|Farmers and Social Media|
Ken Columbini made an interesting discovery recently while surfing the Internet.
What the communications director with the National Corn Growers Association found on a health-related blog was a picture of hogs confined in extraordinarily tight individual enclosures, along with a caption declaring the photo depicted how swine commonly were kept on U.S. "factory farms."
Columbini knew the photo wasn’t taken at any hog operation he had ever seen in this country. So, being familiar with how to research things on the Internet, he set about trying to find the picture’s source. The picture was authentic, he found, and it had been taken by a photographer for a well-known news service five years ago. But the photo was taken in China.
Even worse, the image had been picked up and used on a number of other websites, he discovered, including some embellishing the original erroneous caption with additional "facts."
Incidents of misinformation, half-truths and outright fabrications surfacing on the Internet, including on the social media websites, unfortunately are all too common. And, as the hog photo and caption illustrate, U.S. agriculture can be a target for anyone with an axe to grind as well as those simply unfamiliar with the industry.
Whether farmers consider social media a colossal waste of time and energy or a valuable and highly-credible way to communicate, it’s hard to escape one reality: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media sites are here, they have huge followings and they are tools that can be used, media experts say.
More and more farmers apparently are taking up those tools. The reasons for some may be strictly personal. But others are viewing social media as a way to communicate agriculture’s story and to respond one-on-one to misinformation.
The U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA), which recently noted the first anniversary of its founding, is one group asking farmers to get involved in the communications process. As the organization’s website gently chides, "As farmers and ranchers, we’ve raised pretty much everything. Except our voices."
Among other things, USFRA is asking farmers to join its team of rapid responders, willing to reply to things they see on the Internet and other media conveying erroneous information about agriculture. Similarly, the organization asks the general public to submit information or links to news stories deserving a response.
In many cases, that response is best communicated in social media, where those who created, passed along or viewed the original message are most likely to see a reply to it.
Tom Sanders, director of digital services for Charleston/Orwig, a communications consulting firm, says the way people communicate has changed dramatically over the years. The era of media talking at us, he observed, is being replaced by people talking with each other. Think Consumer Reports magazine – an early example – and online reviews of restaurants, movies, professional services, hotels, and other things and situations people experience.
And the place where most of that personal interaction is taking place is the Internet, with its more than 2.2 billion users worldwide and its social media, which have literally exploded in recent years. Consider:
· Facebook–with its more than 500 million users worldwide, more than half of whom log on to the site every day.
· Twitter–launched just six years ago, with current message traffic of some 1 billion tweets per week.
· YouTube–online since 2005, where 4 billion videos are viewed daily and more than 3 billion hours of video are watched each month.
"Social media provide agriculture a chance to step in, establish itself and interact with the many communities that are there," Sanders said.
It’s an atmosphere where advising, listening, engagement, teaching and thought leadership prevail over selling, marketing and promoting, he added.
Mark Green, managing director of Osborne & Barr, an advertising and marketing firm with a roster of well-known agricultural organizations, believes farmers’ traditional use of the Internet for information about weather, markets, products and services, and news should expand to include monitoring social media to see the viewpoints and other reports about their industry.
Those who use social media "need to have a goal in mind, rather than simply establishing a Facebook page or starting a Twitter account," he advised. "But it has to begin with a listening process."
Columbini sums up today’s communications challenge with a saying often attributed to Mark Twain: "A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes." He noted, adding a reminder, "And that’s from before the Internet!"