Making the Move to Agricultural Communications
I’ve managed to be asked about the difference between agricultural public relations and “regular” or “normal” PR on a number of occasions. Well, for one, most corporate clients don’t send representatives to towns like Pleasant Hope, Mo.
With a population of 604, according to the most recent United States Census, Pleasant Hope isn’t home to the same kinds of public relations campaigns that cities like New York, St. Louis or even nearby Springfield, Mo. (population of just under 164,000), would be able to attract. And yet they have at least one group of overachievers that are worth mentioning.
I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to travel to Pleasant Hope for a Future Farmers of America banquet on behalf of my client, a major agriculture brand. Since this was my first time traveling to one of these kinds of events, I didn’t quite know what to expect. After getting lost, I was able to find the place where the event was being held because I saw three cars close together heading in the same direction, and correctly guessed that they were headed to the same location (Remember: just over 600 people).
Once I arrived, I certainly wasn’t let down. The newly-renovated barn (yes, I said barn) was filled to capacity with around 150 people, about half of whom were members of the high school’s FFA. In addition to the award I was presenting, they had also recently won first place in the state for dairy foods. They had also recently produced a video defending agriculture against over-regulation that also finished first in the state. And again, just for emphasis: Population of 604.
The Road to Ag Comm
A lot of those who go into agricultural communications have the experience of having grown up on a farm or, at the very least, coming from a rural area. My story is slightly different.
I moved to St. Louis last year after spending some time at a large PR agency in my hometown of Chicago, working with one of the largest fast food brands in the country. It was an excellent experience that gave me the chance to learn how to work with one of the most recognizable corporate entities in the world. One of the things I noticed about that former client is how they were moving from more of an all-encompassing message to one that was more localized and focused on customer advocacy. The agriculture communications industry is also headed in that same direction.
I realized one thing when I started interacting with farmers in my role: Farming requires not only a high level of intelligence but also a deep love of the craft. And I guess that makes sense when you think about all of the components that go into a farming operation. You have to know the right seeds and the right equipment in addition to dealing with weather and other crop issues. After six months at my current job, I’m only starting to grasp some of the intricacies of the field.
A Diversified Approach
So from that standpoint, it makes sense that trying to a “one-size-fits-all” approach to marketing to farmers is likely going to fail. Farmers are different in the more cotton and cattle-centric southern states (where I technically work) than they are in the more corn and soybean-oriented Midwestern states like Iowa and Nebraska. That’s why it makes sense to ensure the best localized coverage for each market, whether it’s advertising or public relations. It’s more time-consuming than simply buying ad space on a national farm program (which is useful as well), but the results have been noticeable.
Another thing I’ve noticed about those in the agriculture industry is their passion for education about their work. That’s one of the reasons farmers love giving back to organizations like FFA, 4-H clubs and local schools. And it seems that passion has been passed along to students at a young age. I can’t even begin the number of stories I heard at the Pleasant Hope banquet that went along the lines of, “We weren’t going to train students to compete in this particular competition, but then they bugged me for two weeks straight, So I made them promise that they would work on it with me before and after school, and they agreed.”
One of the biggest misconceptions about farmers is they are slow to adopt technology. To a certain extent, there’s some truth to that. Farmers typically prefer traditional news outlets more consistently than those in urban areas, for example. But the fact is, farmers today have to grow more food for a growing population with the same amount of land. Genetically modified seeds can help, but farmers have also become smarter and better able to use the land they have. Marketers targeting farmers and thinking that traditional values equals a lack of progress would be making a silly mistake.
It’s a Family Business
When you think about farmers, it’s important to think about farm families as a whole. In most cases, it’s never just one person filling every role in a typical farm. Children on farm families are exposed to the lifestyle at a young age, and it helps them to develop skills they will use for the rest of their lives.
So when attempting to market anything to farmers, it’s important to understand both the differences and the similarities between urban and rural communities. Even though I spent most of my life in one of the largest cities in the country, I felt right at home in southwest Missouri.
One of the biggest takeaways I’ve had from working in agriculture is how amazing it is to see people truly love what they do. Their farms are a part of their livelihood. And that’s what makes it so inspiring for me to work in this industry.
James Coston works for Osborn & Barr Communications, a marketing communications agency in St. Louis. He is a December 2010 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, where he majored in Strategic Communication. He is a native Chicagoan and a huge soccer fan who writes for Hot Time in Old Town in his spare time. Contact him on Twitter at @JamesCoston and on LinkedIn here.