Agriculture’s modern image blindsided by social media

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Ahead of the Heard

A speaker at a recent cattle-industry meeting showed a video that both bemused and shocked the audience. The speaker and her research company, on behalf of an industry group, were investigating public response to the image of beef production.

Part of the research involves gathering together a focus group to ascertain their opinions. The use of such groups is a common practice in the public-relations business. The idea being that by carefully selecting people from specific demographic groups, a researcher can determine what their average response will be to an issue, a product, a service, etc. It’s all somewhat subjective, but it can provide some interesting insights.

Companies use this type of research to determine whether a new product will be in demand and sale-able. It’s better to determine up front what might sell rather than risk a lot of investment bringing a product to market that will fail. It doesn’t always work out that way, but it’s a common practice.

The same approach is used by governments, political parties and commodity groups to determine what ordinary folks think about issues and causes. In many cases, campaigns and programs are abruptly altered to accommodate any change in citizen perceptions. The public can be fickle.

In this case, a commodity group wanted to know what public perceptions there are about the handling and perceived abuse of cattle and livestock. It was part of a bigger study, but this part was an eye-opener. The focus group was made up of young adults in their 20s, some with a college education. I presume the idea was to get the opinion of an upper middle-class group that would have a more enlightened view about these issues — that was, as it turned out, indeed a presumption.

When asked about their perception of abuse in animal agriculture, one young woman stated that in her view, abuse was common because it incited fear in animals that produced adrenalin that caused their meat to be more tender. The meeting audience was bemused by this rather outlandish observation, but then found out to their dismay that this woman was a high school biology teacher.

The shocking part was the thought that this person could well be perpetuating her misconceptions by teaching it to her students. Another focus group member stated that he felt there was more abuse toward chickens than cattle because of the difference in their size.

The fact that these opinions on animal abuse were even held by members of the public was a sobering experience for the meeting audience, most of whom were involved in the cattle business in one form or another.

It would seem that all the pro-active positive image efforts of governments, the animal agriculture and food business, livestock organizations and producers themselves have all been for naught if this was the typical perceptions of average middle class citizens on animal abuse.

It gets worse — it would seem that these citizens got their ideas on animal abuse from social media like You Tube. They gave the impression that if it was on You Tube, it must be true, perhaps a typical view of gullible naive young people.

Scoff as one may at such a perception, it underscores how far behind the livestock industry is in the public-relations war for the public’s emotions. One can easily see the nefarious hand of animal-extremist groups manipulating social media to push their anti-animal agriculture agenda.

There must be a thousand guises under which they could operate with impunity, knowing that on the whole, the audience they are targeting will believe a negative first impression anytime — and it will stick in their innocent minds.

Having observed how animal rights extremist groups have developed over the past 40 years, one has to be impressed on how they are always on the cutting edge of PR, education, political, judicial and media advances.

Animal agriculture is always playing catch-up. To be fair, the livestock industry just can’t compete with well-financed groups that have just one focus and can hire the best talent and the best resources to carry out their mandate. If the observations of the members of the aforementioned focus group are any indication, it would seem animal-rights zealots continue to win the battle for the emotional whims of the consumer.

It’s hard to know how the industry can fight back in a meaningful way.

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