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Get Ready for I-Saw-What-You-Did Camera

There was a funny show which was known for the catch-phrase, “Smile! You’re on candid camera!” People were put in difficult or strange situations, and we were vicariously shocked, amazed or amused to see how they handled it.  It was weird to discover they were being watched.  Today we are watched all the time….and…it’s not so funny. Far from inspiring laughter, being watched by a hidden camera strikes fear into most of us.

The days of the candid camera show have lost the innocence of peeking into someone’s life without intent to cause anything more than momentary embarrassment and then the full revelation of the fun.  Today – surveillance regardless of who is doing it is much more serious in intent and consequences.  Next time you’re working with animals in the field or the milking parlor, look around and ask yourself, “Am I being watched? Or maybe just paranoid?”

Caught in the ACT or Above Reproach?

Setting out to go undercover on a dairy operation may have one of two outcomes: shame or fame. Shame if your operation is captured showing inhumane treatment of dairy cattle.  Credibility for whoever claims responsibility for exposing the bad behavior. There is only one thing you can do if you are the subject of an expose. You must stand up to full disclosure and extend an invitation to media and the general public to tour your facilities.  Nothing short of a full public relations campaign will minimize the damage.

Spy Gate Exposes Sneaky-Dirty
Farm Gate Exposes Squeaky-clean

There is a fine line between watching to see that everything is being done properly and watching to expose or threaten.  Somewhere in between is the sincere intention to use what is seen to make the dairy operation function better. With the instant ability to take and transmit pictures, anyone in the barn can find themselves on that spectrum.  As a dairy manager, it is up to you to clearly communicate the policies you have regarding cell phones.  You can prohibit them entirely, or you can communicate how they are to be used and assign trusted employees to help enforce the rules.

Sneak attacks can be financially costly and emotionally damaging due to the attack on the operation’s reputation.

It goes without saying that if you’re not doing anything wrong, then you won’t have to worry about exposure.  However, if that were entirely true, then there would be no reason to fear exploitation by an undercover animal rights activist. Establish the guidelines. Make sure they are posted.  Provide ongoing training.  Make sure you are aware of how well your planned steps are being followed.  It doesn’t eliminate the possibility of something going wrong, but, if it does, you are more likely to have been the victim of photos or video taken out of context. The tone you want to set on your dairy operation is one that ensures that staff comes to you first, whenever or wherever there are concerns about animal health and treatment.

Hiring Squad or Firing Squad?

Dairy operations vary in size.  Certainly, when very large operations who are hiring hundreds of people and turning them over relatively quickly, it is much harder to be sure that an anti-agriculture activist hasn’t infiltrated your dairy. Even smaller producers, could unknowingly hire an animal rights activist. Everything turns on what you are confident of and how well you know who is on your farm. Modern dairy managing must do everything to make sure they know each new hire.  It takes a lot less time to do the work before problems happen. That starts with searching references. Do it 100% of the time.  Then make sure you provide effect employee training. Do it 100% of the time. If there are infractions.  Fire the person responsible.  Accept responsibility for proper hiring. Take responsibility for necessary firing. Do the first one well and it will be less necessary to resort to the latter.

On Your Own or Backed by a Team?

What if the worst case scenario does happen and you are in the negative spotlight of public scrutiny? This is when you turn to your crisis team. It is not an admission of guilty practices to have such a team in place that includes a variety of professionals.  Call on your human resources person and have speedy access to your attorney and veterinarian as well. Set up protocol that includes a spokesperson with media training and someone prepared to handle social media and press inquiries. It makes sense to have a crisis response team in place to handle a variety of situations which could include not only undercover videos but also food safety issues and manure spills and other events that could impact animal and public safety.

Accusation or Preparation?

It takes a certain amount of time to develop a communications policy but, once it is in place, you won’t face the daunting task of responding under pressure to a crisis. It is all too easy to speak too hastily or emotionally when under the probing eye of the media. Make sure you have a plan in place for who will be handling media questions and who will be responding on social media. Brainstorm each type of issue and establish what is best for your operation and determine who will provide one official statement, rather than bits and pieces from several employees speaking, posting or updating.

Caretakers and Muckrakers

Both sides are looking for proof.  Make sure your records are detailed and up-to-date. When muckrakers are dragging your name through the mud, you have to have evidence on your side of good animal care. Here is a short list of written records you can keep:

  1. Employee training
  2. Animal welfare audits by licensed evaluators
  3. Animal care licenses, certificates, and awards
  4. Voluntary participation in livestock animal welfare programs

All of these demonstrate your commitment to good animal care practices.

Prospects vs. Suspects

In preparing for the worst case scenario, you should consider the possibility of legal action. Here again, you need to have resources that can determine if there are legal claims to be raised against an undercover videographer or the organization which he or she is affiliated with.

Claims may include fraud, perjury, trespass, broken contracts, and conspiracy. Understanding what is viable is something to be discussed with an attorney before deciding whether or not to pursue such legal claims.  

Don’t Close Down Instead Open UP

The public can’t be blamed if they are taken in by negative videos.  If that is all they are seeing, then that is all they have to make their decisions on. More and more operations, large and small, are taking the opportunity of inviting the general public and reports to the operation to have a look for themselves.  Doing this regularly is a proactive step in establishing credibility that can withstand activist attack.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Although it is frustrating to feel that you must be on the defensive against activist attack, it is reassuring to know that by taking the steps we have discussed, you are taking positive action for the protection of your animals, your business, and public safety.

Smile!  It’s Okay!! Your Dairy is Camera READY!



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