Five Lessons for Communicating about Food Systems

Over the past year, the Oregon Community Food Systems Network has been working with Full Focus Communications on how to communicate about complex concepts (food systems work and collaborative networks) in a simple and compelling manner.

Full Focus Communications also conducted trainings for OCFSN members and local community stakeholders in the Portland Metro area, North East Oregon, and Southern Oregon.

Here are a few key lessons from those trainings.

Lesson 1: Start with purpose.

Effective messaging comes when an organization has clarity and unity around its purpose—the reason it exists. As you create or adopt messages for your organization, return to purpose — or as the Full Focus team says, “know the why.” Tell your audience why you commit to the work, how you go about doing the work, and what your programs or products are, in that order. Get specific and be inspiring.

As an example: Oregon Food Bank is motivated by the belief that all people deserve reliable access to healthy food (the why). Staff are addressing short term needs while building long-term resilience (the how). In practice, this looks like supplying food pantries, teaching gardening and cooking skill-building classes, advocating for fair policies, and organizing community food systems (the what).

What are the “why,” “how,” and “what” for your organization? Get clear on what drives your work, and consider that a brief, direct statement will be more powerful than a longer, overly detailed one.

Lesson 2: Identify your target audience.

Are you talking to long-time community members? Policy-makers? Business leaders? Your kids?

Your audience’s values and interests should determine the content and emotion of your messaging.

As an example, Rogue Farm Corps works both with new and retiring farmers, and applies distinct messaging strategies focused on their separate circumstances, needs and motivations.

Consider your specific audience, the message that will best reach them, the channels you will use to engage them (events? emails? personal contacts?), and then devise a strategy. Depending on your target audience, both the content of your message and the way you deliver it may significantly vary.

Lesson 3: Evoke feeling and emotions.

Messages that pull on heartstrings move people to action. People may not hear appeals to logic and practicality without a personal connection or an emotional response to your issues. So speak to the values and aspirations of your audience members. Perhaps your audience wants to raise children in the region and ensure their family legacy. Use sensory, descriptive language so that your audience can easily picture the outcome you suggest.

Be as specific as possible and refrain from using jargon.  In particular, use phrases like “food system” sparingly. Try more descriptive language like “all the people who grow, sell, prepare and eat food.” It’s longer, but also easier to understand. Jargon may be appropriate if you are communicating with people in the nonprofit or academic fields, and even then, ensure you have a common understanding.

Lesson 4: Empathize with your audience.

Try to understand the perspective of your audience, and any challenges or conflicts they may experience. Imagine receiving this message yourself. What would stop you from responding?

If your audience consists of time-strapped parents you are hoping will volunteer for a program or event, how can you streamline your message so it’s immediately clear what you are asking and make it as easy as possible for them to plug in?Extend this empathy beyond your communications into the actual ask as well.

Lesson 5: Focus on solutions.

Describing the problems you face reinforces feelings of powerlessness. Full Focus found that people agree on problems and values, but may not think change is possible. Focus on solutions so that they are inspired to join your cause. One solution that Full Focus highlights: a resilient, diverse network.

OCFSN organizations target different food systems issues, operate different programs, work in different sectors, and live in different regions. What members have in common is a dedication to community resilience, connection and stewardship.

Take time to learn more about other OCFSN members and the efforts they are leading around the state. Be curious about what audiences and messages you may have in common. Profiles and contact information for members are posted to the OCFSN website. OCFSN members are more effective when we recognize and support each other.

To support OCFSN, the Full Focus team generated a set of resources for OCFSN members, including a Guiding Framework for OCFSN communications, and OCFSN messaging platform with suggestions for talking about the network, and a Food Systems messaging platform for talking about farm and food issues. These documents can be found in the Member Resources page.