Lights, camera, action: The seafood industry meets the media

A new training program gives fishing industry leaders the confidence and key messages to promote a more positive image of the Australian industry

Illustration: Paul Dickenson

By Jessie Morris

For most of the past decade the Australian fishing industry has battled against an unseen enemy – and it hasn’t been something lurking in the depths of the ocean.

According to FRDC communications manager Peter Horvat, consumer research in 2011 showed that the industry had an image problem that had the potential to threaten its future.

“We refer to it as the seafood paradox,” Peter Horvat says.

“While there is a general perception that we need to consume more healthy forms of protein, such as fish, there has never been greater pressure to limit the amount of wild fish we catch.

“It was clear that we had some work to do in improving the way we communicated with key stakeholders and the general public, to address the perception that our national fishing industry was no longer sustainable.”

The FRDC committed to a strategy that would better promote the science and best practice that underpins the industry. One key tactic was to run a media and communication training program for fishing industry leaders, to enable them to better manage popular opinion.

“As well as confirming that we needed to work more proactively on community perceptions of the seafood industry, the FRDC also saw the benefit of improved communications to extend the awareness of our investments in research,” Peter Horvat says.

The right partner

The FRDC employed FULLER, a communications agency, to deliver media training to industry people.

“This was a landmark project and the first time that media training was to be conducted for the whole industry, including fishers, government and researchers,” Peter Horvat says.

The agency consulted with members of the industry and the media to better understand the day-to-day issues the industry was facing. This showed that the industry lacked a united voice, which led to unclear and inconsistent messaging.

“We found that because of the number of different spokespeople and the wide range of local issues, media relations had been reactive and ad hoc,” FULLER managing director Peter Fuller says.

“This had led to a poor public understanding of the health benefits of seafood as well as the value of the industry to regional communities and the national economy.”

From this research FULLER developed a communication strategy that identified different messages and tactics to communicate with a range of audiences: researchers, government, seafood sector organisations, the media and the general public.

Through industry consultation, FULLER and the FRDC selected a broad range of potential training attendees, inviting researchers, scientists, fishers and executives – all with varying degrees of media experience – to participate in a national series of training workshops.

“By bringing together various groups, we were able to help build an understanding between diverse players in the industry and achieve a more united voice,” Peter Horvat says.

A mix of industry leaders with varying media experience encouraged the industry to share its knowledge and help one another with ideas and techniques. A timely bonus was the release of the FRDC’s Status of key Australian fish stocks reports on the eve of the workshops in November 2012. This provided the trainers with a unique opportunity to base the media training program on a real-life scenario.

“Working with a topic that was actually breaking in the media was very valuable for participants. It also helped the FRDC refine its own messaging about this initiative,” Peter Horvat says.

Practical advice

The one-day training sessions were held in New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia. There was exceptional uptake, with every session at full capacity.

Training facilitators Ian Doyle (a former ABC Radio and TV presenter) and Ron Kandelaars (a Channel Nine News journalist) shared more than 30 years of media experience with participants, covering a broad range of communications topics.

These included developing key messages, preparing for and participating in radio, TV and press interviews, building relationships with media, telling positive stories, honing public presentation skills and understanding new trends such as social media.

Practical application of these skills in mock television interviews – complete with lights, camera and probing questions – put program participants to the test and provided an insight into the pressures of a media interview scenario. This experience was described by many participants as one of the most valuable aspects of the training.

“Being prepared with simple key messages and having the skills to handle difficult questions is the key to avoid being defensive with media,” Peter Horvat says.

“The feedback from course participants showed that they felt much more empowered to effectively deliver their message and tell positive industry stories following the training.”

On camera

After the training, Shane Geary, the seafood operations manager at Coffs Harbour Fisherman’s Co-op,  was interviewed by ABC Radio and local television about the Status of key Australian fish stocks reports. Shane delivered his key messages successfully and the interviews were widely broadcast.

“Completing the FRDC communication training gave me additional confidence in reaching out to media with a story idea,” Shane Geary says.

“It gave me the knowledge of how to prepare well for the interviews so that I was able to stay on message and avoid panicking when facing ‘difficult’ questions.”

The FRDC Seafood Industry Communication Training Program was delivered to 50 industry representatives from across Australia, with 100 per cent agreeing that their understanding of professional communication had improved as a result.

Participant feedback reflected that 95 per cent felt more confident in dealing with the media and preparing for and managing an interview with a media representative.

“We were pleased with the industry’s response to the training, with 98 per cent of attendees indicating that the sessions met their expectations and 99 per cent describing the trainers as knowledgeable and the training content relevant,” Peter Horvat says.

The next phase of the project includes an extension program, with plans to extend resources to other industry members where possible. Peter Horvat says the value of the program is being evaluated, although fishers in Tasmania are keen to see a session run in their state.

What the trainees said

“I would recommend that the FRDC continues to invest in this area as there are many people within our industry who will benefit from this real-life experience.” – John Harrison, Chief Executive Officer, Western Rock Lobster Council Inc.

“It was an excellent day all round, a very good use of FRDC funds.” – Jedd Routledge, Natural Oysters

“Thanks to you and the FRDC for the opportunity to take part in the media training workshop. I learnt a lot (Ian and Ron were excellent) and will strive to enter this space a lot more than I currently do.” – Andrew Tobin, Senior Research Fellow, James Cook University

“I gained a great deal from the workshop, have a renewed appreciation for the benefits of professional media and PR experts, and additional skills to use in my day-to-day involvement with media, PR and general communications. Thanks again to FRDC for sponsoring the event, and supporting the seafood industry in such a progressive manner.”
– Martin Exel, Chair, Commonwealth Fisheries Association

“It was one of the best days out of the office I can recall for a long time. The guys oozed experience and expertise and shared a mountain of information that I am still processing.  If this opportunity was to be in Perth again I would definitely have a couple extra of our team attend.” – David Carter, Austral Fisheries

“Very informative, and I now feel prepared for the expectations of a media interview.” –
Ashley Oliver, Communications Manager, Seafood Industry Victoria

FRDC Research Code: 2011-409

More information

Peter Horvat, 02 6285 0414