BSE. Pink slime. Antibiotic resistance. All of these have been in the news during the last 20 years. Much of what has appeared in consumer media has been over-hyped and largely incorrect, but the media loves fanning the flames and the drama junkie that society has become just eats it up.

"The media is changing faster than we think," says Colleen Church McDowall, vice president of Osborn Barr, a public relations agency serving many entities in agriculture. "Today media is more about drama, reality TV, hype and sensationalism. Immediacy is the new quality and blogs have moved beyond citizen journalism to new levels of credibility. Social media has become the central meeting place for millions of Americans, and the media decides what constitutes the news."

More and more the livestock and even veterinary industries are being called upon to share their side of the story and bring balance to the misinformation. But one mistake we fall back on is trying to tell our stories just with science and sometimes complicated industry terminology, which most consumers don't understand. "Agriculture has hidden behind science and we get offended when people question us, but we need to find a way to tell our story," McDowall says.

During a media training session at the Academy of Veterinary Consultants' summer meeting in Kansas City, Mo., McDowall said, "People trust veterinarians because you are credible, credentialed and have the opportunity to make science sensible. You also share common values with consumers such as wanting to feed your family safe, wholesome food."

McDowall's colleague, former television news anchor/reporter Melissa Proffitt, gave tips to the participants on how to optimize their stories when talking to the media about various situations from food safety scares to animal activist claims:

  • Humanize — How does the situation at hand affect you and your own family?
  • Economize — Keep your message simple. Create a 30 second “elevator speech”
  • Localize — Focus on a specific audience.
  • Visualize — Use imagery or words to positively describe the industry.
  • Verbalize — Be quotable and memorable to the reporter and the audience.
  • Factualize — Boil down the issue to its most important messages.

Proffitt also noted five things that can detract from your message if not presented in the best light:

  • Your look — be well-groomed and appropriately dressed. No patterns; dark colors/suits work well.
  • Your language — use more lay language than science.
  • Your likeability factor — engage the reporter and be enthusiastic.
  • Your character — be sincere.
  • Your competence — be a credible expert.

Find out more about AVC’s media training here.