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17 June 2011

New Land concept launched

WHAM director Trevor Walton has developed a new way to win friends and to manage threats to New Zealand’s food, fibre and beverage industries.

The strategy has already been presented to agriculture minister David Carter, Beef and Lamb New Zealand, the Forest Owners Association, NZ Trade & Enterprise, Dairy New Zealand, Landcorp and the Farming for our Future group. The response has been very positive.

There's a link to the strategy proposal at the foot of this article.

“The challenge now is to develop a funding and governance model that the major industry-good organisations find acceptable,” says Walton. “That will then enable us to put forward a proposal to the Sustainable Farming Fund.”

Known as ‘New Land’, the strategy aims to bridge the gap between New Zealand producers and the consumers of New Zealand products in overseas markets. It also has the potential to do the same in New Zealand by working with the Farming for our Future initiative.

New Land is two-pronged. It is based on a new website and active engagement in social media like Facebook, Twitter and blogs. These platforms will be used to tell positive stories and to address misconceptions about how we produce food, fibre and beverages in New Zealand.

“Most Kiwis will be aware of the threat posed by food miles – the mistaken belief in markets, especially in Europe, that New Zealand exports have a big carbon footprint because they come from the other side of the world,” Walton says.

“This is a far from isolated case. There have been many other flare-ups in the traditional and social media in the last few years – all based on misunderstandings of how we do things in New Zealand.

“All have the potential to damage Brand New Zealand and to jeopardise access for our exports to the major retail chains in affluent overseas markets.

“The New Zealand difference or provenance is a wonderful selling point for our exporters. But because it’s based solely on fuzzy images, it is also a huge area of risk,” he says.

New Land website

“The New Land website will celebrate New Zealand food, beverages and fibre. There will be blogs, competitions, fun things to download and many other things designed to keep it alive and attracting visitors.

“But its most important feature will be in-depth information, explaining how we raise and process our animals and crops.

“This will fill a huge gap: at present it is virtually impossible to find out any of this information on the web. What you do find tends to come from those who don’t have New Zealand’s interests at heart.”

Walton says the aim is to provide anyone with a genuine interest in how we grow and process food, beverage and fibre with as much information as they want. The underlying logic is that a well-informed consumer can be a powerful ambassador and advocate for Brand New Zealand.  

“A lack of knowledge about the New Zealand difference leaves consumers and gatekeepers in overseas markets prey to those who don’t have our interests at heart,” he says.

“Many issues that come up are based on rumour and a misunderstanding – either deliberate or innocent – about how we do things at this end of the world. And make no mistake. Our geology, ecosystems, history, management systems and laws relating to primary production are utterly different to what European and North American consumers may be familiar with.”

Alongside case studies and profiles of champions, there will be detailed factual information about animal welfare, sustainability issues, chemical use and the like.

“Some of these issues can be a bit sensitive. But the wrong thing to do is ignore them. Sure as hell our critics aren’t pulling any punches.

“Consumers aren’t stupid. They don’t expect us to be perfect, but they do want to know that we are doing our best to find the answers. If we tell them what we are doing and provide some great success stories, 99 per cent will stay on board.

“In essence it’s about trust. Good factual information, well told, builds reputation and relationships. It also stands your brand in good stead when something goes wrong.”   

Social media engagement

The second strand of the strategy involves creating a dialogue between producers and consumers through Twitter, Facebook, blogs and other on-line forums.

“We’ll have a team monitoring the web 24 hours, seven days a week and whenever certain key words come up, we’ll be communicating on behalf of individual farmers, forest owners and growers,” Walton says.

“Most issues can be anticipated, so statements in the name of producers, processors and exporters who have agreed to take part will be prepared, ready to use. It may be 2.00 am and the sources of these statements may be asleep, or it may be during the day when they’re milking the cows, out in a forest, or busy in the winery, but they’ll be having their say in the blogosphere.

“We’ll text or email the sources so they know they’re taking part. Hopefully they’ll want to add some more candid comments when they come home, get into a coverage area or have time to log-in.”

He says someone may sound off in an influential blog or in a major newspaper about how much water it takes to produce a kilo of beef. One of our farmers will remind them that the only water that most New Zealand steers get comes from the clouds ... that the critics should distinguish between grain-fed and grass-fed beef.

“People are chatting on line all the time and a lot of what they say is nonsense. But these chats remain searchable for years and unless they’re challenged, assertive statements can be seen as the truth.”

Walton says a classic example was the uproar in the UK last year when it was publicly revealed that most New Zealand lamb sold there was halal slaughtered. This upset some Christian fundamentalists, but the biggest online concern was the perception that halal slaughtered sheep died a long painful death.

“Bloggers and others got really upset about this, but nowhere was a New Zealand voice saying, ‘untrue’. All livestock are humanely stunned before slaughter – halal and kosher included.”

New Land aims to have New Zealand voices involved in such debates as soon as they emerge. This is critically important, because the first people to respond to a post tend to set the tone of the debate that follows.

Where comments need to be substantiated, there will be links back to the New Land website – helping keep it alive and giving it a good search rating. When there are no off-key on-line comments to respond to, the New Land social media team will be getting positive stories and interesting titbits out into the blogosphere.

Protecting Brand New Zealand

“Livestock, farming and forest management systems have become highly controversial in recent years. Perceptions in the marketplace of whether a practice is ethical or not have the ability to discredit an industry, undermine its sales and in our case damage Brand New Zealand,” says Walton.

“Given the influence of the blogosphere and the social media on public perceptions, New Zealand has no choice but to be actively engaged in the global dialogue. Not to do so would be negligent.”

- Trevor Walton

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