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.