Communications and marketing: More talk for tough times

Having accepted the idea that 2009 (and likely 2010) will be an austere year, the key will be how to adapt.

In agriculture — and probably elsewhere, too — I think one answer will be through more and better electronic communications, augmented by spectacular marketing.

This occurred to me as I read an email last week from a Hungarian agricultural journalism colleague. His country is a proud, longtime member of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists, as is Canada. In fact, we're hosting the federation's 2011 annual congress in Guelph and Niagara Falls, and we're anticipating 250 to 300 of the top farm writers in the world to visit our piece of the rock.

But my Hungarian colleague's farm-writing guild is hard pressed to make ends meet.

It operates on an annual budget of just 240 Euros, from which it funds all of its activities. That sum comes from its parent organization, the Association of Hungarian Journalists, and the guild says the prospects of finding outside support are slim.

That's unfortunate, because after joining the European Union in 2004, things were looking up for Hungary. Now's come the crash.

Still, I'm confident the Hungarians and others facing similar challenges will come here in 2011, because our committees will find ways to make the Guelph-Niagara Falls congress as affordable, applicable and attractive as possible.

We have exceptional resources in our region, and I'm convinced organizations that understand our international reputation as an agricultural nation — including our federal government, perhaps through organizations such as the International Development Research Centre — will rally around the opportunity to present and explain the Ontario- and Canadian agri-food sectors in unprecedented ways, to an extremely influential and receptive audience.

Several organizations are already on board. They've given their employees time to get involved in organizing the event. Others will be approached, starting this month.

Meanwhile, we need to communicate, and so does the entire agri-food industry, internally and externally. Just because times are tough doesn't mean the momentum for local food and sustainable agriculture has waned.

Consumers are still looking to farmers to provide them with safe, wholesome food at an affordable price and want to know more about farming.

So maybe agricultural communications are more relevant now than ever. Farmers need consumers to understand a cheap food environment puts agriculture in a precarious position.

For their part, the Hungarians have accepted new economic realities. They've said that unless they can capitalize on special provisions, there's no way they can jump on a plane and jet to meetings and congresses.

But at the same time, they've made a commitment to the federation.

They've said they are adamant about being counted among the free world's only globally recognized agricultural journalism organization. "Physical absence does not mean we are only passive members of (the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists)," say the Hungarians.

And further to the drive to adapt, they cite a desire to stay connected electronically. To them, listservs, newsletters, chat rooms and array of social communications tools such as Facebook can keep them well-informed about federation activities. Likewise, they get a chance to contribute and participate.

There's no substitute for the dynamics that accompany face-to-face meetings. But with the economic squeeze, we need alternatives when possible.

We need to embrace the increasingly affordable technology that makes electronic communications accessible to more people. We need to say yes to government programs that bring more rural people online with high-speed Internet.

And we need imaginative marketing approaches that add value and depth in ways that are unique to electronic communications.

By leading, innovating and listening, we'll help people in disadvantaged countries learn from each other and support the free press.

About The Author

Urban Cowboy

Raising awareness and promoting dialogue about current food and agriculture issues.


Headshot of Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts is a faculty member in the Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communications program at the University of Illinois. As an agricultural journalist, he is the past president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists and a lifetime achievement award recipient from the Canadian Farm Writers' Federation. His programs and research papers have been recognized nationally and internationally through awards from the Journal of Applied Communications, the National Agri-Marketing Association, the Association for Communications Excellence, and others.