Communications in times of crisis: how BSE put ranchers in the spotlight

Cattle weathering a drought in the Rainy River district of Ontario. Photo credit: Kim Jo Bliss

Imagine for a moment receiving 1,000 requests for media interviews in one single day. If you’ve ever worked as a communications contact or spokesperson for an event or group, that number should bowl you over. It’s a tidal wave of attention, and, in 2003, all those asks were of the beef industry.

At the time, Kelly Daynard was the communications manager of the Ontario Cattlemen’s Association, now called Beef Farmers of Ontario. She’s now the executive director of Farm & Food Care Ontario.

Daynard remembers very vividly finding out about the discovery of BSE in an Alberta beef cow. “I was on a beautiful photoshoot on a cow/calf farm in Ontario, doing a photo shoot for a project that we had coming up later that year. And I was riding in the back of a pickup truck. It was a gorgeous spring day, I was having the best time. And my cell phone rang, and it was a media outlet asking me to comment on the fact that there was a case of BSE in Canada. And I’m not proud of my response. Because I think my answer was, ‘That couldn’t possibly be true. I would know about it,” she says.

But she didn’t know, not then; but word spread very quickly after. This was before social media, Daynard says, so communication was still phone calls and faxes. She estimates maybe half of the beef producers in Ontario at that time would have even used email.

Daynard says that it meant her job as a communications person was to not just wake before dawn to be on radio shows and TV, but to also ask farmers and ranchers in the midst of crisis to stand in front of TV crews and reporters and share their stories. (more below)

Ontario farmers and ranchers weren’t completely new to media, however, as some will remember that just a few years before, the Walkerton water crisis pitted manure-makers vs. citizens in a messy public relations battle.

“In Ontario at that time, we realized we were very poorly prepared in terms of having beef farmers that could confidently talk about the issues that were affecting them… [in the two years since Walkerton] we had done a fair bit of work to identify spokespeople that were willing to tell their stories,” Daynard says.

Even as the beef industry was thrown in to chaos, Daynard’s phone would ring and farmers from all over the province would offer to step up and be a spokesperson for their area. “I remember the early days of BSE being absolutely overwhelmed by the amount of fabulous farmers that were reaching out to me. I remember one farmer, farmers around Toronto were kind of a scarce breed, but I had one cow/calf farmer in particular, I think he had three camera crews on his farm in one day. You know, one interview after another, after another.”

Daynard says her job was a whirlwind of triaging requests from magazines, TV, and radio, all asking to speak to farmers. “I think there were 1,000 requests the first day. But I’m really proud to say that we made that happen. And farmers were very willing to stand up and tell their stories, even though the world was crumbling around them,” she says.

The stories of those first few months are filled with stress and worry and fear. Daynard remembers volunteering with the Ontario Farm Animal Council’s helpline at the time and taking a call from a grandson worried for his grandparents who couldn’t afford to feed their cows.

“People were absolutely just rocketed with fear. So for those that were willing to get up and tell their stories, and get in front of the Canadian consumer and say, ‘This is not a human health issue, our system worked, we caught it.’ Yeah, I’m still so grateful for those farmers and ranchers that did that,” she says.

The crisis also lead to what is now a national day of recognition for Canada’s agriculture industry, Food Day Canada. Just last week, the day, to be celebrated on the August long weekend each year, was put in to law.

In 2003, Anita Stewart started the day as a rallying point of support for Canada’s ranchers. The idea was to connect consumers over BBQs, eat beef, and show love for the farmers and ranchers impacted by BSE. It was a huge success, Daynard says, and Stewart would have been so proud to see it become what it is today (Stewart passed away in 2020).

“I was driving with my mother a couple of weeks ago, and I was following an older car and it had one of those I Love Canadian Beef bumper stickers on it, and I looked at it and I laughed, and I’m like, Okay, first of all, that bumper sticker is now 20 years old, because I helped design it. And yay, that it’s still out there,” Daynard says. “People just rose to the occasion, the beef industry did a good job of telling its story. You saw those campaigns, consumption went up, which is absolutely unheard of in a crisis and people just responded wholeheartedly.”

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