Navigating a Crisis…

…before it happens

By Jane Dukes – Merck Animal Health Veterinary & Consumer Affairs

When my last child graduated from high school recently, I looked around at the idyllic scene in front of my home on a lake in Wisconsin…and then looked back at the large home I no longer needed. I thought about the tasks that lie ahead – removing the pier, putting away the boat, raking leaves and tuning up the snowblower. And, then I promptly put a “for sale” sign in the yard and decided to “break up” with winter and move south. While I enjoy a white Christmas and my roots will always remain in the Midwest where I grew up, I’ve loved beginning the next chapter of my life enjoying warm weather near the beach in sunny Florida.

My yellow Labrador Retriever Henry enjoys our beach days and the ability to be outside (almost) every day of the year. I’ve dug in – pun intended, to landscaping my new home and have gotten somewhat used to being on the lookout for snakes and alligators. However, with every heavenly rainbow there are often a few storm clouds. I traded tornados, blizzards and ice storms for hurricanes which require a bit more advance preparation than is necessary in the Midwest.

September is National Preparedness Month, and we’re right smack in the middle of hurricane season witnessing the devastation this natural weather event brings to anyone in its path. The deadly fires in California also remind us we should be prepared. And, in the midst of a global pandemic, we need only to turn on the news to be reminded daily of the health crisis we face around the world. Just as I ensure I am prepared for a natural disaster or crisis like a hurricane, the farmers, ranchers and veterinarians I work with on a daily basis also must also prepare for the unknown.

Covid-19 has dealt an additional blow to farmers and ranchers who have struggled with supply chain disruptions and at times the inability to move crops and livestock to processing and on to our tables. We’ve all read the devastating stories about livestock being euthanized, tankers of milk being dumped, and fields of vegetables plowed under when supply chain issues left farmers and ranchers with no place to send crops and livestock. I can only imagine how hard it is to make these decisions which surely cause physical and mental anguish.

While we may not have been able to anticipate the twists and turns of a global pandemic and its far-reaching impact, now that we’ve lived it in real time, it seems like a good time to talk about crisis preparedness. I must admit I’m a bit of a crisis junkie. Having worked for years for McDonald’s and it’s agencies before moving over to the farm-to-table space, I’ve managed everything from food tampering to undercover videos. It’s a bit like doing a puzzle – taking the pieces apart and determining the best way to put it back together and make all the pieces work.

So, what is a crisis? A crisis is a time of intense difficulty, trouble or danger when important decisions have to be made quickly – often in the absence of all the facts. There is a beginning, middle and an end to the situation – unlike an issue you may need to manage that evolves and develops over long periods of time – years even. From the moment you become aware there is a problem, the crisis continues to unfold and may impede or even halt your normal business operations. A crisis on your farm may also have far-reaching effects on cooperatives, packers, processing partners or brands associated with your farm or ranch in the supply chain.

There are six key areas where a crisis can strike on the farm, ranch or veterinary clinic. While it’s certainly not a complete list, it can serve to get your wheels turning about what you may have already experienced and could have been better prepared for – or what could happen for which you need to get ready.

  • Natural disasters/seasonal weather events – knock down buildings, knock out power and water, flooding
  • Herd health event – disease outbreak
  • Animal welfare event – undercover video or challenge to your protocols and practices
  • Environmental threats – manure spill, nuisance complaints
  • Farm/employee events – fire, equipment accidents, on-farm fatalities, immigration
  • Food safety/supply chain issues – milk contamination, e-coli, salmonella, listeria, etc.

A Crisis Preparedness Plan is critical to protect your animals and your farm, ranch or veterinary clinic. If you’re unsure about what you need to anticipate in order to be prepared, gather your family and management team together and perform a “Risk Ranking” exercise. To do this:

  • Brainstorm all the potential crises that could occur on your farm or ranch or in your veterinary clinic Leave nothing off the list.
  • Assign a probability ranking from 1 – 10 (1 = least likely to occur all the way to 10 = may happen tomorrow) on the probability that this scenario could occur.
  • Repeat the ranking exercise by assigning an impact score of 1 – 10 (1 = little to no impact on your farm, ranch or clinic all the way to 10 = would shut us down).
  • Finally, multiply probability x impact to reach a final score. This will allow you to quickly identify the top three crisis scenarios for which you should be prepared.

Risk Ranking Example:

Potential CrisisProbabilityImpactScore (Probability x Impact)
Manure spill4520
Natural disaster/ weather event8756
Herd health event5840

Elements of a Crisis Plan:

Core response team appropriate to the crisis. Note that the team assigned to handle a herd health event may be different from the team handling an on-farm accident. This is something to think through in advance while cool heads prevail. Who are those closest to you with knowledge of your operation that you would want with you to help make decisions? Core response teams generally include:

  • Farm/ranch/veterinary clinic owner – key decision maker
  • Farm or ranch veterinarian
  • Farm manager and/or herdsman
  • Key spokesperson
  • Attorney
  • Communications professional

As the crisis unfolds, you may also need to add other members to your crisis team including:

  • State, national and industry reps (State Department of Ag, state veterinarian, Co-op leadership, USDA, etc.)
  • Trusted family members
  • Packers/processors
  • Brand representative if the crisis impacts a brand you supply

Key contacts list that is current – this is easy to update when times are calm – and very difficult in the “heat of the moment.”

Media spokes people who are trained to respond and a plan for when you will engage the media. Will you issue a statement or grant interviews? As you consider the crisis situation in advance, you can also determine the answer to this question. Your spokesperson should be:

  • Knowledgeable about your farm, ranch or veterinary clinic
  • Able to deliver the message quickly and smoothly
  • Trustworthy and credible
  • Someone who embodies empathy and caring – and competence and expertise
  • Honest and open

A plan to secure your property – depending on the crisis and the amount of media attention it garners you may find yourself faced with onlookers and media on your property. When you are in the heat of the moment managing a crisis and keeping people and animals safe, you don’t have time to also manage spectators. Consider in advance how you will secure access to your property and barns. Perhaps you need to post someone at the farm gate to turn traffic away.

Plan to manage the flow of communication to impacted audiences during the crisis. If you’ve done your homework and thought through the various scenarios that could happen on your farm or ranch or in your clinic, you will have outlined what you will do as the situation evolves. Determine in advance what the tipping point is – when you’ve gathered enough information and it is necessary to engage and communicate. The first step in managing the flow of information is to activate your call tree and bring the core team together to assess the situation, develop strategies to handle it and assign responsibilities, including:

  • Answering the phone
  • Securing the property
  • Communicating with employees
  • Monitoring the mediaUpdating website and social channels
  • Serving as liaison with customers/suppliers
  • Informing key stakeholders and industry leaders (associations, etc.)

Key messages about your farm, ranch or clinic and messages specific to the crisis. Key messages define your “brand.” They communicate who you are and what you stand for including the generational history and your commitment to animal care, agriculture, employees, neighbors and the environment.
When you are dealing with a crisis, you also need messages specific to the crisis at hand. They should cover what journalists call the 5 W’s and the H:

  • Who was involved
  • What happened AND what you are doing to remedy the situation
  • When it happened
  • Where it happened
  • Why and How it happened
  • Your role in the situation

Communicating during a crisis is different than sharing general news about things happening on the farm, ranch or at the clinic.

There are three rules during a crisis:

  • Be quick
  • Be helpful
  • Share needed information openly and transparently

If you don’t have the answer, refer the media to someone who does. Your crisis key messages should:

  • Acknowledge the problem and your role
  • Take responsibility and apologize if appropriate
  • Explain what you’re doing to control the situation and keep people and animals safe
  • Commit to remedy and move beyond the situation

Family and employees trained on the plan – so they know what to do when something happens. Make sure they know who to contact in case of an emergency and who they should or should not discuss the matter with.

At Merck Animal Health, our commitment to our customers extends beyond our products, and we believe it’s important to support them in their efforts to provide quality animal care to optimize the health and well-being of their animals. Proactive + prepared = protection is our counsel. As farmers, ranchers and veterinarians, you are food producers and need to look at any crisis through the consumer lens. Consumers want to know and trust you, and they need to feel you share their values. Quality animal care is at the center of everything we do in animal agriculture, and it’s important to put the policies and procedures in place to protect your animals, your family, and your operation.

If you need more information, feel free to reach out to me. You can also find valuable tools to develop your crisis plan from the Animal Agriculture Alliance.