19 January 2001

Well past time for a polish of farming image

By Isabel Davies

and Jonathan Riley

NO ONE can argue with NFU president Ben Gills claim that farming needs to improve its public relations. Farmers have tumbled from grace – portrayed as people who kill wildlife, constantly beg for more subsidies and grow GM crops when theyre not rearing BSE-infected cattle.

A steady stream of accusations from both the media and other interest groups has fed into the nations conscience. After years of respect, farmers find themselves on a par with tax inspectors, estate agents and traffic wardens. Even children have succumbed to the negative publicity. Ugly, old and sweaty were some of the words chosen by a group of children when asked recently to describe a typical farmer.

It could be interpreted as kids being cruel. But its symptomatic of how far the image of farmers has fallen in the estimation of the general public. To farmers it seems unreasonable but it shouldnt really come as any great surprise. Consumers want to trust farmers but experience, fuelled by scare stories, suggests they cant.

Tony Hines, a food crisis management consultant at Leatherhead Food Research Association, explains: "The issues that have challenged the food manufacturing industry over the past two decades are rightly or wrongly perceived to have come from the farm. Animal husbandry, intensive farming, [salmonella in] eggs, BSE, GMs, pesticides are just a few. Trust has gone, hedgerows have disappeared and footpaths are closed to the public."

John Callaghan, spokesman for Compassion in World Farming, says: "Farmers argue that its not fair that Compassion in World Farming gets all the good publicity. But whose fault is that? Lets be honest. Representatives of the farm industry trot out the same old stuff. You know exactly what they are going to say and the arguments can be countered with forward planning. Its not surprising their arguments look weak in debates."

Mr Callaghan believes that farmers and pressure groups should move on from the entrenched view that they should be attacking each other. There is common ground we have to keep coming back to that common ground, he insists.

"If we could combine our efforts on the issues that we can agree on it would add to the pressure on government and have the positive spin-off that farmers care about welfare. It would be a major step for farming to demonstrate the good work that it has done in some areas and show the public that it cares about welfare."

A more diplomatic approach may yield more benefits than counter attacks on groups with a power base founded on public support. Jonathan Curtoys, rural advocate for the RSPB – Britains largest single issue pressure group – says that the charitys one million members had a growing sympathy for farmers.

"We were hoping to work more closely with farmers and have pushed positive farming stories in recent months particularly in our magazine which – with two million readers – has a bigger readership than some of the tabloid newspapers. Surely a PR battle with us would be against farmings interests.

"This is not the time for a war or even a battle. Its time for the farming industry to address its own image problems and to work at building relationships with the pressure groups and the public."

Bobbi Davy, a farmers daughter who runs her own PR company and the Hill Farming Initiative, says the success of any future work will depend on whether the industry can capture the imagination of the public. "What sways people are images. Images on television and images in newspaper. We have to be more media-savvy.

"One of the things we did really successfully when the HFI first got going was to keep in fairly close contact with all the people who wrote scripts for programmes about the land. We just kept feeding them information and it did bounce through the storylines."

But establishing what information to push forward is difficult. More work needs to be put in on pinning down what the industry wants to achieve, according to Mike Evans, chief executive of the Mistral Group, a food-chain PR consultancy.

"Above all, the industry has to be clear of its objectives; what it is trying to achieve – is it to improve the image of British food, to increase returns and margins, or to improve the image of the farmer?"

It may be time to start thinking about a single cohesive force whose sole purpose is to further understanding between farmers, other parts of the food chain and consumers. Mr Evans suggests: "Funds are available given the drive and commitment of government, the European Commission and the industry itself. Professionals could be hired, programmes planned and delivered, and results achieved."

The point that the message going out to consumers is mixed is one acknowledged by the NFU. Simon Rayner, PR manager, says farming is so diverse and covers so many different issue that it is often difficult to keep up with single issue groups that can plough all their resources into campaigning on a single issue.

The union is planning a major campaign prior to the expected May general election targeting MPs "who do not understand that farming has changed", he says.

But Jonathan McLeod, a political and campaign consultant at Shandwick International, cautions against tackling single issue pressure groups in the run up to an election. Mr McLeod, who helped mastermind the Winnie the Pig vigil in Parliament Square, says: "Despite what Labour says about its gains in rural support its core of voters is in the industrial heartland of England and that means farming will not be a key issue for much of the government."

His advice is for anyone engaged in farming PR to "play it cool" and not to launch any aggressive counter offences on the single issue pressure groups. "These groups which are extremely powerful lobbyists, with well established links directly into government, represent swathes of the wider public – the very people that the farm industry is trying to win over."

Now is the time to work with these groups and demonstrate the benefits of farming for the wider public while trying to re-connect with the people buying food produced by the British industry, he says.

Mr McLeod suggests that farmers should mimic the pressure groups that have challenged them. Farmers should use the media as an outlet for polls and surveys to show the positive side of farming rather than focussing on events such as the Countryside March due on March 18 when the election is looming.

"The march could prove highly counter-productive to farmings cause," says Mr McLeod. "Anyone that government sees as being against it will position themselves as part of the opposition. And that could do tremendous harm once the election is over if Labour wins."

Ben Gills comments have served as a wake-up call for the industry. Building a better public image cannot be put off any longer, he claims.

But as politicians wage war in the run up to the election, experts believe now could be the time for farmers to play a friendly game of football with the enemy rather than lobbing grenades from the safety of the trenches.

Ugly, old and sweaty were the words chosen by a group of children when asked recently to describe a typical farmer.

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