Pork producers find new ways to connect with food industry executives

-By Darcy Maulsby

Imagine if animal activist groups decided to target a global food retailer or a major foodservice chain to apply pressure. Maybe they blast the company’s executives with hundreds of emails in just a few weeks.  Or maybe they demand that they are allowed into board and shareholder meetings, as well as into corporate suites (C-suites). Their mission? Meet with company executives to further their activist agendas.
Food company executives who have found themselves facing situations such as this sometimes ask Pork Checkoff staff to speak to the activists directly.  “We suggest a different approach, however,” said Brett Kaysen, assistant vice president of sustainability for the Pork Checkoff. “We’re glad to visit with C-suite executives to provide facts about today’s pig farming that they can share when challenged.”

Recently, a key grocery retailer asked for the Checkoff’s input in drafting its animal well-being guidelines for suppliers.  “The retail executives were surprised to learn that the nation’s pork producers already have Pork Quality Assurance® Plus, Transport Quality Assurance® and the Common Swine Industry Audit in place,” Kaysen said. “They were interested in learning about the We Care℠ initiative and how pig farmers adhere to the six ethical principles every day in their barns and communities..”

Straight to the Source

Some retail executives, many of whom have never been on a farm, want more than written information or a C-suite discussion about animal care, Kaysen noted.  “We set up farm visits for interested food industry leaders so they can see firsthand the high level of care farmers give their animals,” Kaysen said. “We want them to hear straight from the source.”

During farm visits, the executives meet with pork producers, tour the barns and have the chance to get their questions answered. “They comment on how clean and bright the barns are and how well cared for the pigs are,” Kaysen said. “Connecting pig farmers with C-suite executives is powerful. It’s not about telling our story. It’s about sharing it and listening. And pig farmers are at the center of the story.”

Managing Risk with Trust

Being transparent builds a foundation of trust between retailers, consumers and pig farmers, which is more crucial than ever, says National Pork Board President David Newman, a pig farmer and associate professor of animal science at Arkansas State University. “We must manage risks to the pork industry by being open and forthcoming,” Newman said. “This plays a big role in the growing demand for U.S. pork both at home and abroad.”

Part of building trust includes taking credit for the great work pig farmers have been doing for years.  “For example, many C-suite executives don’t know farmers have nutrient management plans in place and follow them carefully to help protect the environment,” Kaysen said.  It’s important to share these success stories with key audiences, including non-governmental agencies such as the Environmental Defense Fund, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Nature Conservancy.  “We work with these groups and inspire them to become advocates for the pork industry,” Kaysen said.

It’s also vital to share the pork industry’s stories with channel partners, including packers, processors, retailers, and restaurants. The Pork Board does this continuously, such as at the National Restaurant Association’s annual conference earlier this year.  “As a trusted partner, we can have a significant impact on how C-suite executives make decisions that impact pork,” Kaysen said.  It’s important for the pork industry to build relationships and to share stories proactively long before a crisis occurs, Newman says.  “We need to get in front of challenges by becoming trusted resources that C-suite executives know and reach out to when they need reliable answers,” Newman said.

Consider what happened when a large Midwest retail chain recently dealt with animal activists. The group targeted the retail chain, putting it squarely in the cross-hairs with animal care concerns. The retail executives turned to the Checkoff for facts about pig farming.  “They wanted to talk about the health and nutrition of pork, the sustainability of pig farming and animal well-being practices,” Kaysen said. “We focused on We Care, which shows how pig farmers are proactive in all the issues C-suite executives are concerned about.”

Accurate, Digestible Info

Meeting the needs of C-suite executives in the food industry starts by understanding the challenges they face, which go far beyond direct attacks from activists.  “These leaders are busy and trying to keep their companies profitable in an increasingly competitive industry,” Kaysen said. “I start each conversation by asking, ‘What are the hot topics you’re dealing with? What can we do for you?’”  Listening and providing helpful answers demands concise, compelling communication with the time-pressed executives.

“We usually get 30 to 60 minutes, so we have to get to the point quickly,” Kaysen said. “We’re often asked to cover two to four big topics, such as antibiotic use, sow housing, animal well-being, and feed efficiency.  “They want to know about pounds of feed per pound of gain with pigs because it’s tied to the sustainability of corn, soybeans and other crops.  “For any question we may be asked, we can connect the answer to one of the We Care principles,” Kaysen said. “We stress that pork producers do what’s best for people, pigs, and the planet.”

Principles = Commitment

The very nature of a principle versus a rule speaks volumes to executives about pig farmers’ commitment to excellence, Kaysen noted.  “You can break a rule and usually still be ok, but if you break a principle, it can ultimately break your business. It shows how seriously pig farmers take the We Care principles,” he said.

Sometimes bringing the principles to light means turning science into a sound-bite, Kaysen said. That can include sharing an infographic, such as the recent University of Arkansas study to show how U.S. pork’s sustainability has continued to improve since 1960.  “For example, sharing that pig farmers have decreased land use over the last five decades is impressive,” Kaysen said. “But it’s more memorable if you say it’s like reducing an 18-hole golf course to four holes.”  He added, “Usually, these executives want concise, easy-to-understand, science-based information to take to their CEO or board of directors.”

Ongoing Need for Sharing

Staying in tune with the needs of C-suite executives, sharing the pork industry’s story of sustainability and keeping the lines of communication open is an ongoing process.“About the time you build a relationship with C-suite executives, they get promoted or lured away by a competitor,” Kaysen said. “We can never take for granted that everyone knows the pork industry’s remarkable story of progress.”

That’s why the pork industry continues to build strong relationships with a variety of key audiences.  Kaysen said, “The Pork Checkoff can help answer the fundamental question C-suite executives are asking of their supply-chain partners: ‘What’s your sustainability framework today and for the future?’”

 “We need to get in front of challenges by becoming trusted resources that C-suite executives know and reach out to when they need reliable answers,”  – National Pork Board President, David Newman