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‘Public opinion is everything’ in agriculture advocacy

Janet Kubat Willette Rick Berman speaks at GreenSeam rural forum
BE RELENTLESS: Rick Berman, president and founder of Berman and Co., executive director of the Center of Consumer Freedom and president of Human Watch, spoke Dec. 5 at the GreenSeam 2019 Rural Forum in Mankato about standing up for agriculture.
GreenSeam Rural Forum attendees were told to be factual, memorable and relentless in their ag advocacy.

Remember when gestation crate bans were popping up across the nation? In 2007, Oregon passed a law banning the crates, and voters in Florida and Arizona approved ballot initiatives outlawing their use.

Prior to 2012, 10 states banned the use of gestation crates, and retailers were pledging to force their suppliers to eliminate crates, according to Rick Berman, president and founder of Berman and Co., a public affairs and nonprofit management firm based in Washington, D.C.

Since 2012, only one state has passed a gestation crate ban, and retailers have stopped making pledges. The issue has quietly faded.

What changed? In 2012, Berman was hired to work on the issue. Berman, a lawyer and former lobbyist, worked with others to change public opinion. They introduced the term, "individual maternity pen," and put out articles favorable to the new term.

In a manner of months, they changed the conversation by changing public opinion, which led to retailers changing their behavior and stopping their calls for suppliers to change.

"How fast can you change the debate? Real fast," Berman told the 265 people gathered at the Mankato Civic Center for the 37th annual Rural Forum presented by GreenSeam.

His take-home message was "public opinion is everything," and he played several news clips backing his statement with various commentators saying President Donald Trump will be impeached if public opinion is against him, while he will stay in office if the public backs him.

Legislators always have a finger in the wind, Berman said, and most of the time public opinion controls what they do. His business is to focus on the things others aren't focusing on because they are busy going about their business.

"My job is to look over the horizon, to look around the corner and see things coming and in kind of Paul Revere style say, 'Hey, the crazies are coming,'" Berman said.

There are groups out there with staff and money and no natural enemies, and they are working to compromise your business, Berman said. They may compromise your business a little or they may put you out of business.

People are skeptical, saying this or that isn't going to happen because it's never happened before, but he offers a different viewpoint.

"I'm fond of saying that everything new in the world is new because it never happened before," Berman said.

He encouraged people to look at the issues a little more like him.

"Failure to imagine is a concept… if you don't think something is going to happen, you'll never be prepared for it," Berman said. "I keep asking people, 'What are the worst things that could happen [within reason]?' If you can imagine them happening, there's a chance of them happening. Then ask yourself if you're doing anything to protect against it."

People buy insurance for all sorts of reasons because they can imagine if a certain event takes place and they're not insured. They hedge futures and buy weather derivatives. Being active in the public opinion arena is another way of protecting your business.

Take McDonalds, Coke or Pepsi, for example. All are recognized brands, but they continue to advertise to promote their image and keep consumers walking in the door and choosing their brands.

Agriculture needs to protect its image and go on the offense, he said. A recent emerging threat is plant-based meat.

The CEO of Impossible Foods, Pat Brown, has been quoted saying, "our mission is to completely replace animals in the food system by 2035."

What are beef producers doing to counter this effort? Berman did some work in Colorado where he found consumers who generally thought plant-based meat was healthier than meat. After running a targeted ad campaign over three weeks, opinions changed.

Agricultural organizations need to advocate for their point of view early, be factual, be memorable and be relentless, Berman said.

There is no perfect time to get involved, but it's easier to create a point of view than it is to tell people that what they think is wrong and this is what they should think instead.

Kubat Willette is a digital content creator for Farm Progress.
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