In June 2009 the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) defied the global financial crisis (GFC), H1N1 pandemic and survived the Ute-gate Affair to hold its first National Congress (Congress) – incorporating the inaugural Innovation in Agriculture Awards (Awards).
Informed by market research, perceptual audits of media and politicians, and consultation with members and third-parties, over 2006-08 NFF communications re-positioned ‘modern farming’ as a positive in community and stakeholder mindsets.
These initiatives bolstered audience awareness of agriculture’s contribution to Australia – economically and environmentally – engendering informed support and overcoming negative misconceptions.
However, research identified key information/knowledge gaps. While recognising “farmers do things differently today”, audiences struggled to understand what farmers do differently or how farming has progressed.
Congress provided a new platform to canvass issues and demonstrate the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of agricultural activity, complementing NFF’s ongoing constant drip campaigns.
Exceeding expectations, NFF enlisted diverse stakeholder groups in a highly-informative, entertaining and celebratory major event that achieved high delegate satisfaction and widespread positive publicity.
In 2003 qualitative market research exposed negative public perceptions of farmers as “antiquated”, “irrelevant to modern Australia” and “environmental vandals”. Quantitatively, 92% of respondents articulated these views, which were reflected across media and stakeholder groups.
Launching its first-ever communications strategy in March 2006, NFF proactively engaged media and stakeholders over 2006-08 demonstrating farming’s tangible economic and environmental contribution. Injecting this agenda into leading national issues proved highly-successful in advancing positives and wearing down negatives.
Previously dismissed as a minor economic contributor, NFF built and entrenched recognition of farming as a key economic driver underpinning $137 billion-a-year in production (12% of GDP), 317,000 direct jobs, 1.6 million jobs through the economy and $32 billion-a-year in exports.
Likewise, overcoming farming’s tarnished environmental reputation, NFF achieved resonance for 94% of farmers actively practising natural resource management, planting 20 million trees-a-year and leading all Australian industries in greenhouse gas reduction (down 40% since 1990).
In November 2007 qualitative market research showed attitudes had shifted to informed support for farmers in “proactively managing environmental challenges” and their “economic importance to Australia”. Quantitatively, 94% of people supported these propositions.
Yet, this research exposed gaps in understanding ‘what’ modern farmers are doing and ‘how’ they achieve successes. Filling these gaps would require a longer-term strategy and the capacity to explain farm successes.
Establishing a major event could create a perpetual platform to promote farming’s issues and modern contribution. Bringing together all stakeholders in such a forum could proliferate information about farmers and their activities.
Instituting national Awards – encapsulating contemporary categories of Sustainability, Value Adding and New Technology – could demonstrate farming’s credentials and establish case studies highlighting the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of farming.
NFF’s special event strategy formed synergies between the organisation’s ongoing constant drip communication campaigns and its core functions of media, political, membership and stakeholder engagement, to deepen understanding of modern farming.
Four rounds of market research were drawn upon to measure attitudes, identify information gaps and inform directions and messages, conducted by CrosbylTextor (August 2003, November 2006 and February 2007) and Millward Brown (November 2007).
A stakeholder perceptual audit by ANOP Research Services (July 2006) ascertained media and federal politician attitudes. NFF’s internal member consultation throughout 2006-08 identified and monitored communication needs on-the-ground.
NFF undertook two in-house substantive research projects, which provided the basis for its constant drip campaigns and ensured Congress content was relevant and NFF messages credible. Firstly, extensive data from authoritative bodies (e.g. ABS, ABARE, Australian Greenhouse Office, etc) was compiled and analysed to inform NFF messages on the modern economic and environmental contribution of Australian agriculture.
Second, NFF conducted extensive research on allied groups, sectors and professions to identify and target potential speakers, sponsors, exhibitors and delegates for Congress. Additionally, NFF audited existing Award programs to ensure its national approach complemented its state member organisations.
Post-Congress Evaluation Forms surveyed delegates to identify strengths and weaknesses, while media coverage was measured and analysed.
- Media: Engage media to raise the profile of Congress and Awards, generate interest in the event and precipitate positive coverage.
- Political: Engage federal government representatives – including the Departments of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF); Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (DEWHA); Climate Change (DCC); Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT); and agencies such as the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) – to gain support for, and participation in, the event.
- Membership: Engage NFF members as promoters and delegates.
- Third-Parties: Engage farmers, agribusiness, agricultural teachers and students, whole-of-chain partners and experts, including the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC), as participants and delegates.
Though requiring ongoing attention, NFF had re-established relevance and support for agriculture’s tangible economic and environmental contributions. In mid-2008 focus turned to planning Congress for the Brisbane Convention Centre over 22-23 June 2009.
This included all aspects of event and venue management, contract negotiations, website development, sponsorship and exhibition materials and sales, program topics and publications, speaker identification and engagement, delegate registration, accommodation, and promotion. NFF engaged Consec – Conference Management for logistic assistance.
Despite onset of the GFC in late 2008, and deepening into 2009, NFF was buoyed by strong early backing from sponsors and exhibitors. Likewise, prospective delegates expressed keen intention to attend.
These commitments also gave NFF heart when, in early 2009, H1N1 and its prevalence in Queensland, threatened.
In keeping with the Congress aim of celebrating and promoting modern farming, NFF instituted national Awards to encourage and recognise excellence in farm activity – securing DAFF as the official 2009 Awards sponsor.
All facets of the Awards were undertaken in-house, including categories and criteria, Innovation in Agriculture Awards Entry Guide, judging guidelines and processes, event and venue management, contract negotiations, sponsorship and promotion [Appendix A7].
The Judging Panel conferred Awards in each category, with winners featuring in audio/visual presentations as part of the gala Congress Dinner and Awards ceremony.
Armed with extensive research, NFF developed themes and resources for the event, while the perceptual audits and consultation kept NFF activity ‘on track’ ensuring the Congress Program was relevant and well-targeted.
Member networks and third-party relationships were explored in a direct marketing push targeting potential speakers, sponsors, exhibitors and/or delegates [Appendices A5 and A6].
The Congress theme of ‘Modern Farmers: growing opportunities today... meeting the challenges of tomorrow’placed Australia’s role as a food producer under the microscope and seized upon the emerging issue of food security.
This scope provided flexibility, creating linkages with national issues to broaden Congress’s appeal, capture cross-sectional stakeholder engagement and demonstrate farming’s positives [Appendix A9]. Meanwhile, Congress resources – a dedicated website, Sponsorship and Exhibition Proposal and Innovation in Agriculture Awards Entry Guide – were developed prior to the public launch of Congress (7 October 2008).
Launching before the Christmas-New Year lull put Congress on radars early, enabling NFF to bed-down sponsors and finalise speakers during this news cycle hiatus.
From February 2009 NFF activated promotional strategies – principally targeting regional media [Appendix A2a,b,c] and direct stakeholder audiences [Appendices A5 and A6] using established networks to stagger promotions and build momentum. These included the call for Award nominations throughout February-April 2009 [Appendix A2b,c].
The full Congress Program and Registration and Information Brochure were released late March and controversial/newsworthy elements – e.g. involvement of noted climate change sceptic Professor Ian Plimer – were seized upon to spark media and delegate interest [Appendix A2c].
Meanwhile, the judging of Awards nominations was underway with NFF securing expertise from the CSIRO, RIRDC and DAFF [Appendix A7].
Leading up to June, Congress and Awards ceremony materials were finalised – including satchels, inserts (e.g. NFF stickers, NFF baseball cap and sponsor promotions), the official Congress Handbook, speeches, Awards audio/visual presentations, trophies, menus and all media materials.
NFF secured a commitment from Federal Agriculture Minister Tony Burke to open Congress and present Awards, with Labor Senator Glenn Sterle filling in when Minister Bourke was unable to attend as Ute-gate engulfed Canberra on 22 June [Appendix A4]. NFF enlisted the Secretaries of DCC and DFAT, and the CEO of MDBA, to address Congress [Appendix A9].
NFF secured sponsorship and exhibition support from the Grains Research and Development Corporation, DAFF, Land and Water Australia and DEWHA [Appendices A8 and B2], with a DAFF ‘Next Gen Farmer Grant’ also enabling 25 young farmers to attend Congress – covering travel, accommodation and event costs.
In addition to staff attending through these arrangements, departmental mailing lists, publications and websites we’re utilised for disseminating promotional materials.
Leading international and Australian academics featured on the Program, while experts from CSIRO, Australian Farm Institute, the Council of Rural Research and Development Corporations, the National Water Commission, Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA), Woolworths, Kondinin Group, NAB Agri, Elders Rural Services, and the Public Health Association of Australia also addressed Congress [Appendix A9].
Sponsorship was secured from AgStewardship Australia, MLA, Agsafe, Future Food Queensland and the Australian Land Management Group [Appendix A8].
Their respective networks were tapped for promotion and dissemination of Congress materials.
All NFF member organisations attended the Congress [Appendix A10a,b,c,d,e], and their communications networks with farmers on-the-ground were enlisted for promotion via regular prompts on Congress and Awards activities and materials [Appendix A5].
Pre-Congress, NFF generated sustained media coverage [Appendix A2a,b,c] through media releases, community service announcements (for Awards), and back-briefing key journalists on Congress issues, personalities, developments and Award winners.
NFF used media alerts to prompt journalists ahead, and on each day, of Congress, denoting session issues and speakers, with 15 Media Passes issued each day to attending journalists.
Issues were kept alive and positive by teeing-up media with speakers, sponsors, young farmer delegates and NFF spokespeople [Appendices A2-A4] – creating varied angles for the event, while ensuring thought-provoking and positive messages.
Despite numerous long-established national conferences cancelling in 2009 due to the GFC and/or H1N1 pandemic [Appendix A1], NFF seized the opportunity to establish its Congress and Awards.
Between October 2008 and June 2009, NFF generated 302 major regional media hits promoting the Congress and Awards [Appendix A2a,b,c].
Over the two-day event, NFF generated 988 metropolitan and major regional media hits. Overwhelmingly, coverage was ‘prominent’ (i.e. 79% of print in first 15 news pages) and ‘on-message’ (88% of print, 90% of radio and 97% of television).
NFF’s high on-message rating, combined with prominence and volume, ensured resonance of Congress content [Appendix A3a,b] and Award winners [Appendix A4].
NFF successfully enlisted cooperation and support from members [Appendix A5] and stakeholders [Appendices A6 and A7] in promoting the event.
Further, NFF engaged all its stakeholder groups, attracting a cross-section of sponsors [Appendix A8], exhibitors [Appendix B2], speakers [Appendix A9] and delegates [Appendix A10a,b,c,d,e]. In all, 362 delegates attended, while 24 exhibition booths and nine sponsorship packages were sold, making Congress highly-profitable [Appendix B1a,b].
Feedback from Evaluation Forms indicated overwhelming delegate satisfaction, with “very good” or “excellent” ratings for speakers (78%), content (73%), venue (84%), service (96%), event organisation (75%) and value (69%) [Appendix A11a,b,c].
- Delegate feedback confirmed a prestigious event that honed audience awareness and built understanding.
- Congress elevated issues and engaged audiences through content and Awards celebrations to demonstrate and promote farming’s issues, contribution and achievements.
- Key stakeholders were directly involved, securing highly-effective alliances (including as part of the Congress Program), enfranchised as sponsors, exhibitors and/or delegates – all building awareness of, and support for, modern farming.
- Media engagement achieved extensive, prominent and positive coverage of issues, Congress content and Award achievements across metropolitan and regional markets.
- Congress added value to NFF membership through content and Award programs, while coordinating and maintaining a concerted and cohesive network in support of modern farming.
- Positive budget outcome ensured Congress will remain a perpetual vehicle for NFF.
The Congress directly engaged target audiences in an information sharing forum, generated extensive and better-informed media coverage, and added depth to NFF’s ongoing constant drip campaign.
A key aim within the Congress strategy was celebrating farming in Australia. This had the added spin-off of boosting member morale by providing an uplifting, positive experience through a celebratory, highly-informative, entertaining and network-building event.