Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Four Foundations for Ag Communications and Advocacy

Last week I had the pleasure of working with colleagues from agriculture-related research institutes, civil society and industry as they gathered in Indonesia and Vietnam to learn about more about communications, advocacy and issues management. 

Jill Kuehnert presenting
My session focused on the lessons I’ve learned from participating in agriculture communications and advocacy over the past ten years here in Asia. I believe that planning and implementation in four strategic areas can help teams achieve their goals for improving agriculture and food security, while navigating issues that inevitably arise. 

1.       Messages. As scientists, advocates and businesses involved in agriculture, we often focus our communication messages on describing our work in complete detail. I believe that it’s more important for agriculture communicators to frame messages around a story, one that starts with the human need behind the policy, research or product. When we jump right into describing our own work, we skip over the farmer, the consumer or the environmental impact leading us to do it in the first place. The story that stakeholders will be interested in hearing is one with a vivid need, a compelling potential solution, and a well-considered path to making it reality.

2.       Questions. The second core component of good communications strategy is being prepared to answer questions and address concerns. Risk communication theory says that the vast majority questions have been asked before or can be predicted based on what we know about our issues. Yet we often rely on our general knowledge and ability to think on our feet to quickly come up with the right answer to tricky questions. Spending time to gather questions and prepare answers (with partners if we are collaborating) is time well spent. When a topic is complicated, having our knowledge well-organized in advance helps us respond with empathy and care.

3.       Allies. All agriculture projects, businesses and research initiatives need to be supported by stakeholders. We often ‘sing to the choir’ when we talk to people who are already familiar with our issues, or are even working in the same areas. However, communications only becomes effective advocacy when we share our knowledge and our values with potential allies in fields related to ours. I encourage colleagues to take every opportunity to understand the programs and priorities of others and talk to them about our own work. When an issue arises, we can then connect with stakeholders who know us, rather than introducing ourselves in a moment of crisis.

4.       Issues and urgent situations. Despite our best plans, things go awry. To improve our chances of successfully managing potential issues, we should identify areas of vulnerability and make plans to manage the worst-case scenarios. Intense consultation with team members closest to our weak areas is vital. Building standard operating procedures or a checklist system can help those on the front line to focus on priority actions such as ensuring safety and gathering and sharing information to help manage the issue. 

It’s my belief that thoughtful and thorough preparation in each of these four areas will benefit the research, projects and businesses we support, especially when issues arise. I see exciting progress ahead for agriculture, farmers, consumers and the environment here in Asia – and it starts with sharing a story.

Finally, I'm very grateful to the good people at v-Fluence who invited me to take part in the workshops last week.  Combining decades of practical experience, a vast network and up-to-the-minute intelligence on agriculture issues, their team is without peer in this space and it was an honor to work with them.
From left: S. Johnson & J. Byrne from v-Fluence, and me! (Jill Kuehnert)

Monday, August 18, 2014

What I learned from the podcast: You Are Not So Smart on The New Science Communicators

Host David McRaney begins this episode of his very excellent You Are Not So Smart podcast by reminiscing about Carl Sagan, David Attenborough, James Burke, Mr. Wizard and Bill Nye the Science Guy. Decades ago, when some of us were kids, the popularity of these entertaining and educational shows made a big contribution to science education beyond what we got in school.

McRaney reckons high returns from reality television programming then got in the way, and these shows all but disappeared or lost out to ones about exploding things. The only bright note on television, and it is a big one, is the recent reappearance of Cosmos with Neil deGrasse Tyson. At this point I had to pause the podcast to meet a colleague for lunch, wincing a bit over the passing of this golden age of television science.

But when I picked it up again, McRaney’s story became more encouraging as he described a new generation of science communicators who have gained huge audiences through podcasts and video episodes on YouTube. The average audience of Game of Thrones is 7 million people, and the new Cosmos holds its own with an audience of 6 million (if I wrote the numbers down right). According to McRaney most YouTube channels get about the same amount of viewers, or more.

For example, there are 7.5 million subscribers to the Vsauce YouTube channels, and their video on what would happen if everyone earth jumped at the same time has over 13 million views! They passed a milestone in June: one billion views across the entire video series.

McRaney’s guest on the podcast is Joe Hanson from the blog and PBS-sponsored YouTube channel, It’s Okay To Be Smart. Hanson says there have always been curious and intelligent people who think science is fun and want to know more. It’s just that now we can follow our curiosity via podcasts and YouTube programs that circumvent the old gatekeepers: TV producers.

McRaney’s entire conversation with Hanson is well worth the listen. Their discussion ranges from critiques of pop science based on trivia (‘the science of farts’!), to the need to elicit emotional responses in science communication, to the importance of connecting science with meaning. They also talk about why it’s important for people to like the person who’s talking to them about science and what story-telling does for science communication that documentaries can’t.

Their conversation about scientific literacy and ideology was particularly interesting -- making a distinction between folks’ understanding of how scientists view a topic and their acceptance of that as truth. The answers can be a political litmus test on either side. (For more on this topic, I recommend this essay about the importance of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s public statements on GM technology.)

Not only have I found myself talking nonstop about everything I learned from this podcast to anyone who will listen, I’ve also been wondering how this trend applies to those of us with an interest in communicating better about the science around agriculture, food and nutrition. 

Most of the YouTube or video content on agriculture, food and nutrition consists of advocacy pieces produced, hosted and promoted directly by interested parties. There’s not a lot on the science itself.

These new general science videos seem to skew toward engineering, physics, animal or medical sciences. I was able to easily find only a few on topics related to plant science or agriculture. Scishow has episode about bananas which describes how they are cultivated and efforts to combat plant diseases. They also have one on changes in honeybee population (colony collapse disorder), including potential links to agriculture production methods. The Crash Course channel has an episode on the agricultural revolution. But that's as far as it goes, for now.

Maybe we are not so smart!

Monday, August 4, 2014

Book Report: What I learned from Lead with a Story

Lead with a Story: a guide to crafting business narratives that captivate, convince and inspire
by Paul Smith 
2012, AMACOM

I sat down to read Lead with a Story early last week, armed with a pad of blue sticky notes. When I finished it a few days later, the book was stuffed with blue -- quotes, key points, book recommendations and ideas for my own stories that were prompted while I read. Although this book is geared toward communicators and leaders in the business world, I believe it is broadly useful to communicators of all sorts, on at least three levels.

First, Lead with a Story is organized around different types of business situations that can be helped by storytelling.  Smith explains why ‘corporate storytelling’ can bring bolster achievement, motivation, teamwork, and personal development. At this level, the book will be very helpful for leaders and others involved in organizational development (I thought of my sister, the human resources exec) in almost any aspect of ‘people management’ -- ranging from setting a vision, to valuing diversity, to providing coaching and feedback. In the chapter “Set policy without rules,” for example, Smith advises: 
“The main way people learn the rules is through the stories they hear about other people – those who broke the rules and suffered the consequences, and those who didn’t and got rewarded. So in addition to your legally required policy manual, what you need are some good stories.”

Second, Smith builds his case for the usefulness of stories by incorporating into each chapter a number of specific stories that have been used successfully by others in working through business challenges. In the chapter on rules, there are four different stories: how monkeys learn behavior and keep following it, employees who posed as trainees to get free lunches, how a new CFO handled long-term financial misstatements and what happens when expense approvals get out of hand. There’s a helpful index in the back to make it easy for readers to use these same stories in their own work right away.

Finally, the ‘how-to’ chapters in this book are very good. They help the reader to understand what makes a story a story, the important elements, why a story should usually be told in a particular order, and stylistic recommendations to help stories be as powerful as they can be. The final chapter includes excellent questions to prompt discovery of stories from my own experience and those around me.

My favorite of the “how-to” chapters is the one about appealing to emotion. A lot of my work is with scientists of one sort or another, people who are very data-oriented and find it difficult to bring this into their presentations and interactions with people.  So I loved hearing that emotion is a defining element of story. As Smith says:
"If you don’t generate an emotional reaction in your audience, you haven't told a story. It might be a good memo, or perhaps a case study. But it's not a story. "

I also liked the discussion of engaging the audience into the story through ‘teachable moments’ or demonstrations. My personal favorite example of this (not in the book) comes from the first 5 minutes of Bill Gates’ 2009 TED talk on malaria. I’m not going to give it away – go watch it for yourself!

I was pleased to see references to other storytelling teachers that I admire and whose books I've been recommending for years, including Chip & Dan Heath, Annette Simmons, and Stephen Denning. I made a list of others to seek out based on the wisdom that Paul pulled from them for this book, including Language of Success by Tom Sant and Elements of Persuasion by Richard Maxwell and Robert Dickman. 

So stay tuned for more book reports!

Friday, July 25, 2014

What I learned at the conference: Responsible Business Forum on Food & Agriculture

Last week I participated in Responsible Business Forum onFood and Agriculture conference in Manila. Oriented around the theme, “Driving growth, improving lives,” the speakers, panels and discussions focused on the environmental aspects of being responsible. Global Initiatives put it together, in partnership with WWF and corporate, NGO and media partners.

Lately I’ve been focusing on the ways that agriculture impact and can contribute to public health and nutrition, and working primarily with public and NGO sector, so the environment and business emphasis made a nice change of perspective for me. 

One highlight was meeting Jason Clay from WWF. In his opening plenary talk, Jason very masterfully walked us through the enormous impact that agriculture has on the environment, and why it’s so important for companies involved in agriculture and food production to work together ‘pre-competitively’ to pull the rest of the market toward better practices and products. All consumer choices should be more sustainable, Jason says, and I agree! I highly recommend his TED talk from a few years ago which includes these themes and more.  Jason is a terrific speaker who takes his mission to raise awareness about these issues very seriously. We need more ambassadors like him who are dedicated to cutting through the complexity to carefully explain the trends and the urgent issues in ways that policy makers, corporate executives and the news media can understand. He’s a master. 

Another highlight for me was realizing that there is a lot I don’t know about agriculture and food production! The conference included an afternoon spent in self-selected working groups on specific commodity groups. I joined the discussion on aquaculture and fisheries, in part because I knew less about that topic than the others. But I didn’t know just how much I didn’t know, like how many fish it takes to make a fish! This sector is incredibly complex and important for nutrition, economics and the environment. 

From a communication perspective, the conference speakers and panelists that did the best were those who weren’t afraid to get into some of the specifics of their topics. I was happy to learn that one speaker’s daughter thought farmers should be respected just like parents “because they feed us every day”. Another speaker, now a senior executive at a big multinational company, spoke movingly about helping his father on the family farm in South America. From passionate Philippine industry and government speakers, we learned fascinating things about the benefits of bio-char and why senile coconut trees are an emerging issue in the Philippines!

Kudos to the organizers at Global Initiatives for gathering a great diversity of participants from around the world, across Asia, and especially from the Philippines. I shared a table with an executive from a local restaurant and catering group, and an official from the department of agriculture. And it was great fun bumping into friends and colleagues from past projects. 

Looking ahead, I would love to see this kind of business conference framework oriented around a nutrition topic. The business sector has an incredibly important responsibility in addressing hunger and malnutrition as well as dealing with the growing issues of obesity here in Asia, as was pointed out in this blog just a few days ago on the importance of using private sector supply chains to meet nutrition challenges (lots more good stuff on the #feedingdev site!). 
PS: Thanks to my friend Tod Gimbel and Landmark Asia for sharing the invitation so I could join!

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Is Reslience the new Sustainability?

When I was in graduate school in Washington DC, I focused practical study for my Philosophy and Social Policy degree on environmental ethics and the ethics of international development. 

Without explicitly dating myself, I’ll tell you that this was around the time of the Rio Earth Summit, and sustainability was the new buzzword. I watched as the concept of sustainability became ‘sustainable development’. I saw the term ‘unpacked’ as philosophers like to say, in journal articles and report frameworks. Eventually sustainable development was institutionalized and formalized into organizational department names, job titles and new academic journals. 

Sustainability still makes sense to me today as a useful mental framework, in the basic structure I learned back then. Sustainable development is about meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability to meet needs in the future. Three kinds of needs must be met in a complementary way: economics, environment and society.  

More recently, I notice people using the word sustainability in a way that implies the word ‘self-‘ in front of sustainable; a program or development intervention is called sustainable if it can perpetuate itself without continued external support. It keeps itself going through permanent behavior change or natural incentives to generate necessary resources. Teaching a woman to fish to so she can feed herself and her family into the future would be considered sustainable. Giving her fish might no longer be considered truly sustainable, even if doing so causes no harm to future economic, environmental or social goods. 

In other words, sustainable development has to do more than simply avoid depleting the economic, environmental and social resources of the far future. That’s a given. Today, sustainable programs are expected to generate their own resources (at least eventually) to maintain activities and benefits today in present or near future. 

It’s a higher standard and probably appropriate in many cases. It implies a greater degree of engagement and responsibility from those designing and implementing the program, including those being helped. The fisher must see continued value in fishing for herself, or the program fails to be sustainable. 

So now what about resilience? 

I wonder if it is on the same trajectory as sustainability. The international conferences and programmatic categories are emerging already. There have been rich discussions of what the concept means for many months now. Will organizational and job title changes follow? How is it changing what we see, what we value in policy and how we plan and implement development programs for the future? 

Lawrence Haddad thoughtfully raises a number of important points about resilience as a ‘mobilizing metaphor.’ He concludes:
Much of our current development thinking was developed in the last half of the 20th century--in a world very different from today.   Even if resilience has no unique conceptual contribution (and for me the jury is still out), it is clearly resonating with many different stakeholders.
Perhaps the greatest contribution of resilience will be to create the space for new ideas to flourish and help us move development, food security and nutrition more decisively from the 20th to the 21st century. Time will tell.

My Inner Philosopher looks forward to seeing what happens next!