More than the Science: Overcoming Communication Challenges

2019 NIAA Antibiotic Symposium Speaker Dr. Leah Dorman

Ames, IA––––Leah Dorman has a DVM behind her name and worked in a mixed animal practice, was an assistant state veterinarian, and worked for the Farm Bureau in Ohio, but now is the Director of Food Integrity & Consumer Engagement for Phibro Animal Health Corporation.

She is also a panelist at the upcoming 2019 NIAA Antibiotic Symposium because she spends her days communicating about food and agriculture.

The 9th Annual NIAA Antibiotic Symposium is themed around Communicating the Science of Responsible Antibiotic Use in Animal Agriculture, with scientific updates on antimicrobial resistance, innovation and alternatives, and special featured communications workshops and presentations by Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism.

Dorman says any day she gets to talk about agriculture and food is a great day. She enjoys engaging customers and consumers in ways that build trust in agriculture.

Her blog, Ask Dr. Dorman, is a direct outreach to consumers to help answer their questions openly, honestly and transparently, she says. Her blog “may be about something that is in the news or it might be about a something that is just on my mind.” It runs on the Explore Animal Health website, along with Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Her Question and Answer page answers the most frequently asked questions about antibiotic use in animals in straight–forward, easy to understand language. The answers are short and consumer friendly.

One example is a reference to the risk of human resistance resulting from animal antibiotic use, when she says a study ‘concludes there is a 1 in 10 million to 1 in 3 billion chance of treatment failure from antibiotic resistance related to the use of common animal antibiotics.’ She goes on to correlate that big number to something relatable. “You are far more likely to die from a dog bite or lightning strike than from treatment failure related to the use of antibiotics in animals.”

“We have to connect the dots for consumers,” says Dorman. “That’s one of the challenges in agriculture. We have knowledge that over 98% of the population doesn’t have.”

“We know the lengths we go to take care of our animals,” she continues, “and we assume the rest of the population knows, too, but that is just not the case. We need to communicate not just what we do, but why.”

We can talk about antibiotics, vaccine use, and nutritional aspects for animals and for people. But how does that translate into what consumers care about?

“Healthy animals, healthy food,” quips Dorman. “What is successful, what resonates with the end–user, the consumer, is the One Health perspective,” Dorman feels. ‘We need to tell them about how whatever we are doing benefits the animals, how it benefits the environment and how it benefits the consumer–––and the food they feed their family.”

“Food is personal, it is intimate,” Dorman points out. “We take it into our bodies.”

“One of our challenges is not to get defensive if someone asks a question or makes a statement. They are only saying what they have heard, and what else do they have to go on?” she asks. “When a consumer asks a question, we tend to answer with facts, with science, and punch them in the throat with that science, but that doesn’t work! Consumers believe science is just another opinion.”

That’s a challenge, Dorman says, because the animal agriculture industry is very science minded. “It’s ‘Yabut” Syndrome,” she says. “We want to say ‘Ya, but! The science says…’ The science is important. Everything we do has to be science driven,” she explains. “Except that we can’t lead with the science when we talk to consumers. If they don’t trust us, the messenger, they don’t trust our science.”

The challenge is to build trust, and to do that, we need to lead with values. According to Dorman, shared values are 3 to 5 times more important in building trust than facts and figures. “I can back up what I am saying, once I communicate the why of the values,” she says, “but I can’t start there.”

First, understand what are they asking about? “Meat, milk and eggs! Things we know a lot about! Go ahead and answer the question! Most of the time our values are more closely aligned with theirs than they thought,” she says. “We just need to share them.”

“We need to let them see we are not faceless corporations; we are families,” she stresses. She thinks there are a lot of positive things happening, referring to combine and barn cams, someone harvesting or planting and showing it on Facebook, or talking about the challenge of weather, or sharing positive photos. “Great people are talking about what they do and why they do it every day. We need more of that!”

In addition to her communications work, Dorman is also a farmer. She says she raises corn, soybeans, wheat, malting barley, meat goats, dairy beef and girls! The most important thing she raises, she emphasizes, are her three girls.

She says she loves to get on an airplane and visit with fellow travelers, saying she hopes to get home in time to do chores or feed livestock with her family. “It is always fun to see the reaction of the person next to me. They look at me in my business suit and heels and they think ‘you don’t look like a farmer,’” she laughs. “What does a farmer look like?”

Exactly why the 9th Annual NIAA Antibiotic Symposium will feature how to effectively communicate science in the animal agriculture profession, October 15–17 in collaboration with the National Institute of Antimicrobial Resistance Research and Education (NIAMRRE) at Iowa State University, in Ames, Iowa.