I've had the unique opportunity to observe the California Rice Commission's (CRC) social media presence grow from a single Facebook page, to 10 pages and 469 posts made in a month. Throughout the years one thing has remained consistent, the push from CRC's Communication Manager, James (Jim) Morris, to make social media a priority for the Commission. I've often wished I could bottle his courage and enthusiasm for social and give it to others.
Next best thing... I asked him to sit down with me and talk a little bit about his journey with social, and how it has helped the Commission weather one of the most challenging situations the California rice industry has ever faced — a four year (and counting) drought.
How did you get started using social media as a communication tool?
It started with a casual suggestion from our President & CEO, Tim Johnson, in 2010. The first year we didn't have much action. It really has grown since that time and I attribute that to two things: First, I credit our industry. Many still might not fully understand all of the different social media pages, but they were willing to tell their story to a larger audience. I'm not sure there are other industries willing to give someone like me the independence to get the job done.
The other absolutely critical thing is that we started our social media presence in a time of relative prosperity. So when the drought hit, we had a good social media flow and an audience built up. I can't state how important it has been for the longevity of our industry and our positive public relations to have had the social media in place before crisis hit (ie. the California drought).
We overcame a lot of hurdles in the initial stages. You are putting your information out for the world to see. But I could not recommend social media enough. This is exactly where we need to be to tell our story.
How do you create the content for your social media pages?
We have a brand and we need to live that brand. For California Rice, it's "Real, Authentic, Wild". We want to show the Real Communities, the Authentic People and the Wildlife that make our area unique and special. So, content has to go through that lens to be something we promote. We want authentic voices, great visuals and current information.
Content is also dictated by the people we represent. The rice farmers and mills tell us their wishes and we go out and achieve those.
Although Jim creates most of the social content himself, over the years he has had to elicit an increasing amount of help. He currently works with about a dozen contractors at any given time to create unique photos, videos, blogs, infographics, analytics and more. He sees this trend continuing, but he will always enjoy getting out in the fields and talking with people.
Me personally – I love being in the field. I love being able to visit with people and to have the responsibility and honor to convey their story to an audience. You're connecting people that never otherwise would be able to get together. It's such and honor and a privilege to do that.
What has been the greatest benefit to having a vibrant social media presence?
This is the most challenging time of our history, and we have had positive media coverage during it. That's because we've had a lot of contact with reporters via social media and they are getting their information directly from us.
Last year we had 217 media inquiries we assisted with, and we frankly could have had even more. But the last few months of the fiscal year we finally had to say, "please go to our website for information, we're unable to directly assist you." NEVER in my life have I been in that situation. And those 217 media inquiries compare to 137 the year prior and to an average of 100 in previous years. Not only did we have overwhelmingly positive media in the toughest time we've been through, we had double what we are used to.
I've had times when we posted information on our blog and we had network TV and national publications call to pursue those subjects as stories within hours of the blog being posted. So, how do you want to deliver your information? How do you want the media to get their stories? The best way is to start with the information that you're presenting them.
Why is getting your message out to your audiences on social so important?
There are 2,000 rice farmers and there are millions and millions of consumers that could potentially decide their fate.
Our focus isn't to sell more rice. We want our farmers and millers to have the opportunity to do what they are doing for generations to come. Social media is, I believe, significantly going to help. If you cannot educate the people that are deciding your future, when times of crisis hit like the drought, you're most likely going to be in severe trouble.
There are people who have misunderstandings and questions. We do everything we can to respond to them fast. The reception and the dialogue on Facebook is exceptionally favorable.
One of the most common questions people ask the Commission via social media is how much water is used when growing rice. This year they created several infographics, as well as a short animation called What's Your Water Footprint? to help tell the story (see below).
Infographics are huge — they break up the pace and command attention. They aren't an everyday answer, but once a week or several times a month they work well. We try to design them en masse. So, if we're working on water storage, we'll do six to eight and strategically post them. I think it's a really important way to reach people because it's simple but powerful.
How have the rice farmers felt about opening up their lives on social media?
Farmers by nature work alone, they're not necessarily extroverted people. So, to have their story told and to find out that the sky didn't fall, that there were positives and not negative attention that came out of it – that was huge. There is also a sense of trust. We found out pretty quickly that our people were not going to post on their own. They needed someone to help. So they put their trust in me and fortunately we've had excellent results from it.
And recently I've had several of our growers say, "I'm on Instagram, you need to be on Instagram", and they were rather insistent on it! So, going from a time when you would talk about social media and hear crickets, to a time when they are actually encouraging you to expand in different pages, that's amazing!
Have you had trouble with haters?
I can count on one hand the amount of times we've had to block someone. We're not trying to squelch honest sincere questions, but if its profane or they're unwilling to have two-way dialogue, then there's not much we can do about it.
Sometimes we don't even have to address an issue because our community addresses it for us. That is really encouraging. We're seeing more of that all the time.
You highlight farm dogs from time to time, how successful has that content been?
It's all about giving people what they want. Telling your story, but doing it in a way that the audience is going to get excited about. It's a soft entry but an effective one. Most farmers have dogs, and whatever the message is, if viewers see the dog and they respond to it and like it, we find a significant portion of those people hang around to hear other stories. Other bits of information that are probably more important to our overall objectives – like water efficiency and the many benefits of rice, including our environmental story.
The dogs are a very fun and easy vehicle to get people to understand more about the greater issue... and it's a hugely popular area. You don't have to understand farming to appreciate a good dog.
How do you utilize the different platforms?
Our website is still the flagship, it's still very important. It's the foundation of information and where the information lasts the longest. But we've definitely seen our biggest growth in our social media pages and especially Facebook.
We look at Twitter as being for instant information, but we're still looking to find the best way to use Twitter and get the most out of it. It's growing, but not nearly as much as Facebook. We see a lot of two-way dialog on Facebook rather than Twitter.
We have analyzed what time of day posting works best. On Twitter between 7am – 3pm seem to be really successful times for us. With Facebook it's a different beast. Interest is very constant but declines a bit in the middle of the day.
Then there are the Facebook posts at night. It’s like little elves are working in the shop while you’re asleep. I’ll post something at 8 or 9 pm, and then I’ll look at it the next morning at 6am and I can see there has been an incredible amount of activity on it.
Do you think it's important to have someone internally managing an organizations social media?
I think it's critical, but I also think it's good to have different perspectives. I believe you have to have someone with knowledge of the organization's overall goals and a deep understanding of whatever the subject matter is. However, I don't want to rely on my perspective only for creative writing and identifying subjects. There are other perspectives, other voices, other ways to present the information – and I think if you're not willing to grow, you're not going to get the most out of social media. There's all different ways to present the information.
What subject matter will you be tackling during the winter months?
For the next several months it is primarily going to be about the Pacific Flyway and the impact California rice has on the wildlife that uses it. We also want to make sure people understand the value of the water that it used for producing rice and the efficiency in which it is used.
Of course that can change very quickly. We are currently in a situation where the speed at which we operate is quite high.
Although our key audiences are legislators, regulators and media, we do communicate a lot with the people in our region. For so many people, the Sacramento Valley is just a place to drive as fast as they can to get to wherever their destination is... and it's very unfortunate. People are really missing the boat. The Sacramento Valley is a unique grouping of farms, communities and a tremendous environment. I'm glad we're giving those in the Sacramento Valley a place where they can see their information presented. I go to so many different places and do stories, blogs and videos on people that have never had coverage before and it really excites me.
Is there anything you'd like to be doing better?
We'd like to start re-sharing some of our content. Something like "Here's what you may have missed during the week". And frankly, sometimes we get more action when we post content the second time. It tells us that we really need to look at reposting and use what we have to the upmost.
If you had one piece of social media advice to share with someone in your industry, what would it be?
You have to participate. I'm looking through the lens of agriculture which is huge in California. We've been the #1 agricultural state in the US for more than 50 consecutive years. A lot of folks in agriculture and like industries are not participative and I believe that is a huge mistake. The question shouldn't be, is social something that I use? The question should be, is it something that the people we are trying to reach use? And the answer is overwhelmingly yes! It's daunting. It's all consuming. It's also the right thing to do at the end of the day. And I believe you can derive a lot of pleasure and satisfaction from it. Because if done right, it's unlike anything else in communication.
Also, you need to monitor and have two-way dialogue. If you're not going to do that, it's not going to be effective as it should be.
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