My work life and in many regards, my personal life, has been consumed by avian influenza these days.
Avian flu. Bird flu. Call it whatever you want - it's certainly in the news in a big way.
This dreaded virus - a super potent strain new to the U.S. that is deadly to poultry - has been making the rounds through Minnesota turkey flocks since late March, and has since hit various midwest states and latched on to egg layer hens and backyard flocks as well. All with devastating effects.
One of my roles as Communications Director of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association is to handle all initial media requests and inquiries that come in. I talk with reporters and editors, get a handle on what they are looking for, and schedule interviews (as needed) with the appropriate people.
During this avian flu surge, this has been no easy task and I'm sometimes amazed, actually, at how much time I spend on a daily basis handling these requests. Not surprisingly, the media has been relentless in the pursuit of this story. The coverage, overall, has been very fair and mostly accurate - but multiple requests come in daily, even on weekends, and reporters everywhere want to know the same thing poultry farmers want to know - how is this virus infecting flocks?
While we don't have a definitive answer yet, we do have teams of experts on the ground, studying and questioning everything that is going on. I have no doubt that in Minnesota - #1 in the U.S. for turkeys raised - we have the finest team of experts in the country trying to figure this virus out. And we will get to the bottom of it.
Until then, I can share a few media tips from my hundreds of interactions with reporters from all over the U.S. during this avian flu outbreak:
Tips for Farmers
Don't be afraid to talk with reporters - but know the talking points you want to get across, and also don't be afraid to decline interviews if you aren't comfortable or ready talk about a difficult situation. Your priorities are your farm, your animals, and your family's well-being. The rest can wait.
Rely on commodity/agricultural organizations (like mine!) to help you through the media process. Many of these organizations have staff people who can act as go-betweens, ask questions of the reporters, and provide you with talking points and tips for interviews. That's why we're here!
Talk about what you know. If you are asked about your on-farm biosecurity measures to combat avian influenza, for instance, you can speak about what you do on your farm and why. Never feel you must speak on behalf of other farmers or your industry as a whole. Your commodity organization can do that for you. What reporters want from you is your personal perspective.
Tips for Reporters
Respect for farmers and what they're going through will get you a long ways. Speaking specifically about avian influenza (or any similar crisis situation), please understand this is a difficult time for the industry. Farmers, especially those impacted directly with avian influenza, are not ready to talk about what's been happening on their farms and to their flocks. This is very emotional for them. To witness this dramatic loss of life with nothing they can do about it is devastating and goes against everything they believe in when it comes to providing care for their animals. (I also realize this is exactly the story you want to convey; please have patience.)
When we say there are no visitors allowed on farms, we mean there are no visitors allowed on farms. In the case of highly pathogenic avian influenza, we believe this virus can be tracked in by tires and feet, for example, so farmers are doing whatever they can to keep what is outside the barn, outside. That means no photographers or reporters walking around trying to get their photos and stories. Period. (This is where knowing a commodity organization or agency with good file photos and b-roll comes in handy.)
Play nice. I have met many seasoned reporters who approach interview and information requests in a very professional manner. They understand they are asking for my time and assistance and are as gracious and patient as their deadlines allow them to be. I've also met young reporters who interrupt me when I'm answering their questions and don't take the time to really listen to what I'm saying. Can you guess who is more apt to get the story - and who is trusted to get the story right?
I sincerely hope that your farm never has to go through what some of the poultry farmers are experiencing right now. But if you do, please know there are many people who work in agriculture that have your back - and we will help you through both the best and worst of times.
#TeamEffort - that's what it's all about in agriculture.