By Matt Reese
On these wild weather spring days we’ve had, if I see the western sky darkening and the winds start picking up, I’ll run out and close the west-facing barn door, secure anything that might be prone to blowing away and put items under cover that I do not want to get wet. The coming storm is out of my control, but I can be proactive by taking measures to try to mitigate the damage it may cause.
The same strategy should be used with an impending public relations storm.
Animal agriculture is once again bracing for a storm in the form of possible fallout from an undercover video effort seeking to portray livestock production in a negative way. This time, the deceptive work of animal rights activists recently took place at Fair Oaks Farms in Indiana, one of the top agritourism destinations in the country. The working farm was designed with transparency in mind to showcase modern dairy production to curious consumers. Fair Oaks opened 15 years ago and now features behind-the-scenes access to dairy and hog facilities, an on-site hotel, restaurant, apple orchard, gift shop, and more to attract visitors from around the country to have fun and learn about many facets of U.S. agriculture. Apparently, the transparency of the farm was not enough to discourage unscrupulous measures of animal rights activists.
Rather than wait to see what damage will result, Fair Oaks has taken steps to prepare for the storm. Before a negative video was even released, the folks from Fair Oaks quickly put out a video of their own and released a statement about the issue.
“At Fair Oaks Farms, we pride ourselves on consumer transparency — not only when it comes to the dairy products we produce, but also regarding the cows, people and farming that are behind those products. It is with that philosophy in mind that we would like to inform our trusted consumers, visitors, and the public at large, that an animal activist organization infiltrated our farms,” Fair Oaks said in the statement on their website. “We believe they came to our farms not to share a fair and balanced view of animal welfare, but to specifically and misleadingly create animal cruelty videos. Although we strive for perfection, we are always on the lookout for flaws within our systems and we look forward to proactively reviewing these videos. With that said, we would like to reassure you of our core principles and commitments to animal welfare.”
In the video accompanying the statement, the founders of Fair Oaks again talked about their transparency and philosophies about the humane treatment of animals. They explained what they think the goals of the undercover videos may be and pointed out that they are open to new ideas about dairy production.
“We really wish that groups like this understood that they are welcome to come and share with us their thoughts of our practices and management and allow us to have a dialogue with them where we could interchange our thoughts with theirs,” said Mike McCloskey, co-founder of Fair Oaks, in the video. “I’m sure they will teach us stuff and help us become better at what we do because it is that transparency that has helped us to continue to be open with our practices and listen to everyone.”
The actions of the animal rights activists are out of the control of Fair Oaks, but the proactive quick response from the dairy farm will undoubtedly help mitigate any potential damage that could be coming.
“Sometimes, a company’s first instinct upon hearing about a potential undercover video release is to hope the story won’t get out,” said Hannah Thompson-Weeman, with the Animal Agriculture Alliance. “By being the first to comment on the situation, Fair Oaks has been able to own the narrative and taken a lot of air out of the activists’ tires. Local media has covered the situation and allowed the farm to amplify its message. As of yet the video has not even been released — likely because the activist group has to re-think its strategy as a result of the farm’s response.”
The quick response from Fair Oaks builds upon years of being open to questions from the public about their production practices and significant good will from the many visitors who tour the facilities each year. That good will showed in many positive comments to the Fair Oaks statement and video.
“The supportive comments also demonstrate the immeasurable value of building up your ‘trust bank,’” Thompson-Weeman said. “Fair Oaks has made countless deposits to its trust bank over the years through each positive customer interaction, and now the brand is able to draw against that goodwill and be trusted to handle this situation appropriately.”
If any negative videos are released, the actual damage from the storm can be addressed accordingly, or maybe there will be no damage at all. Anyone from a farm knows that when the western skies darken and the winds pick up, the storm still has time to dissipate and be of little consequence, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to run out and shut the barn door, just in case.