Intense drought ignites intense media coverage
Isabella Chism, IFB 2nd vice president, traveled to Kevin Underwood’s Tippecanoe County farm to be interviewed by Bloomberg News. The day-long event took several days to arrange. Photo by Kathleen M. Dutro
The 2012 drought became a “story” – that is, something that merits extensive media coverage – on July 5, which was when Purdue hosted a conference on the topic. That’s when the calls from the media started coming in.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in 30 years of working with media,” said Andy Dietrick, director of the IFB public relations team. “It’s never been so intense nor so widespread.”
Since then, the IFB PR team, along with our counterparts at other ag organizations, have been peppered and sometimes bombarded with requests from the media, wanting to know how severe the drought is, what effect it’s having on farmers, what effect it’s having on food prices, and so on.
And the no. 1 question of reporters is: “Can you find a farmer for me to interview?” To that our answer is almost always “Yes.”
So far during this drought, we have said yes to, among others, the Weather Channel, Bloomberg News, CNN, WRTV-6 and WISH-TV in Indianapolis, The Wall Street Journal, the Associated Press, Farm Journal, CBS, Reuters news service, WANE-TV in Fort Wayne, Al Jazeera English and The Sunday Telegraph of London.
In addition, regional managers, county presidents, county PR coordinators and other Farm Bureau members have been fielding calls directly from media.
It’s Farm Bureau members who have made it possible for us to say yes so often, and the reason is that when we call and ask “Would you mind being interviewed by _____?” an amazing number of times the answer we get is also “Yes.”
Here’s how such interviews usually come about:
- A media representative calls Farm Bureau and is transferred to me, Andy Dietrick or Mindy Reef. The representative wants to interview “a farmer.”
- The PR team member finds out the representative’s deadline, how many farmers he wants to interview, how far he is willing to travel and if he has any specific requirements (livestock, specialty crops, irrigated ground, or whatever).
The answer to “how far” is almost always “not very far” – TV stations seldom want to travel more than 20 miles and almost never more than 50. And the answer to “What’s your deadline” is almost invariably “Sometime in the next couple hours.”
- The PR team member (usually me, backed up by Andy and Mindy) reviews her list of farmers who fit the criteria and are reasonably comfortable with this sort of request, and then starts making phone calls.
- She keeps making phone calls until she gets a yes from the required number of farmers. In a perfect world, this takes no more than 30 minutes.
IFB President Don Villwock (right) joins Joe Moore, Indiana Beef Cattle executive vice president, and Julia Wickard, director of the Indiana Farm Service Agency in a discussion of the drought broadcast by WTIU in Bloomington. Photo by Andy Dietrick
Among those who’ve said yes are District 1 Director Larry Jernas and Brad Lawrence, both of Starke County, and Hancock County Farm Bureau President Jon Sparks.
Sparks has been interviewed twice on the drought, both times by Indianapolis TV stations. Being interviewed “probably seems more daunting than it really is,” he said. His advice is to simply relax and answer the questions. And, he added, unless it’s a live interview, “Take your time.” There’s nothing wrong with taking a few moments to think about the question, he explained.
Jernas’ and Lawrence’s experience provides another valuable lesson in media relations, which is that flexibility is important. FOX Business News called regional manager John Newsom, asking to interview a farmer about irrigation, and Newsom arranged for the network to interview Jernas. However, the crew was diverted to another story and had to postpone the interview for a couple of days, by which time, Jernas said, he just wasn’t available. So Jernas and Newsom looked around to find someone else who could talk about irrigation and found Lawrence.
Because the other thing this shows is that when it comes to media relations, you’re on the media’s timeline, not your own.