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Communicating with consumers

2019-01-15T08:57:59+00:00By |News|

“Is it time we modify how we communicate with consumers?” by Dr Sam Hoste, Quantech Solutions.

It is time to modify how we communicate with consumers. I believe this message is true for all agricultural sectors, the animal sectors especially and for the scientists involved. Have we been successful in our communications? The history of GM, BSE, TB and badgers, and recent planning struggles suggests we should reconsider our communication approaches. We are at the dawn of a new landscape with the challenges of climate change, water usage and energy shortage, but also many new beneficial technologies on the horizon. We should ensure that a proper dialogue is developed between agricultural food supply chains and consumers to ensure that we do not throw these technologies to the wind for a decade. There is urgency in this, and I believe this is not the sole responsibility of the Marketing department or the PR consultants or left to the retailers.

There is an urgent need for Public Engagement Dialogue that involves a 2-way conversation with mutual listening, understanding and respect. The result is that participants come away with a fuller understanding of the topic, each other and progress is made. It has proven a powerful approach for helping people learn from and understand others, and for enabling people to solve difficult problems. It is an approach that biotech & health companies, government (Public Engagement {PE} is now embedded widely in processes) and universities (demonstration of PE is now a significant part of how universities are assessed and funded) are taking to achieve meaningful and productive conversations with their public. We need to move from the one-directional approaches of Marketing and PR to involving and collaborating with our customers.

The key benefits attributed to such conversations are that people come away with new and enhanced understanding, having listened to other perspectives and being open to learn. Dialogue can build ongoing relationships and trust – why would we not do it.

Dialogue can be combined with Deliberation – where people come together to reach a decision over a difficult issue. Deliberation differs from Dialogue in that some decision is expected as an outcome. When dialogue precedes making a decision is can lead to well-informed and workable decisions, that avoid or manage conflict, generate ‘buy-in’ and lasting support. Although a Dialogue and Deliberation approach may not be quick or cheap it is significantly cheaper than costly PR consultancy and legal costs, and may not delay implementation of new technologies for a generation. These approaches differ dramatically from adversarial approaches that have arguably not produced win-win outcomes for the agrifood sector. Being realistic, PE is clearly not a panacea to all communication issues, however it is an alternative that the agrifood sector appears not to have utilised.

So where is this being done? There are many examples of Public Engagement being effectively used with controversial issues in medical and health research and by medical societies; in climate change by the Learning with Climate Change programme (LWEC); Stem cell research and the ‘Pro-Life’ – ‘Pro-Science’ positions, to give just a few examples.

The food supply chain has an urgent need to engage and build trust with the public. Leaving this to Marketing and PR consultancies is arguably too late as the horse bolted and technology implementation delayed. The food supply chain needs to embrace the methods of Public Engagement to build consumer trust and understanding, so that together we can tackle the Perfect Storm. Alone we will probably not.