How does someone who avoided classes that required public speaking become a farmer spokesperson? Well, I can’t tell you exactly how I evolved from a non-public speaker to a passionate public speaker and media spokesperson. But I can farmers some advice on how to become a spokesperson for the industry and for your operation. As agriculture becomes a smaller and smaller portion of the population and news impacting agriculture is constant it is important to have farmer spokespeople who are comfortable with the media.
Many, likely most, farmers are not comfortable with media or public speaking. Even for those of us that are, training is essential. I am involved in the policy industry and have gone through several leadership courses with the National Association of Wheat Growers. The media training in those courses has been invaluable and to this day some of the toughest interviews I have done.
Each organization has similar opportunities – so if you are not in the wheat industry – consider looking at American Farm Bureau’s PAL (Partnerships in Advocacy Leadership) Program or American Soybean Association’s Leadership at its Best. Those are just two examples of many opportunities – AFBF’s PAL Program comes highly recommended by my Twitter friends who have taken the course.
If you are not involved in a policy organization you can also look at taking media training courses online. There are some that cost money and others that are free. Linkedin Learning also has some options available for media courses as well. Despite considerable experience and being comfortable with my role as an industry spokesperson, training is not something that I turn down. I still take advantage of any opportunity I get.
Reaching the Media
Admittedly many of the opportunities I have had are a direct result of my involvement with organizations such as the Montana Grain Growers Association, National Association of Wheat Growers, and Farmers for Free Trade. One of the key roles as an officer for MGGA is to be a spokesperson for the organization. I was one of the original farmer spokespeople for Farmers For Free Trade, as I was featured in their original advertisement. I have also done interviews with CNBC, Politico, Montana NPR, local television, newspapers and NPR’s 1A among many others.
I have also made efforts to make myself available for the media, specifically on twitter. I follow a large number of individuals in the media, this ranges from print to 24 hour news outlets and includes individuals that cover anything from trade and agriculture to every day news. I also engage with them. I also always have my direct messages open even if it does mean I have to delete quite a few random bot type messages. It is important to me that people can reach me if they need a source. This habit has led news outlets from across the globe to reach out, including the Washington Post, BBC, several Canadian outlets, China Daily News, and High Country News.
I will often make it known I am available for media as well. This is exactly how I got involved with AgriTalk. I once tweeted that I had added appearing on the “Friday Free for All” was on my bucketlist. I was then asked to join the Wednesday Farmer Forum, which as someone who was new to AgriTalk is the most common place for a farmer to get involved. I have since become a regular fill-in on the Free For All and it is one of my favorite hours of the week.
Getting in the “door”
- Reach out to agriculture media when there is a topic that comes up that you are passionate about. Whenever something comes up that impacts a subject I am well versed on or passionate about, I will reach out to media and simply say “hey, if you need sources or someone to interview on this, I am always available.”
- Reach out to individuals in agriculture that are doing podcasts, see if you can get on their guest list. Podcasts are tend to be more laid back and conversational, they are an excellent way to get your name out there and to practice.
- Write op-eds or opinion pieces and submit them to local newspapers. They have a tremendous impact locally and can get local media attention.
- Engage with members of the media, especially locally, on their social media pages (nicely – be civil).
- Do your own videos or posts on social media. Most of the outreach I get from media members is a direct response to something I put on social media. Be it a video about mental health struggles or a video on trade, if it gains enough traction someone is bound to ask about it.
I asked #agtwitter for advice on how to approach media interviews. They definitely did not disappoint. Here’s a few of the most important tips they had:
- Relax. Be short and sweet with your answers and always have a sound bite.
- Talk about YOUR farm. Tell YOUR story.
- Make sure to speak in plain language, not everyone understands farmer terminology (we do not even use the same terminology across regions).
- Have key messages before hand.
- If a reporter calls – ask to call them back before you interview, even if it is just 15 minutes (I practice this religiously).
- Study really great guests on other outlets and emulate them.
- Know your audience (is it the general public? agriculture specific media?)
- Be in a quiet place – this is especially important if the interview is live.
- Know if the interview is live, tape delayed, or print.
- Have high quality photographs of yourself or your farm. Reporters will occasionally request them for print stories and they are also utilized if you call into a live television show. They’ll want something for the screen.
This article provides a little more in-depth on some of those points: Top 10 Media Interview Do’s and Don’ts. For articles such as this one for AgWeek I try to follow all of these tips. For some of the other work I do, because I am acting as a spokesperson, I do not have the luxury of always talking about OUR farm and OUR story. I do however keep all of these basics in mind and use them despite speaking more broadly and representing entire segments of the industry.
Know your facts. Do not be afraid to say “I do not know.” You never want to give wrong information to the media. They should be fact checking it, but even if they are not, you do not want to have to walk back comments. You also want to be known as a reliable source, journalists do not like getting facts wrong (contrary to popular opinion).
If you are going to use your social media as a spring board to being involved as an industry spokesperson, remember that everything you put out there can and will be used. I have had more than one screen grab of a tweet appear in an article when I was not expecting it to. I never tweet anything that I do not want to show up in a publication, so I am not bothered by it, but I think about it every time I tweet. The same goes for any blog posts. Politico quoted my post on China Trade most recently, something I was not expecting, but given that I put it out on the internet it is fair game.
Do not be afraid to turn down interview requests. If you are unfamiliar with the reporter look up some of their work to see if it will be worth granting the request. I frequently forward names to our communications people within various organizations to see if they are familiar with them. Typically I have not turned down U.S. based reporters, however I have turned down several foreign publications for various reasons.
Lastly, reporters do not write the headlines. Editors do. The headline can occasionally not exactly reflect what you said, or what you meant but the article will. It is part of the game. If it is really upsetting to you, do reach out to the reporter and nicely mention that you are upset, however know that they did not write it and they might not like it either.
Being a media spokesperson is one of the most surprising and rewarding developments of my professional career. I very much so enjoy the opportunity to amplify the messages of organizations that I represent or to amplify the impacts of various events on our farm or myself personally. Despite my passion for media outreach, we can always use more spokespeople, even if that means I do a few less interviews. Having a diversified group of farmer spokespeople is important and critical to our industry, so if you feel the pull to be a spokesperson for your farm and corner of the industry, please do not hesitate to do so!