Whenever rural industries gather for annual conferences these days, it is a sure bet the topic of social media will feature prominently on the agenda.
As master of ceremonies Gerry Gannon told last’s weeks BeefEx conference on the Gold Coast, social media can kill you, but it can also help you.
The RSPCA’s Heather Neill made no secret of the fact that animal welfare groups know they can achieve the change they seek far more quickly by talking directly to the community with tools such as social networking than they can by relying solely on Governments and legislative processes.
Beef industry consultant and former Australian Lot Feeders Association president Malcolm Foster said the ALFA council has been concerned for several years about the misinformed and blatantly untrue comments that are regularly circulated in public forums by people with an agenda to eliminate beef from the daily diet.
In an attempt to tackle the often one-sided and biased public debate, ALFA has established a Community Standing Committee to focus on getting the truth about the industry and its practices into the public arena.
Presentations by Mr Foster and ALFA director Bryce Camm at last week’s BeefEx conference outlined the challenges and opportunities social media presents to the industry, and the strategies ALFA has employed to improve public perceptions of feedlots.
Social media engagement
ALFA’s multi-faceted approach has included the development of a social media presence on Facebook, Twitter and You Tube; tapping into MLA consumer research to build an understanding of how members of the public perceive the cattle feedlot sector; arranging visits to feedlots by environmentalists, animal welfare agencies, opinion leaders and media; selecting and training feedlot sector advocates to champion the industry and investing in research and development that focuses on continually improving the sector’s management of animal welfare and environmental issues.
A central theme of both presentations was the need for the feedlot sector to ensure that when members of the public search for information about lot feeding, that information from industry sources is among the first items they find.
To achieve that goal ALFA has built a significant repository of online material that showcases every aspect of day to day feedlot operations, including You Tube videos, industry fact sheets and photographic libraries. These resources are backed by investments in Search Engine Optimisation to improve their chances of ranking prominently in Google searches.
VIDEO: Bryce Camm discusses the power of social media sharing at BeefEx 2012
Bryce Camm said a strong industry presence online was vital towards ensuring the general public received an accurate picture about the industry.
“The best thing about these videos is if you go and google animal welfare or animal cruelty, our videos come up and tell the right story, and I think at this stage that is the most important thing we can do,” Mr Camm said.
Walk the walk
With a mobile phone camera in every pocket today, the chances of bad practices being caught on film and broadcast to the wider public have never been greater.
Malcolm Foster warned his lot feeding colleagues that it was not enough for the industry to simply talk the talk, it was up to individual lotfeeder and industry employee to walk the walk as well.
“One media report or photograph or a poor environmental or animal welfare situation will bring all the work we’ve done down around our ears overnight,” he said.
“As individual lot feeders and as an industry, we must remain on that journey of continuous improvement that Kevin Roberts started in 1994 with the National Feedlot Accreditation Scheme.”
The personal touch
Mr Foster also urged individual lot feeders not leave it up to ALFA to promote their industry or to counter mis-information when it arose.
He said the experience of last year’s live export ban illustrated the power that a personal story can have in cutting through a tsunami of negative media headlines.
“Nothing resonates with consumers and the media more than people with skin in the game,” Mr Foster said.
“I think one of the major factors that started to bring more objectivity into the Indonesian live export debate was the letter that came from Scot Braithwaite, a person who was working in the industry and clearly and passionately explained what he saw and what was happening in the industry.
“As an industry we can’t afford to wait for a crisis to happen before acting.”
Mr Forster called on delegates to walk the walk in their day to day operations, to respond to inaccurate comments in their local media about lot feeding, to encourage visits to their feedlot to demonstrate their animal welfare and environmental practices, and to learn how to use social media and to become part of the debate.
“Don’t be frightened to have your say, because there are plenty of people out there who have their say in the opposite direction,” he said.
“We’ve got a great industry, we’ve got great systems, we’ve got great people, so let’s be proud of it and let’s get out there and tell everybody about it.”
'Get on board'
Bryce Camm was given the job of presenting to the conference on social media when he was spotting updating his Facebook status during a recent ALFA meeting.
A self-confessed reformed Facebook addict, he gave an entertaining and enlightening insight into the power of social media sharing to transform simple twitter or Facebook posts into viral, mass-broadcast messages when they resonate and are rapidly spread around user networks.
He agreed with Mr Foster that it was up to individuals in the industry to get on board and to help tell the industry’s story.
“I don’t want you to think that social media is going to save the world. And that is really important. It is another tool in our chest, but it is not the be all and end all,” he said.
“Most importantly as we advance forward down the social media highway, we need to have a consistent, unified strategy driven by industry organisations, but then in support of that involving all of you successfully telling the story.”