Tell someone who cares

We need to present as a strong, unified, positive industry, across all communication channels

This drought in Queensland and NSW is a first.

It’s the first drought during which farmers have had social media at their disposal, and it’s a double-edged sword, both tool and weapon.

With the bombardment of drought messages, drought videos, photos and stories into the lives and homes of urban dwellers, has there been any consideration into the actual value of the connection? There has certainly been no consideration of the potential costs.

There seem to be many in the agricultural industry insistent that people in cities must be made to care about those crippled by the dry. We want them to care - but why? And will 'forcing' caring on a fatigued audience counteract what we're trying to achieve?

Aside from justifying government drought packages to reassure urban Australians their tax dollars are going to a good home, attention and sympathy is all I can muster as reasons to push this issue. And the urban people are starting to turn off.

Like a horse that’s gone hard in the mouth from too much pulling on the reins, or a father oblivious to his kid tugging on his shirt non-stop for attention, the public is switching off to the consistently negative messages they’re hearing from our industry.

I asked Steve Carey, founding partner of NewsFlash Media and former Channel 7 news director, what he thought about the problem of overexposure.

He said in commercial media, it’s believed that repetitive exposure to an event or continual similar messages will numb the audience.

“Eventually it becomes ‘white noise’,” he said. “That's the challenge, how to re-wrap those topics and make them different, engaging, informative and connected.”

Unfortunately drought is hard to “re-wrap”. It is what it is: a gut-wrenching and bloody tough time for those involved.

But is there any point re-wrapping something like drought? I asked Charlie Arnot, a media and communications expert specialising in agriculture.

“The issue has to be personally relevant for the audience to connect,” Mr Arnot said. “It may sound cold, but unless there is a direct and immediate impact on consumers, most won’t show much concern about farmers struggling with drought.”

“You can connect with some through personal story telling and making the impact tangible by tying it to an individual farmer, but unless it threatens food prices (in a measurable way) or water availability for consumers, it’s not likely to get significant traction.”

Issue fatigue is a pervasive problem across all sectors, he said.

“The public is bombarded by bad news ranging from environmental issues, disappearing airplanes to political battles (and) tends to tune out unless an issue is personally relevant, because they can only process limited information and they sort through the growing number of issues to find those that are meaningful to them.”

We don’t want to hide what’s really happening out there from those that are disconnected – far from it – but is the constant stream of negativity doing the cause more harm than good?

It all seems like a case of selective hearing: remember when Mum used to yell “clean your room”? You never heard her. But she also used to yell “dinner is ready” and you’d be there in a flash. Selective hearing is really caring hearing. If you care, you hear.

The public do this all the time, and we’re seeing it with drought.

Hearing is a non-voluntary information channel, you can’t switch it off. Searching online is a voluntary information channel, yet we still do that selectively. We look for information that interests us, confirms our bias or is consistent with our world view. If we’re being delivered information we don’t care about by non-voluntary means (such as radio and TV ‘chatter’) then we become selective hearers.

Social media has given everyone a voice - but when everyone talks together, you can’t hear anyone. This often powerful, uncontrollable channel, in addition to print, TV and radio, will be the nail in the coffin for effective broader engagement with the non-farming community if we don’t manage our messages more effectively.

Generally, our external communication needs to be positive, to put confidence in the hearts and minds of those that eat the food we grow, wear our fibres. We need to keep the constructive negative messaging internally – it shouldn’t be played out in the public eye or on social media. That’s ours to manage and discuss.

Times are really hard, there’s no doubting it - but if what you have to say is only negative and not solution-focused, perhaps take some time to go out on the farm and chat about it with a fence post.

I’ve said it before, ag needs your voice, but your voice won’t be heard if we’re all calling out together about how bad things are. We need to present as a strong, unified, positive industry, across all communication channels - and that's how we'll come through it as a socially stronger sector.

Sam Trethewey

Sam Trethewey

grew up farming down south and now commentates on agriculture across Australia
Date: Newest first | Oldest first


8/04/2014 4:26:42 AM

Very well said Sam. The media has been full of whinging about a lot of self-created problems that have been allowed to fester and grow as people "live in hope". Hope won't grow instant stock feed when it does rain. When it does rain is the exact time the country is crying out for NO grazing pressure. Small plants become big plants. Markets have lifted. Sell stock and put some cash in the bank. We can't live without grass. Keep up the good work Sam. George
8/04/2014 6:01:41 AM

Nothing stays to same in nature. Already across large areas of QLD and NSW, people are sharing pictures of full dams and greening pastures. As well the hope and joy that goes with that. This is about engaging the urban population in our story, both the good and the bad. In the past commercial media has only really been interested in disaster stories.
Love the country
8/04/2014 6:44:09 AM

Would be really great if we could get interest rates at the same rate as our city cousins around the 6 percent rate, not the 14/18 percent rate many farmers are paying. Many ,many city people have no idea farmers are subsidising there cheap home loans . No one wants sympathy just a fair go .
8/04/2014 7:01:59 AM

Sam, this is a great article. I have been scared that this would happen for some time now. Unfortunately the downside to social media is that it is virtually uncontrollable as to who posts and the subject matter posted. It only takes one article for our urban friends to develop an opinion of agriculture or the subject matter. I feel that, as an agricultural community and industry, our next challenge will be to work together to portray the right image. We have used it to our advantage but have we gone too far? I guess this is an unknown that comes along with technology and social media!
8/04/2014 7:13:10 AM

Qlander, "if it bleeds it leads", commercial media aren't interested in full dams and green pastures. The ones that care will like the fresh pics/story. But how many brands or cultures engage their TA with their good AND bad story. None. Love the country, exactly my point. Your "city cousins may not only not know, but probably don't care. They certainly can't do anything about it, so why engage?! My suggestion is have that discussion with stakeholders, internally.
8/04/2014 7:34:50 AM

Its time to nationalise the farms and put the previous owners on as managers. No matter how you look at it, the family farmer is costing taxpayers millions in tax breaks, drought payments, FMDs, landcare grants etc etc. Only one way for govt to stop the hand out mentality and that is to stop giving and start taking back.
8/04/2014 7:51:29 AM

It's what our industry has always done and has become a master at. That is, the manufacture of doom, gloom and outrage. Productivity is high in that regard. If people are serious about change, they need to get off their butts, walk out their farm gate and get further down their industry. Stop abdicating responsibility to the old boys club of failed farmers in tweed that have a chip on their shoulder about everyone and everything ad infinitum.
8/04/2014 8:11:03 AM

I always [try not to] laugh when people in ag talk about how terrible, terrible, it always is. And then say they cant understand why their kids dont want to take it on???
8/04/2014 9:07:10 AM

Taxpayer, why stop at nationalising farms? The managers you would appoint will cost the taxpayer millions and millions. After all, they will be 'experts' in charge of government assets. Imagine the super liabilities!? So lets go further and turn the farms into Gulags. We can send our criminals to do backbreaking work, over long hours, for nix. White collar criminals and the hardened career types could work for the national interest. Gee, why not go further and lash them should they slack it. If you want to muck around with this totalitarian stuff, don't be shy about it - let's get tough.
8/04/2014 10:43:10 AM

It takes a fair old nerve to peddle that load of tripe "taxpayer", when the average farmer is on less than seven dollars an hour and supplying some of the only globally competitive products to come out of this socialist, overpaid country. See how you go getting cheap food when your so called farm mangers are on $50-$100 an hour and working like unionist. Aussie farmers receive less than %3 in govt assistance so your statements just don't add up.
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Get MuddyTo think clearly in farming and about farming, you need to get muddy - commit, roll up your sleeves and get involved. SAM TRETHEWEY gets stuck into some of the issues facing those on the land.


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