Food agency’s communication strategy a breath of fresh air

There is nothing more frustrating for a journalist than the inability to get basic information for a story from official channels, particularly at the federal level.

The relationship between the federal government and the Parliamentary Press Gallery is especially strained, one that is unlikely to im-prove much in the coming months thanks to the rapidly approaching federal election.

Which is why the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s communication response to the single case of H5N2 avian flu in Ontario has been a pleasant surprise.

The CFIA’s last communications effort, which had been prompted by a leak that revealed a case of BSE had been found on an Alberta farm in February, received heavy criticism from some reporters, including yours truly.

In that particular case, obtaining basic information such as the location of the index farm and the birth farm, was like pulling teeth. The agency’s initial plan was to not make the case public until its monthly reporting period in March, a policy that CFIA and the cattle industry insist is simply standard practice.

This time around CFIA appears to have amended its communication strategy.

Reporters were first informed of the single case of avian flu April 7 through a CFIA news release that was sent to the entire Parliamentary Press Gallery. That in itself is an improvement over the BSE case, when the agency put out a response but didn’t send it to the gallery’s main email, which frustrated several reporters who were unaware of the CFIA’s response.

Included in the news release was the location of the two farms initially put under quarantine, which is another improvement over the BSE response, when the CFIA refused to identify where the farm was located and sparked confusion on the ground.

Reporters were also told it was an H5 strain of avian flu, the index farm was a turkey farm that had reported higher than average deaths and initial testing had been done April 5 at the University of Guelph’s laboratory. The birds on the farm would be euthanized, and the farm owner was co-operating.

A technical briefing was scheduled for later that day with CFIA vice-president Paul Mayers and Ontario chief veterinarian Greg Douglas at 4 p.m. ET, where reporters were told about further testing to determine the “N” strain of the disease. That has since been identified as H5N2.

Technical briefings are designed to educate reporters about an issue, including explanations of scientific terms, agency policy and additional information such as the number of birds on the farm and trade restrictions. They are also a chance for reporters to speak to officials who might not be made available to the media on a regular basis.

These technical briefings are critical in agriculture because they can help reporters who don’t regularly cover the industry wrap their heads around the issues.

The CFIA has held three technical briefings on the avian flu case in Ontario as of April 13, where reporters have been updated on the number of farms under quarantine, the number of affected birds, CFIA’s containment strategy and markets that have imposed restrictions because of the case.

Officials have also answered questions about how a control zone works, the source of disease and the variations in the different types of avian flu.

Reporters have been allowed multiple rounds of questions, and officials have been able to provide detailed answers, which is wasn’t always possible in the BSE case.

In that situation, officials deferred to the ongoing investigation or privacy concerns to justify unanswered questions, which, rightly or wrongly, prompted more reporter frustration.

To be fair, the main difference between the BSE case and the avian flu case is that this time around the CFIA has remained ahead of the story, whereas with BSE the agency was immediately put on the defensive.

This is not to say the CFIA communication response to the avian flu has been perfect, but it is certainly a marked improvement over past experiences with the agency.

An informed media means a better chance of an informed public. Ensuring reporters and journalists are well briefed on the issues at hand helps avoid confusion, particularly where accurate information is critical and much is at stake.

One can only hope this trend continues.

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