Andrew Knowles, market director for swine at ForFarmers and formerly head of communications at AHDB Pork, recently received the David Black Award – an honour given annually to someone who has made a sustained and significant contribution to the British pig industry.
He speaks to Laura Bowyer about the underestimated role of communications in the agriculture sector.
A: Communications is the linchpin of many organisations and businesses; the employees make things happen.
It is how we are talking to our customers. You could have the greatest technology and product but if you do not communicate it, you will not get anywhere. It is all about having a conversation. Too many people think it is about telling someone about your product, but if you need to get the attention of your market, you need to listen to people as well.
In everyday life, if you are talking and not listening, you will not get anywhere. It is all about listening, reacting and responding and then getting your message across.
A: The term farmer can really generalise a group of people. Some are really keen to engage with the public to get them to understand what they are doing because the consumer is getting too disconnected from where their food comes from and they want to educate them.
Some farmers feel defensive and vulnerable when faced by the general public.
I think the next generation might be better at communicating within the supply chain and outwards to the general public.
It seems the younger generation are socialising in a broader group of people and are better at communicating, partly due to the use of social media and the wider web.
When I was with AHDB, I did a lot of crisis and response management and I began thinking we ought to be talking openly about modern food production – the good, the bad and the ugly. For example, if someone was interested in neonicotinoids they could find out exactly what are the facts and the myths. This resource needs to be authoritative and informative and from an independent body. It would need to be applied to arable and horticulture because the public often think the only grey areas are over livestock and welfare.
There are non-government organisations such as Compassion in World Farming and PETA who, at a low cost, can have a strong online presence and get their messages out effectively. Online, a voice can get amplified in a conversation and a few people can have a massive impact and appear to be from a much larger establishment.
Sometimes social media can turn into a radio-debate type conversation where those involved are sending out narrow-minded messages. Institutions can be good at communicating but may lack the passion. Farmers, on the other hand, may be passionate but are put into a position where they have to be defensive and therefore appear distressed.
A: Social media has undoubtedly changed the way I work – communications have become more intimate, cheaper, quicker and more appealing. A lot of businesses and organisations have jumped on the bandwagon and think they must tweet, but are often doing it without a goal. People need to be engaging in conversations rather than shouting out messages.
Farmers are incredibly sociable, but very isolated at the same time. Social media can have a role in breaking down barriers and starting conversations.
A: I would say both yes and no to this. In terms of communications, we are now living in a noisy environment. There is a lot of information flying around and everyone is trying to cut through the noise.
Technology has become more intelligent but humans still have a limited absorption. We have got to choose who to listen to and who to ignore and it is usually those who give out tips and advice who people will stick with.
On the other hand, there is so much messaging out there people are becoming cynical and resenting the constant contact. They have had enough.
A: If you want to pursue a career in communications I would advise you not to get too distracted by qualifications in the sector. Just get out into the real world and see how people interact. We all communicate naturally, so keep it simple.
A: You firstly need to work out who is interested in your product. Then you need to decide how they like to be influenced. Then you can start to influence their buying habits. You need to be aware of who else is talking and how you are going to secure the conversation.