SA farming – make good on bad image

Should agriculture in South Africa be concerned about its image? And what can be done to rectify the “bad image” it has in certain quarters? Alita van der Walt speaks to Prof JD ­Froneman (right) of the School of ­Communication Studies at North-West ­University in Potchefstroom.
Issue date 15 June 2007

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Can one really say that agriculture has a poor image?

I know of no survey that confirms this ­perception. Perhaps Agri SA’s research will shed light on this. But it is clear that ­leading figures in the industry are concerned. It is also clear, even to outsiders, that all is not well. For instance, farmers do get bad ­publicity occasionally regarding the ­treatment of their workers. This does ­farmers’ image no good.
But these negative reports are not always based on facts …
Yes, this one must accept. Some people are too eager to put the knife into those ­farmers who feed the nation. ­Unfortunately, perceptions are regarded as reality. Perhaps too little is done to actively counter the negative perceptions.

So agriculture needs “spin doctors” to ­polish its image?

A bad image becomes a bad reputation – and who wants a bad reputation? But the answer is not a quick-fix PR campaign, ­expensive advertising or a clever spin.

So what do we need?

A well-conceived and professionally executed plan aimed at building a sound reputation is essential. For starters, we need to define clearly who and what we are talking about. Are we ­primarily concerned about the reputation of ­commercial producers? Solid research is needed on how key stakeholders perceive these farmers, as these stakeholders are crucial to the survival of the industry.

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It may well transpire that different stakeholders have different perceptions. The minister of agriculture may be more critical of commercial farmers than, for instance, the editor of Farmer’s Weekly is. There is never a single perception of an industry, simply because the industry may be diverse and the various stakeholders have different perspectives.

This sounds a bit academic …

Perhaps, but it is not a simple matter. However, the basics of a recovery plan are straightforward. Apart from the above-­mentioned research, the ­farming community must be brutally honest with itself. The success of a plan aimed at ­improving its long-term reputation depends hugely on farmers’ willingness to rectify whatever is wrong.

That’s it?

No, not quite. But you cannot build a sound reputation when individual farmers, even a very small minority, are out of step with what are generally regarded as sound labour practices, to name but one issue.

Surely all industries or ­professions have black sheep?

Yes. There are always unethical doctors and cheating attorneys or corrupt police officers. But they are identified and dealt with – in the case of the professions, by a ­professional body. Farmers are not registered with a statutory body. However, I would suggest that organised agriculture should become tougher with those who give the vast majority of ethical farmers a bad name.

Are you suggesting that the reputation of farmers is, in the final analysis, a local issue?

Absolutely! You cannot change negative perceptions by initiating some programme in Pretoria if farmers at local level do not buy in. This is not primarily a ­“communication” problem. It is mainly about ­formulating (or reiterating) lofty ideals and getting ­farmers to commit themselves to being ethical. Only then will farmers in general be trusted, admired and ­supported by all stakeholders.

How long will a programme aimed at boosting agricultural producers’ ­reputation take?

You can’t rectify a reputation problem in the short term. It should be an ongoing ­process. Producers have become street-smart at marketing their produce and finding ways to get the best prices. They are also ­becoming more productive and ­innovative all the time. I believe they now need to become street-smart at building their reputation, and learn from the corporate world. Your short-term image and long-term ­reputation are always at stake and need to be addressed professionally on a daily basis.

How would you summarise a successful strategy aimed at building or rebuilding farmers’ reputation?

Identify why some stakeholders have negative perceptions. Rectify what you can. Communicate consistently and ­professionally. Repeat the process over and over. Get professional help. Focus on national, regional and local level. Get all role-players in agriculture to contribute.

And the minister of agriculture?

Engage her continually. As Prof ­Willie Esterhuyse said recently, ­bombard the department of agriculture with ­thoughtful projects that prove ­commercial farmers’ good intentions. And ­communicate these clearly.