‘Own your story’: Farmers can learn from how seafood industry overcame image challenges

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By Lee Reinsch for Peninsula Pride Farms

LUXEMBURG, Wis. — Ewell Smith knows what image crises are all about.

The former director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board brought the story of the Louisiana seafood industry’s ruin and resurrection to the Peninsula Pride Farms annual conference on Feb. 13.

In a few short years, between Tropical Storm Gustav in 2003 and the Deepwater Horizon incident in 2010, the Louisiana seafood industry was sunk. In between came Katrina, Hurricane Gustav and Hurricane Ike. The events devastated fishermen and decimated the $2.4 billion industry.

The industry thought it had recovered some of its market share — but then came the BP oil spill in 2010. By the time the well was capped, after 87 days of news coverage showing black clouds of burning oil and “being drilled into the psyche of our consumer base across the United States and around the world,” 95 percent of the Louisiana seafood market was lost, Smith said. Two of its largest fishing docks were shattered. In one month, the area lost beach equivalent of 50 years of erosion.

A noted professor described the waters of the Gulf of Mexico as “toxic soup,” making people afraid to eat seafood. Restaurants across the country posted signs reading, “We do not serve Gulf seafood.”

But today, the industry is fully recovered, and Smith told the PPF members how Wisconsin’s dairy community can overcome its setbacks, too. Among those challenges for dairy farmers in northeastern Wisconsin is a black eye suffered because of water quality issues in a geologically sensitive area.

Smith said conservation efforts PPF have spearheaded since it was formed three years ago prove it’s focused on solutions. Now, farmers just need to magnify the message.

“When you turn up the positive things you’re doing, you see lots of opportunities appear,” he said.

Smith’s message hit home with farmer and ag lender Jim Smidel, a member of PPF.

“Farmers are quiet, a lot of us are shy and don’t like to talk,” Smidel said. “But it’s all about getting us to tell our story, being honest, telling everyone what you’re doing, because 99 percent of people don’t understand what we’re doing.”

How they did it

In Louisiana, Smith and his team didn’t wait around for someone to tell them they needed to do something. They got busy, fast. The promotion board:

  • Built a coalition of those in the seafood industry, from restaurants to fish stick manufacturers.
  • Formed relationships with the people they might have been at odds with: the oil and gas industry.
  • Did media tours and media blitzes — buses with seafood-themed wraps, humongous billboards, even Black Hawk helicopters.
  • Put on events that featured 340-foot-long po boy sandwiches for celebrations and groups.
  • Established the Great American Seafood Cook-off, which ran for 10 years on PBS and Food Network, and the Louisiana Seafood Festival, which lives on.
  • Positioned the seafood board as leaders in the nation.
  • Built relationships with gourmets, foodies and chefs nationwide, not just seafood restaurants.
  • Created the Louisiana Seafood Chefs Council.
  • Started an online news service to get credible stories out to the public.

In short, they got in front of the camera right away. They put themselves out there, even before receiving the all-clear.

“We went from telling our story to owning our story,” Smith said.

Back for the second time

A major rebranding campaign, funded by BP and others, was key to the industry’s rebound.

The former “Start with the main ingredient” motto in red on the promotion board’s logo was changed to two words: Louisiana Seafood, in blue, after consultants told them the red sign resembled a stop sign.

The promotion board advertised in recognized magazines, like Bon Appetit. They brought in food bloggers. They took their message to the Culinary Institute of America. They did trade shows. They made sure lawmakers saw their message.

They took po boys to the White House when President Obama hosted the New Orleans Saints for their Super Bowl victory, so the whole world saw football players devouring seafood sandwiches.

“We started (repairing our image) five years before Katrina, embracing our community,” Smith said. They did so to such a degree that when they did the Great American Cookoff, PETA put up signs that hardly anyone paid attention to.

“Our community embraced how critically important our industry is to the economy,” Smith said.

By 2013, the seafood industry was back for the second time.

“The world isn’t interested in the storms you’ve encountered, but whether you bring the ship back,” he said.

‘You’re passionate’

Smith asked the PPF conference participants to write down their No. 1 challenge followed by three opportunities.

“You’re here because you’re passionate about your business, but how do you begin telling your story?” he said.

Leverage the creativity of your community, he said, by using the strengths of your supporters. In the seafood industry’s experience, those key advocates were chefs, foodies and marketers.

Smidel, the PPF member, found it helpful to get Smith’s outside perspective.

“All we hear about is dairy,” Smidel said. “To get a different industry to come in and talk about their dilemmas and how they solved their problems is very interesting.”