Ensuring stakeholders are connected to authentic information is the digital age’s greatest challenge, explains Eddie Chew, Syngenta’s Head of Corporate Affairs in ASEAN
In the twenty-first century the agriculture giants are experiencing the leading edge of profound social and industrial shifts. Following a global expansion to meet the post WWII boom years, agricultural activity now continues to contract, but with no equivalent reduction in demand. In turn, smallholders proliferate in emerging markets which serve global market demands for an ever abundant and perennial harvest.
This is driving technological advances, but also scepticism of agricultural practices and inputs in near-equal measure. For communications professionals the challenge in this environment remains how you connect users to authentic information, Syngenta’s Eddie Chew, Head of Corporate Affairs, ASEAN tells PublicAffairsAsia.
For agroindustrial giants such as Syngenta this reality shapes much of their engagement. The biggest debates around its products remain complex and are at times controversial to some. Nor are they easily converted to bite sized media nuggets. Distinct engagement strategies are required.
While digital remains an enabler for communications – a platform for sharing commercial and product information as well as stewardship, safety and best practices, as Chew points out – the global reality is that members of the public now have shorter attention spans. The proliferation of digital channels and platforms now delivers a barrage of information, unfiltered and ubiquitous. The authentication of digital information cannot keep pace. Understandably, “Digital can be a disruptive mechanism to help explain complex topics,” says Chew in territory familiar to his industry colleagues.
“In the world today it’s hard for many to determine what is fact and what is fiction. This is Segal’s Law. Everyone now has two watches. If you have one watch, you know the time. If you have two you are never certain, you never know what is authentic.”
Effective engagement now demands strong content in easily consumable formats.
In this reality thought leadership platforms and media engagement are employed as a way of connecting with the public, eschewing direct corporate communiques says Chew. The reason is authenticity. While companies may not be people, the public expectation of representation by a person, authentic, public and upfront is a near universal law. It provides tangible connectivity with all in both routine and crisis communications. And with the challenges of 450 million smallholder farmers to address, sometimes the only way to be heard is not to shout, but to speak with relevant stakeholders directly and with purpose.
Indeed, direct face time with key policy stakeholders remains the most effective strategy, but even here the lexicon that frames these discussions is adapting with the times as an undeniable fatigue defining key issues sets in on the global stage.
Speaking on terms that the stakeholders can relate, says Chew, is essential to break through the malaise and connect on differing agendas. Citing climate change in objective terms of insurance premiums and economic costs, and agricultural reform as an issue of food security are effective methodologies now popularly employed in the mainstream, but “Engagement is now less about who has the best science,” notes Chew. “It is from where influence is coming.”
Understanding the audience’s perspectives and from whom they draw their influence has never been more important as the noise from clamouring markets and media narrows the space. This is amplified for policy makers. Information must be framed in a way that helps them address the opinions they have received from other sectoral stakeholders.
“In order to create effective engagement we must understand the position [the officials] are in. We must shape our arguments objectively. It is not about telling them what is right and wrong, but presenting our point of view taking into account the perspectives that they have been exposed to, and help them to see the logic of the arguments.”
Ultimately, policy makers must be approached with clear and tangible indicators of how we can help them have a better chance of success.”
Yet for all the science employed one central rule remains. “You must define what the issues mean to you and you cannot twist this definition to your purpose. Use terms that both the audience and yourself have the same understanding of,” says Chew. “If you do not then you are engaged in two different conversations.”
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