As a keen observer of public relations and as someone who works in the agricultural media, I've come to understand the sector is largely losing the PR war.

Of course, it needn't be a war, but at the moment it certainly appears the gulf between the rural and urban populations is widening and for whatever reasons it's the country cousins who are seen as the protagonists.

The issue the sector has is the difficulty getting positive stories into the mainstream media. A riparian planting regime just isn't as enticing as a dirty dairy headline. The industry-good stories that are out there are generally delivered to those already involved in the industry; it's preaching to the converted.

The media is often blamed in these instances for being superficial and barely scratching the surface of a story; it's commonly referred to as 'press release journalism' where you effectively regurgitate someone else's words.


This is an accurate criticism in the current climate of 'more content with less staff, please'. But it's certainly not confined to one part of the media; almost all of it's like that.

The appetite of consumers and the nature of that consumption mean short snapshots are the most effective way of snagging an audience.

No one's got time to read investigative articles on deep and meaningful issues anymore; get a subject with two opposing sides, pit them against each other, slap a good title on it and send it out into the world before moving onto the next one.

That's the nature of it, those are the rules of the game - they're hardly secret, you just have to accept them and play your hand.

A notable exception ag sector's lack of cut through is our dairy giant Fonterra. Yes, quite obviously they're a massive company with plenty of resources. But being big and rich doesn't give you a premium on getting it right in the public eye. Plenty of big, rich companies have a woeful PR record.

One of their best initiatives is the Milk in Schools campaign. It ticks all the right boxes; health, nostalgia, social conscience and even a hint of the philanthropic. It shows that even the big, bad corporate with the overpaid CEO can empathise with the grass roots.

Milk in Schools is the revival of a scheme that began back in 1937, when the first Labour Government ordered the distribution of a free half-pint of milk to every school pupil in New Zealand in an effort to try and combat the deprivations of the great depression, such as malnutrition.

It was the first programme of its type in the world and lasted for 30 years before being scrapped due to the rising cost and the vastly improved overall health of New Zealand children in the prosperous post-war years.

This week marks 80 years since the scheme started and its revival by Fonterra has taken it to new levels - I'm not sure they still employ 'milk monitors', but at least the 21st Century version is refrigerated!

As well as the Milk in Schools revival, the dairy giant has used all its clout and cash to entice one of nation's greatest ever footy players, Richie McCaw, to be the public face of the co-op. Being a natural born cynic I thought this was too obvious, too see-through. But when you think about it, he's already something of a legend and has a rural background to boot.

In fact, McCaw's own PR management defies belief. I can't recall a time he's put a foot wrong, which for someone in his position, is nothing short of remarkable. You can also look past the fact his acting is, well... he's a rugby player, not an actor. It's like Jamie Mackay reading a script on air - it's that wooden it makes Pinocchio look like he's actually a "real boy".

Other ag companies and sectors may not have the resources to compete with Fonterra in the global market and there's many a cocky who can relay tales of Fonterra getting it terribly wrong. But when it comes to PR, it's the overall public perception that counts, not the players inside the industry.

Apart from weathering a storm or two over Teo's hefty pay packet, Fonterra seems to be going ok - it may be worth others considering taking a leaf out of their current public relations book.