Monday, September 12, 2011

Let the Big Ag Reframing Begin

I've been issuing periodic warnings via Twitter that food and agriculture reformers better pay extremely close attention to the new, deep pocketed industry coalition, the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA), which asserts on its home page: "For too long the voice of farmers and ranchers has often been missing in the conversation about where food in America comes from." Personally, I haven't noticed their voices missing but perhaps some have been unable to speak out because they've been so busy hiding deplorable conditions, unnecessary subsidies and unsafe/unhealthy practices that have, sadly, become mainstream in our food and agricultural system. However, any alliance that starts out with a $30 million budget means business and will be a force to be reckoned with. The USFRA's goal, obviously, is to begin to reframe the debate about food production and agriculture in this country -- a debate that up until now has been dominated by food and agricultural reformers.

If you want to get a sense of how a professional advocacy marketing campaign works, take a look at the email below that I received today from Kyle Trompeter of the Zocalo Group in Chicago, on behalf of the USFRA. A quick visit to the agency's website reveals that it specializes in tapping the power of word of mouth strategies that are sustainable to achieve three objectives:

1. Fuel positive recommendations
2. Combat negative recommendations (they do have their work cut out for them there)
3. Ensure that the net sum of your entire marketing mix leads to powerful recommendations by your industry's most influential consumers and experts.

"Do you know how you're being talked about and recommended?" asks Zocalo on their home page. Big Ag does and they don't like what they've been hearing. That's why they've hired this agency and likely other agencies that specialize in print, TV and radio advocacy marketing to begin to sway public and thought leader opinion towards views more to the liking of Big Ag. Unfortunately for us, these types of campaigns work, as I witnessed first hand as a soda tax advocate in New York. When Big Beverage came to town with their slick, emotionally manipulative, deep pocketed advocacy marketing campaign to derail the proposed penny per ounce soda tax, we wound up losing.

I won't be reaching out to Kyle and "participating in the conversation" since I've been doing that for years and it's been going pretty well from my vantage point. Rest assured, however, that Kyle will get plenty of takers willing to contribute "useful insights" and who will soon be preaching the gospel of USFRA, as the alliance moves to purchase allies and silence potential critics in the same way Big Tobacco and Big Food are doing. Food and agriculture reformers will need to vigorously counter the messages that come out of the USFRA campaign -- quite frankly, to compete they will need substantial funding and their own professionally created counter-marketing. But since just about every food and agriculture reform funder currently refuses to fund advocacy marketing or counter-marketing campaigns, I'd say we're in trouble. You need to fight fire with fire, and food and ag reformers are holding a tiny matchstick while industry wields a $30 million blowtorch.

Hi Nancy,

My name is Kyle Trompeter and I work for a word-of-mouth marketing agency, Zocalo Group.

We’re partnering with the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, a newly formed alliance consisting of a wide range of prominent farmer and rancher-led organizations and agricultural partners, in an effort to help them connect with the public in an open discussion about food production and agriculture. As part of what we’re doing, we’re speaking with people who would likely have valuable points of view on this. And, we thought you would be able to contribute some useful insights, given your reputation in the food industry.

We are working toward holding events and activities in the coming months so we’d love to talk with you soon. Would it be possible to touch base for a few minutes by phone to get a sense of your thoughts on agriculture, give you a heads up about what the USFRA is doing and maybe discuss your interest in participating in the conversation?

For more information about the USFRA, please visit us online at:

Thanks in advance for your consideration.

Kyle Trompeter

Kyle Trompeter
Zócalo Group | 200 E. Randolph, Suite 4200 | Chicago, IL 60601
Phone: (312) 596-5906| Mobile: (708) 655-2809 | Email:


  1. Hi Nancy,
    I have been aghast at the level of silence about this, and appreciate your post. I have been blogging about USFRA since Michael Pollan tweeted about it in April, and have felt like I was shouting into a void. I did see your post on COMFOOD last week, but I feel like there's been a dearth of public criticism of this organization on the part of real food advocates. Do you have a theory on why this is the case? I'm about evenly divided on the matter. Part fear, part dismissal/disgust? I concede that we're all disgusted, but this doesn't exempt us from public outcry.

    At least lots of "us" came out of the woodwork and onto the Twittersphere today so that it was not an entirely one-sided conversation. But it is all far from the multifaceted dialogue being sold by the agency shills.

    Not sure how you managed not to have the same comment-stream as my blog given that I perceive you as more high-profile than me, but in case you would like to stay in touch on this I will send you my information directly.

    In solidarity,

  2. Susan,

    I think most food and ag reformers are not well versed on the type of public relations and advocacy marketing campaign that we're seeing out of USFRA. I don't think it's either fear or disgust. I think most food/ag advocates don't understand how quickly a deep pocketed campaign like this can reframe the debate and damage the progress that has been made. They also don't have any idea how to respond to it. Quite frankly, it's very difficult for grassroots advocates to respond to a campaign put together by some of the nation's top public relations, word-of-mouth and advocacy marketing agencies.

    Food and ag reformers must become far more savvy when it comes to PR and advocacy marketing. If that's what we're up against, we need to know how to fight it. We also need funding to use some of the same big $$ tactics that industry uses to get their messages out.