When the headline is you: how to handle the media

Consultant tells producers that talking to reporters can be hard, but ignoring a story can be dangerous

Consultant tells producers that talking to reporters can be hard, but ignoring a story can be dangerous

BANFF, Alta. — The sympathy for Sunterra Farms operations vice-president Ben Woolley was almost palpable in the room filled with more than 700 people with an interest in hog production.

He volunteered for a mock interview Jan. 10 as former journalist and public relations specialist Jeff Ansell spoke about media and how to handle interviews.

Woolley answered questions about the hog industry only to find that his words were used later in a mock story that questioned the health of pork and the welfare of pigs in hog operations. It was not what he had intended.

“The truth is not good enough,” Ansell said in reference to Woolley’s experience with modern journalism.

“If a story happens to be accurate, often times it’s just a happy coincidence.”

Ansell reserved the bulk of his criticism for what he called “mainstream” media and social media including Twitter and Facebook. Speed in posting information often comes at the expense of accuracy.

“If the headline is you, how much faith would you place in the media to get your story right, because unless the reporter works for trade media and truly understands the challenges confronting the pork industry, they’re likely to be biased from the start.”

Dealing with media is a topic of concern to the pork industry in light of recent higher profile incidents where animal activists have protested at the gates of meat packing packing plants or have been found on hog operation property without explanation.

A high-profile case in Ontario in 2015 involved charges against a woman who gave water to a pig while it was on a truck awaiting unload.

Charged with criminal mischief, Anita Krajnc was acquitted of the charge in 2017.

Ansell said news stories about the food industry, at least in mainstream media, tend to involve issues with conflict, on which the media thrive.

“I’m not here to scare you off dealing with media. You just need to know that it’s an unnatural dynamic that bears no resemblance to everyday conversation,” Ansell said.

“Even before you have the chance to speak and tell your side of the story, the media and the general public have already framed the story. They’ve already framed the narrative.”

Even so, failure to discuss events or refusal to be interviewed is not a good option. Ansell cited the fallout from the XL Foods case in 2012 involving a massive beef recall on suspicion of E. coli contamination. Owners refused to comment publicly on the situation, leading to public distrust. The plant near Brooks, Alta., closed and was later bought and reopened by JBS Canada.

“Their wounds were self-inflicted. They did it to themselves,” said Ansell.

He compared that tactic to that of Maple Leaf Foods in 2008 when listeriosis in meat from one of its plants caused illnesses and 22 deaths.

Owner Michael McCain gave a public apology and open explanation of the situation and described actions taken to address the problem. He was later voted chief executive officer of the year by the media, Ansell said.

Talking with reporters does not come easily to most people, he added. However, if it becomes necessary, he advised producers to consider their “value compass” and what values they have regarding their operation and animals.

“When bad news happens on your watch, you have to be amongst the most upset, the most aggrieved, most outraged. You need to show your stakeholders that you get it, and ideally that would be genuine.

“Because the court of public opinion, in a battle between emotion and fact, emotion is always going to win. Ignore it at your peril.”

In a later interview, Ansell said producers shouldn’t avoid speaking with media but they need to approach it with care.

“More often than not, if it’s mainstream media and it’s about the pork industry, it’s usually not going to be a flattering story,” he said.

“If the story is about allegations of abuse at a pig farm, mainstream media are going to identify bad guys, good guys and cast roles to tell the story.

“Journalists in trade media are more knowledgeable. They have depth. They have an understanding of the issues deeper than a mainstream reporter who just popped in to cover a story about a pig farm today.”

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