Communications Manager's Blog - 31 October 2018

Nearly two weeks on from the news breaking that BSE had been discovered in a cow in Aberdeenshire, thankfully the media storm has died down.

In the hours after the confirmed case was announced we, along with other key industry stakeholders, set out to prevent sensationalism and ensure that journalists were well informed.

It was always going to be interesting as to how a high-profile, and often misunderstood issue, is interpreted and covered by the media. It is difficult to avoid sensationalised headlines with a case of BSE. Many, unsurprisingly, chose to draw readers, viewers and listeners in using the ‘mad cow disease’ line. Thankfully though, once you got into the story, it seemed many were well-balanced and fully-informed.

What this issue did give us as an industry was coverage by media outlets which don’t normally take an interest in agriculture. This isn’t necessarily a good thing as they know little about the subject matter. Throughout the 24 to 48 hours post-announcement, NFU Scotland fielded 43 media inquiries from radio, television and newspapers from across Europe. Many of these were not the ‘normal’ agricultural journalists we speak to regularly who have a robust knowledge of the industry and are all too aware of the impact a sensationalised headline can have.

It was important for us to field as many of these as possible – all but three were satisfied - and to relay to consumers and the wider industry that this was an isolated case; there was no risk to human health; and that the surveillance procedures previously put in place by Scottish Government had worked on this occasion. I know we were not alone in the quantity of inquiries we dealt with and other stakeholders were in a similar position. Thankfully it seems many journalists took heed of our messages.

The Scottish Government’s surveillance programme worked, as did its strategy for notifying stakeholders of such a case. The industry worked jointly to relay the messages and squash any rumours where possible.

Thankfully, as a Union we rarely have to deal with cases like this. The farmer involved was fully supported by us throughout the process and his decision to speak out certainly helped to shorten the media cycles and ensure no media outlet got ‘an exclusive’ as many were setting out to do. A brave decision by the farmer that I’m sure wouldn’t have been made lightly.

In the whole, despite some of the sensationalised headlines and front pages, we felt that the key messages were there, and the information was relayed to the consumers. But it is all about perception. There is no getting away from ‘mad cow disease’ and many people may only have picked up on the headlines.
The proof of how consumers absorbed the content has yet to be seen and we will be working closely with our partners as to what impact, if any, this will have on the markets going forward.

Author: Ruth McClean

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About The Author

Ruth McClean

Having worked in the communications and journalism industry for the last 11 years, NFU Scotland’s Communications Manager Ruth McClean understands the needs of journalists and has extensive knowledge of the wider agricultural industry. After growing up in Argyll and Bute and working in the area as a reporter for local newspapers for eight years, Ruth joined NFU Scotland in 2013 in her current role. She is also Editor of the Union’s membership magazine the Scottish Farming Leader.

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