Q&A: How to Handle a Crisis on Your Dairy
Flooding, tornadoes, activist videos, barn fires—from disasters both natural and man-made, a crisis can wreak havoc on your family’s farm and on your peace of mind. Mike Opperman, Editorial Director for dairy content at Farm Journal, answers some burning questions about how to manage a crisis.
Q: What’s the first step producers should take to manage a crisis?
A: The first step is to put together a plan. And the best time to do that is during peace time. So when there's nothing else going on, when the weather's good and you don't have any activist pressures is the time to put together a plan. And within that plan, you will have all of the things that you need to do if a crisis happens.
It's kind of like insurance. You hope that you build a plan, you put it in a binder and put it on the shelf and never have to use it. But boy, will it be nice when something happens so you can pull that off the shelf.
The first part of that plan should be a list of your A team, or the key people on your operation who need to be made aware immediately when something happens. It should be a relatively few number of management-level people who can make decisions.
The next step is to make sure that all of the management on the dairy know what's going on and are abreast of the situation. And from there, it depends on what sort of crisis you’re handling. If it’s a health crisis, you need to let your veterinarian know. If it’s some sort of feed issue, let your nutritionist know.
About this time last year, we'd had some heavy snowfall here in Wisconsin, and we had a lot of roof collapses on barns. Well, certainly in this type of crisis your local authorities should know in case there's some sort of a safety issue.
Q: So what is the worst thing you can do in a crisis?
A: I'm a fan of the show “The Office,” and on one of the iconic episodes they had an issue where they had an image appear on paper that went out to a bunch of different customers. And, as Michael Scott normally does, he pulled everybody into the conference room and had a meeting. He said, “The first thing we're going to do is notify the media,” which is exactly the wrong thing to do, right?
If you think about it, you really don't know the extent of the issue and really don't know the ramifications. The last thing you should do is get on the phone and call your local reporter, your local radio person and say, “Hey, something just happened on the dairy and I want you to come out and we'll talk about it.”
You need to have all of your messaging live, you need to have everything ready and all the people who are involved in the situation need to know so you can create the messaging and then go out to the media after that.
As you think about what you want to say or need to say, there are several organizations that can help you with that. Certainly your local your state checkoff organization should have messaging available for virtually any crisis that happens. Here in Wisconsin, the Dairy Business Association and Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin have staff that is well-trained and versed on how to handle pressure situations. And there's also a number of independent consultants you can work with who will help you through a crisis situation, especially as it relates to communicating about the crisis.
Q: What do consumers need to know when they see undercover videos shot on dairies?
A.: They need to understand that 99.9% of the time there is no impact on the safety or the quality of the food product, regardless of what happens on the dairy. If it's a food safety issue, then they can be concerned. But by and large, the videos that we see there is nothing wrong or from a safety standpoint with the milk that comes off of the dairy. And then beyond that, they need to understand that these are not common practices that happen on a dairy farm every day.
Recently I talked to Jamie Jonker from National Milk Producers Federation. He said there are three things that you see in an undercover video. The first are common practices that the consumers just don't understand—things like artificial insemination or proper debudding of animals. And then there are common procedures that aren’t done properly on the videos. And then there are things that you just don't like to see. This could be an employee who’s doing something to harm the animal or something out of line with proper protocols.
I think consumers need to understand that what they're watching is really an anomaly and is not consistent with a broad aspect of the dairy industry. So many times activists try to paint specific situations as a broad brush of everything that happens in the industry, and that certainly is not the case.
Listen to Mike talk about managing a crisis here:
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Download Overhe(a)rd, The Farm Journal Livestock Podcast, to hear Mike talk about the Fair Oaks Dairy undercover video.