Its like a scrap in a sandpit says this week's opinion writer

Sophisticated approach needed to deal with anti-meat agenda

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Its like claiming a world championship for a scrap in a sandpit, according to opinion writer Alison Penfold.

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

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

Every man and his dog lined-up to ridicule the United Nations claims that the meat industry is essentially fueling 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, David Littleproud - who is known for his 'attack dog' language - it seems the strategy is to '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 this week 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 it is 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 'au 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 in leading the live export industry that I learned 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 also 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'. 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 behaviors 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 allow 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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