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Communicating Food Science in a Fast-Changing Digital World

Jerry Bowman, Executive Director, FEMA

We’re at a turning point where we should become more active – not just because there’s misinformation out there but because the technology is now with us,” Jerry Bowman, executive director of FEMA told attendees of the NAFFS 99th Annual Convention. “We have an opportunity to capitalize on that technology.”

Bowman said the media landscape has changed. “Food news is really hot,” he said. “And with social media, stories are told in a new way. Sometimes it feels like the Wild West out there. It’s the good, the bad and the ugly. And I assure you, a lot of people feel defenseless when working with media and even social media. But there’s also the good opportunities.

After citing a few examples of misleading articles related to food science, Bowman asked the audience:

“So why does the media do this to us? Are they out to get us?” The answer, he said is “not really.” Part of the reason this happens, he explained, is the process. Journalists have less time and less help to do their jobs yet they are required to produce more content across various formats in near real-time. Journalists now use social media tools to find sources. In the past journalists had to call up and get three sources on an article to ensure that the news is accurate. Today they rely on social media. The web has increased timeline pressure on reporters in all media – including social media. Even bloggers are facing the same kind of pressure and rapid demands. But generally no matter whether you’re in a blogosphere or traditional media, it’s still the same kind of setup.

There has been a significant shift in the way we consume news, Bowman said. “People used to get their news from CBS Evening News, New York Times or Good Morning America but now they may get it from the Food Babe. And that’s because it’s a segmentation of news and a decentralization of where people get their news. And sometimes that creates a real narrow focus.”

Bowman explained how a reporter thinks. “When you see those kinds of headlines, the reason they do that is because they have to get a great quote. They have to have an eye-catching headline to make sure people read the article. Well, sometimes when you are talking about the complexities of science or where flavors come from, that’s not always easy to drop into a headline. So they try to substantiate facts and figures by looking at examples. They may get a quote from somewhere and ultimately paraphrase it in that first sentence. That first sentence is basically like a tweet. But the reality is some reporters look for controversy and conflict,” he said. “But, he added, “there are reporters out there trying to do things the right way. And that’s a great opportunity for this industry to help you get your message out.”

He said reporters today don’t just have traditional news stories to write. “They’re trying to crank out their traditional news story, perhaps a blog post and maybe even a video. Every reporter is so stretched for time, that they just don’t have the time to get all the facts right,” he said.

Consumption is different too. Though TV is still the primary source for news, Facebook and Twitter news use is on the rise. So now reporters are using Twitter and Facebook for marketing and promotion. Bowman said. “Reporters use Twitter and Facebook to build relationships and create lead-generation – just like you do in business to generate leads for your organization. But journalists just have less and less time to do the fact checking. And they use more user-generated content. That’s an opportunity for you who may have a good story to tell. It’s a direct approach with consumers and reporters welcome it because they are being measured by their blogs.

“With all that noise out there, what can we do to tell our story?” asked Bowman. “It begs to the first question: ‘Why should I even talk to the media if there’s all this noise?’ Well, there are a couple of good reasons. First, there’s a lot of misinformation out there. Part of what I plan to do with FEMA is to get out there more and get FEMA into the dialogue more. And it’s cost effective if you can get the right reporter and if you have the right story. It also creates opportunities to raise YOUR issues. And it validates your credibility if you’re supporting your story with a science background. It helps to build your personal brand.”

So how does one plan for the right outcome to the right audience? First, Bowman said, “you need to know the potential positive and negative stories that are unique to your organization. Asking tough questions about your story before someone else does is a great thing to do. And really understand the different channels in your community. You need to understand your stakeholders and segment audiences. There could be different messages in different channels for different audiences. Keep in mind that technical messages don’t always translate easily for the media.”

Bowman advised companies to designate and delegate on media issues. The CEO may want to be the spokesperson but if it’s a technical issue, there may be a technical person on staff better able to act as spokesperson on that issue.

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