How public relations programs can put the right "spin" on controversial issues.

First in a series on developing relationships with potential audiences. Future stories will discuss media relations and communications plan development.

Good fences make for good neighbors, they say. So do good public relations (PR). That's especially true today in the beef industry as the numbers and types of neighbors quickly increase. As the industry continues its current metamorphosis, opportunities to educate new audiences about business, practices and products will be abundant.

Carol Knox is executive vice president and shareholder of Morgan and Myers, a public relations firm in Jefferson, WI, with a strong agricultural base. She says PR recognizes the importance of building relationships with those constituencies which can have an impact on how you do business.

"One of the most important things in any business is a good working relationship with legislators, neighbors, customers, media and educators. So, when something arises where you have no control, you have a basis for discussing issues," Knox says.

"PR is the communication and education activities an organization engages in with the audiences interested in that organization," says Mary Coyne, public relations director at McCormick Advertising, Amarillo, TX. With a client base of agricultural business and feedyards, Coyne believes that PR is as important for feedyards as for Fortune 500 companies.

Build Relationships Knox and Coyne stress that relationships are the key element to a well-oiled PR program. Build relationships the same way as with neighbors, Knox says.

"Join organizations in which they're involved, whether it's the Rotary Club, the parks commission or athletic booster club. Invite them out after you've gotten to know them. What do you do that would be good for them to know?" Knox says. "This can be as straightforward as your contribution to the area's employment or tax base. Or, it could be about your efforts to protect water quality, prevent runoff, control odor or maximize animal comfort.

"Get to know people in these groups on a human, personal level. Discover what motivates them beyond their agendas," Knox says. "While we may disagree on some issues, all people are basically good. Nine times out of 10 when you sit down and start talking, you'll find you have more in common than you think and can compromise on issues that concern you both.

"Remember," she adds, "if you don't have a relationship with those who can affect your business, you won't have the impact you want."

This is especially true when it comes to local media, Coyne adds. "If I had to give just one piece of advice about how business people can get their points across and get better media coverage it would be to maintain good relationships with local media personnel. While journalists pride themselves on their objectivity, they're still just people. If they already know you're an honest person who runs a quality operation, you'll have the best chance of getting your story, or at least your side of it, told straight." Coyne says.

A Big Umbrella Public relations is a big umbrella, says Knox. Underneath it falls relations with customers, neighbors, county/state/federal legislators, vendors and media. While this seems like a lot of components, feeders with a good customer relations program are at a distinct advantage, she says. The working points of a customer relations program can be transferred directly into a PR plan.

If you don't have PR as part of your communications strategies, start now, Knox and Coyne advise.

"Look to industry associations for basic plan information and seminars," Knox suggests. "A good day-long seminar should give you the outline and beginning of a good PR plan."

Burt Rutherford, communications director for Texas Cattle Feeders Association, says the organization helps members in two ways.

*"Indirectly, we use our newsletter as a tool to let our members know how the association views an issue and what we're saying about it," he says. "Ideally, if one of our members gets a call from a local media outlet, he's familiar enough with our perspective on a situation that he can speak to it in specific terms.

* "Directly, we serve as a resource," Rutherford adds. "We can gather and prepare background material and help members prepare for an interview. We encourage our members to participate in interviews and respond to articles they may read locally or hear broadcast on local radio stations. As business owners, feeders have greater credibility in a community than does the association spokesperson."

In addition to industry-related seminars, there are a number of marketing communications professionals who can help you develop a sound, effective program, Coyne says. "Talk with other feeders about the firms they've done business with, consult with the Public Relations Society of America, Agricultural Relations Council or National Agri-Marketing Association. Any of these sources can refer you to reputable firms."

Your investment in a PR program will vary based on your long-term needs. Professionals suggest looking at PR as a long-term business investment to help you do business the way that's most efficient for you and your customers.

"What does it cost not to be able to do business the way you want to?" Knox says. "That should help you decide how much to invest."

Next month: Basic PR plan components and relating with the media