What does communication have to do with AMR?
If I was a member of the public, right now I might well be asking what the industry is doing about the issue of antibiotic resistance on-farm. After all, a major report (Antimicrobials in Agriculture and the Environment, December 2015) published by a Government task force states antibiotic use in animals equals if not exceeds human use; global consumption of antibiotics in agriculture will increase by two-thirds between 2010 and 2030; and a bacterial gene conferring resistance to colistin, an antibiotic of last resort, has recently been discovered. If I turned to the internet for more information, I would be horrified by the soundbites from an A-list of environmental lobbyists and pressure groups about overuse of antibiotics, factory farming and poor practice. That’s why communication is critical. The British public is being bombarded daily by messages that range from hints to accusations that its farming industry is shirking a responsibility to cut antibiotic use. By comparison, the industry itself appears ominously quiet. This presents a classic reputational issue which has less to do with fact and more to do with perception. The decommissioning of Brent Spar, bird flu at Bernard Matthews, salmonella in Cadbury’s chocolate and benzene in Perrier are well-documented cases of poorly managed issues that blew up into full crises – with serious economic and social after-effects. Whatever the industry is doing to use antibiotics more responsibly will have little impact if it’s not clearly communicated in a way that shows the required accountability, desire to change, targets, and action. For example, the government report I mentioned previously explains what a good job other countries are doing. Denmark has combined low antibiotic use with being one of the largest exporters of pork in the world. And from 2007 to 2012, antibiotic sales to Dutch livestock farms decreased 56 percent without “any reduction in production or profits”. There may be nuanced rumblings within the industry around original usage levels or impacts on welfare, but the headline is what’s remembered by the public. Similarly, as the US is congratulated for upcoming restrictions that will make it illegal for medically-important antibiotics to be used as growth promoters, the public is largely unaware that growth promoters have been banned in the EU for 10 years. It’s the clear, repeatable, action-oriented headline that wins. We have much to learn from these approaches – and those of the NGOs that batter the industry on this issue. We have an issue we aren’t dealing with: a perception that the UK farming industry is not taking this matter seriously, not accepting any responsibility, and not doing anything to address it. So what to do? Define some clear communicable targets. Work together – there’s too much fragmented activity. Adjust our tone and message to be proactive not evasive. Act, engage and secure our share of voice. We can turn this around, but not unless we get off the fence and engage in the debate.
Amy has been involved in the farming industry for most of her life, spending school holidays lambing and milking then going on to study agriculture at SAC and University of Aberdeen. She made the move into public relations 18 years ago, working with a number of agricultural businesses then mainstream clients including Cadbury, Gillette, Lafarge and Toyota before setting up her own communications consultancy, Oxtale, in 2008. Specialising in crisis and reputation management, Amy has developed communications strategies around issues as diverse as organophosphate insecticides, horsemeat contamination, international product recalls and end-of-life care. However, her first love remains farming, and after becoming involved in the Nocton Dairies project in 2011, she decided to investigate the lack of fact surrounding the debate about large scale farming more thoroughly through a Nuffield scholarship entitled ‘Can we Learn to Love the Megadairy?’. Since then, one of her goals has been to separate fact from fiction about intensification of agriculture as these debates continue, encourage the industry to communicate more effectively with communities and the public, and to better familiarise consumers with modern farming systems. Amy’s business, Oxtale (www.oxtale.co.uk), is a specialist communications consultancy which aims to help agricultural, environmental and industrial organisations handle issues and build better relationships with their most important stakeholders.