Through social media, America’s farmers and ranchers explain why they do certain things when raising animals for food. This communication is not just one way. Facebook posts from the farm, tweets from the tractor seat and blogs from the “back 40” allow members of the non-farming public to ask questions on everything from how today’s food is grown to how it is processed and eventually brought to market.
Although a growing number of farmers use social media to interact with consumers, trepidation about answering tough ag-related questions causes some to shy away from using this valuable communications tool. But it doesn’t have to be that way, according to a couple of social media experts who teamed up recently to share time-tested tips with Farm Bureau members.
“Be authentic in telling your story,” says Lyndsey Murphy, digital media specialist at the American Farm Bureau. “Speak for you and your farm, not the whole of agriculture,” she advises. If you’re not sure how to answer a question, it’s perfectly OK to say you don’t know but will find the answer.
Murphy finds that using social media to build relationships yields great rewards because everyone is on the same playing field with similar opportunities for interaction. But it does take time. “People’s viewpoints are unlikely to be changed after interacting with you just once,” she cautions.
“Using beautiful visuals and an authentic voice to share what we as agriculturalists know and love” is the sweet spot for many farmers active in social media, Murphy says. She’s found that visuals are a tremendous help in telling one’s farm story because “people might not always believe what they read but they always believe what they can see with their own two eyes.”
Photos, videos and fun infographics are all proven effective at helping tell a farm or ranch story.
For many in agriculture, deep connections to the farm make it hard to hear some comments without feeling judged or that the other person is misinformed. This happens online and in person, notes Janice Person, director of online outreach at Monsanto.
“Reacting the wrong way can shut down any opportunity for dialogue but when we listen from a place of truly trying to understand others, we learn a lot and others notice that we are open to their thoughts,” Person says. She tries to ask three broad questions to gain understanding before offering her experience or perspective. Often, she finds someone that she may have written off as a staunch critic may only have some criticism and talking through that and discussing experiences can result in a new openness to other perspectives.
When you choose to use social media, understanding the public nature of it and the possibilities for controversy can be useful in shaping your presence, Person says. She’s found that being proactive on a few key components can be helpful.
Having a comment policy on your blog or Facebook page can help establish “rules” to be referred to if controversy surfaces. Person advises social media newbies to always consider who they want to share information with before posting. Utilizing friends’ lists on Facebook rather than broadcasting across multiple social media social platforms is one option to consider.
If controversy surfaces in response to your posts, Person says how you respond should depend on your goals, not your emotions. And keep in that mind that not everyone who lobs criticism your way is a troll. When criticism is honest, it is important to step back and listen to different perspectives, she says.
You can also take time to respond rather than allowing the perceived need for immediacy drive you into an emotion-driven, fast-paced back and forth. Taking time to think through how to reply is acceptable. Talking through how to respond with a trusted friend can help provide perspective and clarity.
“Although ‘haters’ sometimes surface on social media, using respect as a baseline for online interactions not only is the right thing to do, it helps build a community that will reinforce the guidelines that have been established,” Person says.
Cyndie Sirekis is director of internal communications at the American Farm Bureau Federation.