The old joke was: You know it's going to be a bad day when you find a 60 Minutes crew on your doorstep.

Unfortunately, the humor is lost on today's pork producers, replaced by the reality that modern operations are increasingly vulnerable to outside scrutiny, based on real or perceived shortcomings that can range from environmental issues to animal care concerns to food safety matters and more.

Cindy Cunningham, assistant vice president of communications for the National Pork Board, has been giving a producer presentation titled, “Are You Prepared for an Activist Group?” She notes that audience interest and response clearly shows a growing awareness and reluctant acceptance by producers that they, and their farms, are not immune.

Strive for the Best, Plan for the Worst

The best defense is a good offense, Cunningham points out. Committing to industry programs, including Pork Quality Assurance Plus (PQA Plus), Transportation Quality Assurance (TQA), the We Care Responsible Pork Initiative and the Ethical Principles, can decrease the likelihood your operation will be targeted. As important, your participation in these programs can provide key support for a reasoned response.

If your operation is targeted, being prepared to respond can make the difference between an incident being an uncomfortable but relatively minor disruption in the life of your business, or one bringing it to the brink of ruin. Waiting until a crisis hits is not the answer.

“Producers have action plans for breeding and feeding programs, crop rotations, manure/nutrient management and more,” Cunningham points out. “An emergency action plan for dealing with a public crisis is just as important.”

While the details of a crisis won't be known until it happens, prior planning can provide a framework for dealing with these situations, and everyone in the operation should be familiar with the key elements.

The Internal Crisis Team

The plan should identify individuals to serve as part of a small, quick-response crisis team. The job of this team is to assess the situation, confirm that it is real and gather the initial facts.

After the initial assessment, this team may want to reach out to outside expertise, possibly including the consulting veterinarian, legal counsel, state and national association advisors and similar resources.

This larger but still nimble group can tailor an appropriate message for responding to the situation, and help identify the best spokesperson who will be charged with keeping the message consistent as well as be “the face” of the business to the outside world.

This person should be credible and informed. The message should be clear and simple: What happened and what is being done to address it, encompassed in a brief overview of the operation and management's commitment to resolving the issue. It should not be a cover-up. Professionals advise, “Tell it all, tell it fast and tell the truth.”

An owner or manager is usually the best choice for the spokesperson. Only in rare instances should legal counsel fill this role. Avoid “canned” statements; use talking points instead.

The public is not patient. Your plan should include contact information for all key players, with the same for back-ups in case one or more key players are not available. The longer a response is delayed, the less effective any reply becomes.

Notify Other Stakeholders

Beyond the individuals included above, a crisis plan should identify other stakeholders who need to hear of the situation and plan of action first. Employees top this list. They need to know not only the specifics of what is happening and what is being done, but also who the spokesperson will be, as they need to direct any outside questions to this person.

“Your first responsibility is to the safety of your family and employees,” Cunningham points out. “Your second concern is the welfare of the animals. You need these employees to be able to do their jobs in the midst of the crisis.” This can be especially tricky in situations where misconduct by one or more employees triggered the event, and it's important to reinforce your support for those not involved.

Other stakeholders might include lenders, feed suppliers, packers, contract growers, neighbors, community leaders and even local law enforcement. Actively notifying these individuals allows you to be proactive rather than reactive.

Recognize that your spokesperson may not be able to personally communicate with each of these in a timely manner. Others can be assigned to make these contacts, with the caveat that they simply relay the predetermined facts (in this case you may want a brief written script), and redirect any questions to the spokesperson, such as: “ (name) will call you as soon as possible to answer your questions, but he/she wanted you to be aware of the situation now.”

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Dealing with Media Mania

Handling media inquiries can be one of the biggest challenges during a crisis. It's why selecting and equipping the right spokesperson is critical. In general, the media are there to get a story and are open to the facts. Broadcast reporters are usually looking for brief sound bites, while print reporters are interested in more details. In either case, try to be as open as possible within the confines of the predetermined talking points. Show confidence and answer questions honestly.

Recognize that in activist situations, some media may be looking for intensity and sensation, Cunningham cautions. Staying calm, professional and on message is especially critical. Don't be baited into a confrontation with media or activists.

Few potential spokespersons are gifted enough to do this naturally. Most will benefit from pre-crisis media training. If a professional trainer isn't available or affordable, there are books on dealing with the media that can help. Spend some internal time role-playing. Participation in the Pork Checkoff-funded Operation Main Street program can also provide useful training and experience in delivering a positive public message.

Know Your Rights

Your emergency action plan should include a clear picture of your rights and limitations when it comes to controlling on-farm traffic and interference. Cunningham warns that trespass laws vary from state to state, so don't assume you automatically have a right to keep reporters, camera crews or activists off your farm or even out of your buildings. Find out what your rights and responsibilities are now, so you can take necessary steps to control the situation.

“Again, the safety of your family and employees, and the welfare of your animals are the first two priorities,” the NPB communications specialist notes. “Your ability to limit access to the property is an important safeguard. Also, be sure all employees know the property boundaries and what your policies regarding those limitations are.”

Assess Vulnerabilities

Take an honest look at your operation, Cunningham advises. Identify those areas that may trigger outside scrutiny. PQA Plus and TQA can help.

Keri Retallick of Des Moines-based Validus Services is experienced in conducting on-farm assessments in support of the PQA Plus program. She notes that while many producers are initially apprehensive about the assessment, most soon realize the value of an outside set of eyes.

“It's easy to overlook some things when you're in a unit every day,” Retallick points out. “While self-assessments using the PQA Plus checklist are good, someone from the outside can see things an owner or manager may miss.”

If there are vulnerabilities, correct those you can, but recognize that activists, given the opportunity, could still attempt to sensationalize accepted practices. Since outside access usually comes through employees, they can represent a window of opportunity for activists. Screen potential hires carefully, treat all employees with respect and watch for signs of discontent, Cunningham advises.

However, don't expect that you can completely eliminate the possibility of clandestine videotaping. She notes that in a quick search on the Internet, she easily found a virtually undetectable “buttonhole” video camera the size of a pencil eraser that sells for under $500. And in any event, putting your employees under constant suspicion is hardly a positive personnel management move.

Your Reputation on the Line

Your preparation for, and response to, a crisis can determine whether your reputation is tarnished or polished. It goes beyond pride, Cunningham points out. Mishandled, a single event can do permanent, even fatal, damage.

“If an incident causes lenders, packers, feed suppliers or other critical partners to refuse to deal with you, could you survive?” she asks.

Reinforce key relationships ahead of time with business partners, neighbors, media, community leaders and local law enforcement. Host open houses, become involved in community events and explain your use of industry and on-farm programs such as We Care.

If a crisis does occur, work your plan. As painful as the experience might be, your response can actually portray you in a positive light, as a business owner willing to step forward and address the issue openly.

Planning Help on the Way

Developing an emergency action plan for your operation will soon become easier. Cunningham reports that the National Pork Board is finalizing a computer program that will be able to generate a customized plan based on a pork operation's answers to a series of questions. Watch for its release soon.