key opinion leaders now have a deeper understanding of the industry and the people who devote their time and energy to it every day. They’re equipped to tell agriculture’s story better than any producer, and they won’t fall for the rhetoric that flows from activist groups.

For more articles and features from the July/August issue of PORK Network, click here.