Don’t wing it — or refuse comment — if your farm makes the six o’clock news

Consultant and media trainer Grant Ainsley has some basic advice for dealing with the media

If the media ever shows up at your farm, treat them like you would a “big hungry dog,” says PR consultant and media trainer Grant Ainsley.

“You have to feed it, or it will howl, bark and eventually bite,” he said. “You can’t always control what happens, but you can control your reaction.”

The worst thing you can do is try to run away, the Edmonton-based Ainsley told attendees at Alberta Milk’s annual general meeting.

“When you say no comment, what happens? It makes you look guilty,” he said. “If you tell your story properly, people will listen. If you refuse to tell your story, people will think you are guilty.”

Ainsley showed two undercover Mercy for Animals videos to his audience — one showing abuse of poultry at Kuku Farms near Edmonton and the other capturing mistreatment of cows at Chilliwack Cattle Sales, a B.C. dairy.

The owner of Chilliwack Cattle Sales had the right response, said Ainsley, because he took responsibility for the abuse and showed remorse. He had also been coached on how to act in front of the TV cameras, he said.

The key is to be prepared for the questions you’ll face and to practise responses beforehand, he said.

“You need to understand the questions that you’re going to get from the media and figure out who your spokesman is going to be,” he said. “The first time the words come out of your mouth should not be when the cameras are rolling. It should be in the privacy of your office, with somebody else asking the questions.”

But don’t be afraid of being yourself.

“Be real — don’t be something you’re not,” said Ainsley. “You don’t have to be smooth. You are dairy farmers. Good people, hard workers. People respect that because they respect hard work. So don’t try to be somebody slick. Just be yourself and get the right message out.”

If your farm does make the news, you won’t have much time to respond, he noted.

Both news organizations and their audience are most interested in a news event in the first 48 hours after it happens.

So Ainsley recommends every business, whether large or small, have a written communications policy that is shared with employees, even if they are family members and friends, he said. It’s also a good idea to delegate a spokesperson, and have a backup for that person.

And even if you don’t use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or other social media, other family members or employees likely do, and so the farm should have a policy on how the organization conducts itself online. Social media accounts should be designated and limited to a few people. The policy should also cover how employees are to conduct themselves on their own social media accounts.

“My social media policy would say our employees are allowed to do social media on their own time, but at no time whatsoever are you allowed to do anything that would harm, embarrass or cause a loss of business to us or our clients,” said Ainsley. “Failure to do so will result in discipline or termination.”

About the author

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Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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