Harness the power of social media for agriculture

Paul Bradley (pictured) is aiming big. Not content with telling hundreds or even thousands of consumers about the importance of backing British farming, the NFU’s recently appointed social media adviser is thinking about reaching millions.

Just a few years ago, such a target would have been a pipe-dream. But thanks to developments in social media and communications technology, it’s already become a reality.

Follow Farmers Weekly on Twitter and Facebook

“We produced a video for our YouTube channel last year thanking shoppers for supporting British farmers and buying the food they produce,” he says. “It was picked up by Sky TV in January and shown to millions of viewers.

“It was incredible to get that kind of coverage for British farming and something we couldn’t have achieved without social media.”

For the NFU, social media is a chance to get a louder voice for farming and its members. While in the past it had to rely on the mainstream media to pick up farming stories, the union is able to bypass the press and publish its own messages.

Through websites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, the NFU is able to tell the industry’s stories in its own words while reaching entirely new audiences in the process.

How other farming organisations use social media

We use social media to engage with our supporters, promote the work we are doing and thank those who have contributed. It also allows us to get messages out quickly to the media and those who need our help. As we saw during the flooding, it can really help in crisis situations as we were able to tell the public about how they could help.

Milly Wastie, RABI East Midlands regional manager

Social media has proved the best way for us to keep up with issues and make and build new relationships. It has allowed us to explain what we do to the public and potential members and dispel myths around a sector which at times can attract some controversial opinions. We’ve had a lot of fun on social media, too, because it allows us to express the character of the organisation.

Mark Waugh, Organic Farmers and Growers media manager

Social media is a fantastic tool to reach the wider dairy community and engage the public in modern dairy farming. It enables farmers to source technical and market information, as well as share experiences, ideas and thoughts, in real-time.

John Bates, DairyCo press manager

And with 31 million users of Facebook and 15 million Twitter users in the UK alone, the potential to reach the masses and help form opinions is huge, Mr Bradley says.

“Social media is a relatively new area for farming, but strength of opinion matters more than strength in numbers here.

“Everyone’s on it, from politicians to big businesses and the mainstream media, and we can’t afford to get left behind. It is where opinions are formed, so we have to make sure that agriculture’s view is properly heard so we can help people make their minds up.

“We have to get our stories out there and then start a conversation around them.”

And it’s not just the NFU that can make a difference, Mr Bradley says. Individual farmers have just as much chance of contributing to the public’s understanding as any big farming organisation.

“Whether farmers use Twitter or Facebook to comment on news stories, stepping into the breach to share their opinions is hugely important,” he says.

“Yes, there are some nutcases on there, but farmers can be the voice of reason. A single, rational comment can be retweeted, favourited or liked, which pushes it up the rankings so that more people see it.”

Being able to talk about issues from personal experience, such as the effects of bovine TB, or most recently the Somerset floods, is hugely powerful, he adds.

“The photos and tweets being posted by farmers during the floods were heart-wrenching.

“Even if you had nothing to say, social media was keeping you up-to-date with a picture that was changing minute-by-minute.

“And farmers didn’t need to go through the mainstream media to get their message across – they were telling their own story from the heart.”

But social media has to work hand-in-hand with traditional media, Mr Bradley says. “It isn’t the be-all and end-all by any means, but we do want to open people’s eyes to the potential. A single comment can make a difference and if it gives us the chance to get farming’s view out there then it has to be worth a try.”