Sophisticated approach needed to deal with anti-meat agenda

Sophisticated approach needed to deal with anti-meat agenda


Opinion Editorial: Alison Penfold on why ridiculing the UN is not the way to go

Communications and business risk expert Alison Penfold, who has experience in the beef industry, shares her thoughts on handling anti-meat campaigns.

Communications and business risk expert Alison Penfold, who has experience in the beef industry, shares her thoughts on handling anti-meat campaigns.

Every man and his dog lined up to ridicule the United Nations claims that the meat industry is essentially fuelling climate change through excessive greenhouse gas emissions.

Naturally so. It makes complete intuitive sense when under attack and in the face of outrageous claims to come out swinging.

But what is the end game for the meat industry?

Led admirably by the Federal Agriculture Minister, known for his attack dog language, it seems the strategy is beat-them-up, beat-them-down and convince everyone else that the anti-meat contingent is simply wrong and being deliberately misleading. Sure. If you are looking to play to your supporters, then this strategy is calibrated right to be a fight to the end.

Of course, the minister has today claimed a hollow victory with the UN pulling the offending tweet when at the same time corporates, investors and consumers are already actively shifting away from meat to alternatives. It's like claiming a world championship for a scrap in a sandpit.

In truth there is a bigger play for industry and its supporters to make and one that does not benefit the anti-meat activist agenda. What is it? And why would I dare speak these words?

It is certainly no nirvana or some cult-like feverish mantra to be oh contraire. From experience it is no walk in the park to dare challenge the minister or walk a different path to the Australian meat lobby.

But it is from my experience leading the live export industry that I learned that there is a time to fight and there is a time to think, speak and act strategically.

Shouting, screaming and name calling might feel good, but it isolates the middle ground of any debate who are watching not only what you say but how you behave towards those holding an opposing position.

In debates involving highly polarised and mature views, traditional communication approaches simply don't work.

Negative audiences such as critics and activists work on creating a 'vortex' and dismissing their views by attacking and impugning them only feeds the vortex.

Even when they are defeated with technical arguments, they win through the increased outrage. Increased outrage helps activists gain the attention of neutral and undecided audiences.

Without addressing the underlying concerns of activists, the vortex continues to gain traction by pulling in more and more of the middle ground audiences. You just end up stoking sympathy for activist arguments. Rather than being in a strong and assertive position, the meat lobby ends up weak and looking defensive.

As hard as it might be to appreciate, there are genuine questions that many in the community have about the meat industry. These questions are increasingly aligning to maturing social values about what makes a healthy diet or how do we better care for the environment. These values are influencing the decisions and behaviours of business and consumers.

Rather than going on the attack out of a genuine passion for the industry, it's time for a more sophisticated response to that bigger picture change that draws on an understanding of societal values and expectations in forming a response that resolves the concerns and allows for a more balanced dialogue.

This approach won't be popular and will be ridiculed by some, but it's the long-term play that will ultimately strengthen the meat industry's hand in influencing public perceptions and attitudes and allowing good industry practices to shine.

  • Alison Penfold is a director with specialist communications and business risk advisory Futureye. She is a former chief of staff to Agriculture Minister David Littleproud and served as chief executive officer of the Australian Livestock Exporters Council from 2012 to 2016.

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