How to Plan for a Crisis
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Today, I'm joined by someone I work very closely with, and honestly, someone I look up to. Her name is Debbie Wing, the Executive Vice President of Communications with the Farm Credit Council. Debbie joined the Council in 2016 after having a very impressive career, namely with FEMA - she spent several years there, making her an expert in communicating in a crisis, something we've all had to navigate recently.
When we started this podcast, you immediately came to mind as one of the communicators that I look up to and love working with. So I'm glad you were able to do this. For our audience today:
COULD YOU JUST INTRODUCE THE FARM CREDIT COUNCIL AND HOW YOU WORK WITH SYSTEM ASSOCIATIONS LIKE HORIZON?
Absolutely. The Farm Credit Council is the national trade association that represents Farm Credit institutions, mostly before Congress, the Executive Branch, stakeholders in Washington, DC, a lot of agricultural stake holder groups, and also with the national media. And, we provide that mechanism for members to involve themselves in grassroots development on positions of different ag policy related issues, like when we advocated for the Farm Bill most recently, and other federal legislation that would really impact Farm Credit.
We work closely with our Farm Credit associations, like Horizon Farm Credit, to make sure that we have that collaborative, cohesive, and unified message all across Farm Credit, so we're talking with one united voice within Washington, D.C. We also work closely with an association if we have an inquiry from a member of Congress or a national media outlet and they're looking for that customer perspective. We recognize that our customers are our best spokespeople, so we try to place and match up these audiences so they can really hear that customer perspective and they can hear the Farm Credit story firsthand.
You all do a really good job of telling our customers’ stories for us, and I think one thing that some of our customers may not realize about Farm Credit is our level of involvement in DC. I am glad that you were able to touch on that and tell everyone how you all advocate on behalf of the entire industry and our members.
I'm curious because I know in your background you studied politics, correct? I'm curious where that stems from, because you've found a way in your career here at Farm Credit to marry your communications expertise with your political interests.
COULD YOU JUST GIVE US SOME BACKGROUND ON WHERE [YOUR INTEREST IN POLITICS] CAME FROM?
I always have had an interest in politics, political science from an early age, and that's one reason I chose to come to the DC area. I went to school in this area for both my undergrad and master’s degrees. And then while I was going to school and then shortly thereafter, I had the opportunity to work on some presidential campaigns on Capitol Hill in a Senate press office, and to work for some other political organizations and communications.
I always worked in the communications area, and then I worked for different lobbying groups, as well as public relations firms. And I just always had an interest and I always thought that the advocacy, that public affairs-type approach, really energized me. I love mission-based organizations and I love a challenge of how you can take a complicated issue and synthesize the message and really make an impact and get that message across. And thinking of creative, new ways to really hone your message and then look at different mediums to send your message out to the different audiences.
So it's been a great. I've been very blessed with my career and opportunities. And the best part is I get to work for wonderful organizations and work with people that I really enjoy and I look up to, and I have had great mentors, as well as great just colleagues and partners.
I know before you joined Farm Credit Council, you were working for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Prior to that and here at Farm Credit, do you have a background in ag?
DID YOU COME FROM ANY SORT OF AGRICULTURE BACKGROUND AT ALL BEFORE JOINING EITHER OF THESE ORGANIZATIONS?
Actually, Jenny, I don't have an ag background beyond those organizations. I did grow up in a small rural area and I have a lot of family members and friends who were very closely involved in agriculture. So that definitely is a big piece of me and I care deeply about rural communities and agriculture. But this was my, like you said with National Rural Electric Cooperatives and then with Farm Credit Council, that was really my first entree into working as closely with agricultural organizations. But it's something I care deeply about and I feel like it is a piece of my upbringing.
You joined Farm Credit in 2016, which was our centennial, Farm Credit turned 100 that year.
WHAT DREW YOU TO THE COUNCIL AND TO THIS ROLE SPECIFICALLY?
When I was with the Rural Electric Cooperative, one of the organizations we worked closely with was a Farm Credit Council member. Just speaking with them and learning about the mission of the Farm Credit Council, I was just very attracted to this mission. Like I said, I really enjoy mission-based organizations, and I really fundamentally like supporting these rural communities. I think telling the Farm Credit story and recognizing you can make an impact, and our mission is just so valuable and just so sincere and genuine and good, and it's a great story to tell and it's something I felt very strongly about and felt passionately about.
And when you can work for some organization with a mission that has those qualities, it's a lot easier to advocate on behalf and tell that story. You can really see the fruits of your labor and that's something I always enjoy seeing. And mostly, it was the fact that those people, our board members and our customers, when you meet with them and you talk to them, it's just really hard not to be energized and to really feel good about what you're doing. I walk away from all those opportunities feeling good about yourself and what you're doing.
I couldn't agree more. That's definitely my favorite part of this job as well - my fellow employees, but our members and what they do. They're super inspirational, all of them.
Prior to even the Rural Electric Cooperatives, this is one part of your career I find very interesting. And this has really become apparent in how you've handled this COVID-19 crisis, but you actually have spent time at FEMA, which I cannot imagine how incredible that experience was.
COULD YOU JUST SHARE WITH ME WHAT YOU LEARNED AT FEMA AND HOW YOU'RE APPLYING THAT TODAY?
Working for FEMA for 10 years in the communications shop, I had a host of different jobs, from press secretary to head of strategic communications, and also the speech writer. It was incredibly rewarding and also one of the most challenging positions I've ever had.
I was there during the 2004 hurricane season, which I think a lot of people forget how challenging and difficult that season was because it was quickly surpassed by 2005 with Hurricane Katrina. And it was, just again, an onslaught of disasters after disaster. But one of the big takeaways from FEMA is you always want to be prepared, as much as you can, and recognize you're probably never going to be as prepared as you should be. But being prepared with a plan, a crisis communications plan or just a communications plan so that your organization and your employees all know what their role is in the midst of a crisis situation. Making sure not only do you write that plan, but you exercise, you test that plan to make sure everybody does know exactly what they need to do, what their role is, how they will receive information, ensures it becomes seamless in the midst of a disaster.
Then, following up after a disaster, it's a lot of military speak, but “after actions” is what we would call them. It’s looking back and seeing what did you do well, and then what can we do better and how can we learn from our mistakes, or what can we learn from our exercise of the implementation of the plan? Then updating that plan, don't just write a plan and feel like you're done and stick it on a shelf. But actually pull that plan down, constantly look at it, update it, and make sure that you're, again, educating those who have to carry out this plan on that.
That was one of the big things that I did learn. Then also knowing that this is the here and now, you're dealing with this issue right now. So we're in the midst of the pandemic right now, but also keeping the eye on the ball of what are other issues that are not going away. They may just be put on the back burner, but keeping track of what important issues are going to affect agriculture? What's coming down the pike? What has just maybe been set aside? And not forgetting about that, continuing to focus on that as much as possible while dealing with the here and now.
You can get so caught up in a current, huge disaster or crisis situation, but really maintaining the sense to keep business going and serving your customers and just keeping your eye on issues that may be on the horizon.
That's amazing advice and definitely very applicable today. I know that's something my team is doing. We're keeping a running file of everything that we have put out or have done during this time to debrief. When we are able to meet up, what worked well, what should we have done differently? That’s great advice to hear.
Along those lines in the midst of this crisis, you have a national view of this in your role at the Council. How are you seeing the ag community come together at this time? There are many challenges that they're facing, the economic crisis is one of them, but also with the food supply chain issues.
HOW ARE YOU SEEING THE AG COMMUNITY COME TOGETHER AT THIS TIME AND SUPPORT ONE ANOTHER?
We’ve seen a lot of different and great ways that the agricultural community has come together during this current COVID-19 crises. They have come together to support and co-sign letters to advocate for legislation to help to provide some relief for an already struggling agricultural economy. Farm Credit specifically has helped to support agriculture and demonstrate how our customers have been affected by putting together panels where our customers can come and speak about specific issues. We've had customer panels focused on livestock, specialty crops, fruit and vegetables, and we're getting ready to do one on the dairy industry. It’s an opportunity to do this by webcast and to invite members of Congress and their staff, as well as members of the media and other ag stakeholders and Farm Credit folks across the country to really listen to these customers and the challenges that they have faced with the current COVID-19 pandemic, from logistics supply chain to not being able to get their commodities, to potentially meat processing plants, and to combat negative media stories and let folks hear the producers’ side of the story. I think that's been a nice way to get our story and message out.
I've also seen a lot of great things that producers are doing as far as how they are adapting to and pivoting with the pandemic and with their businesses. I mean, we've seen Farm Credit customers put together produce boxes that they're selling from the road with contactless delivery. We've seen delivery of different products like wine or other types of commodities. We've seen distilleries that have pivoted their business to make hand sanitizer.
I think it's been really great to see the creativity of Farm Credit customers and how they've adapted to this new COVID-19 world and seeing how they can continue their business as much as possible during the current environment.
I've definitely taken advantage of the delivery wine service. One of our local wineries, Old Westminster Winery here in Carroll County started to doing that and that's been fantastic.
You're right, it's been really energizing to see these customers get innovative and creative with how they're adapting to this. It's quite remarkable. That is one shining light, I'll say, that this crisis has kind of brought, is that creativity out in many. It's refreshing to see that.
You mentioned before that you really promote and recommend everyone having a plan for a crisis situation and revisiting that regularly. What are some other things that you would recommend producers start thinking about now so that if they do ever end up facing another crisis, hopefully never again a pandemic at this scale. But crises happen often on a much smaller scale, whether it be to one individual business, or a community.
WHAT ARE SOME THINGS THAT YOU WOULD RECOMMEND PRODUCERS CONSIDER NOW IN ADDITION TO THAT PLAN?
One thing you touched on is one thing we can be assured of - there will be another disaster, unfortunately, but we have to be prepared as much as possible. And I think some suggestions of ways that customers could be prepared looking forward is making sure they have a business continuity plan. As our organization, we looked at our plan right when this pandemic came about. We really wanted to make sure that we were set up for success and we had everything in line and in place, and we have since even updated our plan.
I think this is a great opportunity to say, "Hey, did we have a business continuity plan? Do we need to develop one? And do we need to update it?" Then, just making sure for the future that you do have that plan. And again, from a business continuity plan, if you just have one and no one else has seen it or no one knows what it entails, make sure you share that plan amongst your organization.
Then also succession planning. A lot of people don't like to talk about that, but it's really important and to make sure that there is a plan. And again, that it’s shared with those who need to know, because you don't want to be caught off guard. And I think those are just some great preparedness steps to take and those are things that you can do right now to ensure that you have the continuity of operations and it's a very fluid situation.
That’s great advice. What are some of the things that we can do to support agriculture right now during this crisis? Like I said, we see in the news a lot about the issues with the food supply chain.
Do you have any recommendations for how we can support our producers and agriculture during a crisis?
Going back to storytelling, it's great to hear from customers exactly what they're doing and the challenges that they are seeing and faced with, and then how they're overcoming those challenges. And then also how Farm Credit is helping them to overcome those challenges. A great example is through the SBA's Paycheck Protection Program. Farm Credit worked tirelessly to make sure that their customers were able to receive those loans for their businesses, to keep their operations going. But there's a lot of other ways, besides other relief, that Congress and the administration will give to agriculture.
I think always making sure that we're out there talking about our customers, how much we care about our customers - what we do for our customers and things that we provide our customers. It's all about that storytelling and getting that message out, and I think it helps for a variety of reasons and audiences. We have a great story to tell. There's a lot of noise out there, but good stories are always welcomed. The more you continue to tell your story, people will hear you, and it will resonate.
It’s also great for these audiences to hear positive things about Farm Credit, because there is some negative stories about agriculture and the food supply chain, and people are asking, “Is it broken?” It's really good to hear that farmers are still producing and doing their best to make sure that they can get their products to the end user. But they need to hear from those customers and telling that story either through podcasts or through other testimonials that are written or in video. There's a lot of different mechanisms, and thankfully with technology now, we have those mediums to tell those stories. There is a big appetite for content and to hear these stories. This is how we build reputation, management and equity for Farm Credit is to continually telling these stories.
That’s what I would offer is one of the best ways to do this. There are plenty of stories out there. Let's continue to tell them and make sure that we're telling our own story so others can't tell it for us.
That's great advice. I'm with you on the storytelling camp, that's also a huge part of our job at Horizon, my team's job and we love doing it.
I appreciate your time, Debbie and I have to thank you and your team and the Council for everything you do to support us, not only during a crisis, but all throughout the year. I have one more question for you before we sign off for the day:
WHAT IS IT THAT YOU ADVOCATE FOR IN AGRICULTURE?
That’s a great question, Jenny, and I think there are so many things to advocate for. I think one of the things that I've learned through this current COVID-19 pandemic is that there's a lot of misunderstanding or just lack of understanding of how people get their food. Where does their food come from? They think they go to the grocery store and it's just there and they purchase it and go home. But I think that we've had the opportunity to really explain and provide a much better understanding and appreciation for producers and for agriculture.
I'm very much an advocate for making sure that people really understand how they get the food on the table to feed their families and feed the world. And I think that's a very important piece that folks have really, again, recognized and appreciated from this as we've seen a lot of meats not filling the shelves as they once were and they are just harder to come by. I think it does just provide a much better understanding for the benefits and the greatness of these producers.
That is a great topic to advocate for. I think so many things are an agricultural product that people don't even consider, actually. We’re working on a piece right now explaining how toilet paper is actually an agricultural product, if you think about it. It comes from trees. The forestry industry is part of toilet paper. That whole storyline when this thing started, that got me thinking about that. I don't think people realize where even that comes from.
Great point, and what a hot commodity that certainly was. That’s very strategic and creative of you to tie the current stories and headlines into something that goes back to agriculture. I commend you on that effort.
I'll be sure to share that blog for you or with you when it's done. Well, Debbie, again, thank you very much for your time today. I know you guys have a lot on your plates, but again, thank you and the Council for everything you're doing.
Always great to talk to you, Jenny. And again, I'm very appreciative of the opportunity to speak with you all and I can't tell you enough how much I really do appreciate the collaboration, the partnership of you and Horizon, and I'm appreciative of the opportunity to work on behalf of agriculture and Farm Credit.