Be Prepared, And Don’t Be Defensive

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In the age of the 24-hour news cycle and YouTube, damaging video footage can fast become the issue of the day and go viral around the world in seconds.

As a farmer, you sit down with your family to watch the 6 o’clock news and there it is. You’re sick about what you see. You check your email and it’s flooded with messages: “Did you see this?” Then the phone rings…

It’s a reporter asking questions. Suddenly the full heat of the crisis is bearing down directly on you. How do you respond?

Attendees at AFAC’s 2011 Livestock Care Conference got a sense of that trial by fire in a session led by professor Dan Weary of the University of British Columbia.

“The session was about thinking on your feet, seeing an issue from different points of view and provoking discussion on how best to handle this type of situation,” says Weary, a leading farm-animal welfare researcher and professor.

The audience was broken into. Each was shown one of three different videos showing news coverage of an animal-welfare crisis, and asked to prepare answers to a set of questions on how they would respond.

Role playing was also involved. Some groups were asked to wear livestock-industry hats, while others were asked to think from a public or food consumer point of view. The facilitators roamed the room visiting different tables and offering guidance. Each group selected a spokesperson to report, followed by an open discussion.

Key points

Don’t underestimate the challenge. Many participants had watched a crisis unfold on television and how people handled tough questions. However, several noted that while it’s often easy to play armchair quarterback, it’s a different story when you’re the one on the other end of a reporter’s query.

Don’t be paralyzed either. Many agreed the best way to handle the situation is to be prepared. That means not just knowing where you stand on livestock care, but thinking ahead on how to articulate that. For some, that comes naturally. For others it takes more work. For most everyone, a bit of forethought can take the edge off a tough situation and ensure it goes well. For organizations, this is why the best approach is to plan ahead. The worst time to prepare for crisis is when you’re already in one.

Acknowledge bad situations. There are a number of traps people involved in the livestock industry can fall into, including being defensive, dismissive or unco-operative, and thinking about limiting damage to the industry rather than calling a bad or appalling situation exactly what it is.

Be clear that mistreatment of animals is wrong. People speaking in the LCC session voiced strong opinions that they don’t condone any mistreatment of livestock and that those involved in mistreatment have no place in the industry.

Support open communication not just when crisis hits, but at all times. When people already know who you are and what you stand for, your message is received much better in times of crisis.

Talk about what you and your industry are doing to promote good animal care. Through the efforts of many livestock organizations, both independently and through animal-care organizations such as AFAC, the industry has many good examples of progress it can point to. A number of these were raised, from codes of practice and humane handling guidelines to quality assurance and certified livestock transport programs that have farm animal care components.

People representing organizations or industries can communicate better if they are all on the same page. Many involved in the session talked about what their own organizations are doing and how everyone can benefit from learning from one another and having consistent messages on livestock welfare.

“Having an open conversation about this is a good way to gauge our preparedness and identify what our needs are, as stakeholders in the livestock industry,” says Weary. “One of the best things we can do is not only continue the discussion, but follow through on it by taking action to be prepared.”

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