Ewell Smith knows what image crises are all about.
The former director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board brought the story of the Louisiana seafood industry’s ruin and resurrection to the Peninsula Pride Farms Annual Conference on Feb. 13 in the Kewaunee County village of Luxemburg.
Between Tropical Storm Gustav in 2003 and the Deepwater Horizon incident in 2010, the Louisiana seafood industry was sunk. In between came Hurricanes Katrina, Gustav and Ike. Those events devastated fishermen and decimated the $2.4 billion industry.
The industry thought it had recovered some of its market share — but then came the BP oil spill in 2010. By the time the well was capped, after 87 days of news coverage showing black clouds of burning oil and this “being drilled into the psyche of our consumer base across the United States and around the world,” 95 percent of the Louisiana seafood market was lost, Smith said.
Two of its largest fishing docks were shattered. In one month, the area lost beach equivalent of 50 years of erosion. A noted professor described the waters of the Gulf of Mexico as “toxic soup,” making people afraid to eat seafood. Restaurants across the country posted signs reading, “We do not serve Gulf seafood.”
Today, the industry has recovered, and Smith told Peninsula Pride Farms members how Wisconsin’s dairy community can overcome its setbacks, too. Among the challenges for dairy farmers in northeast Wisconsin is a black eye suffered because of water quality issues in a geologically sensitive area.
Peninsula Pride Farms was established in 2016 as a nonprofit organization. The goal of its dairy and crop farmers and corporate members is “to leverage the ingenuity of the agricultural community, university research and scientists to protect ground and surface water in Kewaunee and southern Door counties in Wisconsin through innovative conservation practices and technology.”
Smith said conservation efforts spearheaded by Peninsula Pride Farms members prove they’re focused on solutions. Now, farmers just need to magnify the message.
“When you turn up the positive things you’re doing, you see lots of opportunities appear,” Smith said.
Smith’s message hit home with farmer and ag lender Jim Smidel, a member of Peninsula Pride Farms.
“Farmers are quiet, a lot of us are shy and don’t like to talk,” Smidel said. “But it’s all about getting us to tell our story, being honest, telling everyone what you’re doing, because 99 percent of people don’t understand what we’re doing.”
In Louisiana, Smith and his team didn’t wait around for someone to tell them they needed to do something. They got busy, fast. Their efforts included:
• Building a coalition of those in the seafood industry, from restaurants to fish stick manufacturers.
• Forming relationships with people they might have been at odds with: the oil and gas industry.
• Doing media tours and media blitzes — buses with seafood-themed wraps, humongous billboards, even Black Hawk helicopters.
• Putting on events featuring 340-foot-long po boy sandwiches for celebrations and groups.
• Establishing the Great American Seafood Cook-off, which ran for 10 years on PBS and Food Network, and the Louisiana Seafood Festival, which lives on.
• Positioning the seafood board as leaders in the nation.
• Forging relationships with gourmets, foodies and chefs nationwide, not just seafood restaurants.
• Creating the Louisiana Seafood Chefs Council.
• Starting an online news service to get credible stories out to the public.
In short, they got in front of the camera right away. They put themselves out there, even before receiving the all-clear.
“We went from telling our story to owning our story,” Smith said.
A major rebranding campaign, funded by BP and others, was key to the industry’s rebound.
The former “Start with the main ingredient” motto in red was changed to two words: Louisiana Seafood, in blue, after consultants told them the red sign resembled a stop sign.
The promotion board advertised in recognized magazines, like Bon Appetit. It brought in food bloggers, took its message to the Culinary Institute of America, conducted trade shows and made sure lawmakers saw the message.
Members took po boys to the White House when President Obama hosted the New Orleans Saints for their Super Bowl victory, so the whole world saw football players devouring seafood sandwiches.
“We started (repairing our image) five years before Katrina, embracing our community,” Smith said.
By 2013, the seafood industry was back for the second time.
“The world isn’t interested in the storms you’ve encountered, but whether you bring the ship back,” he said.
Smith asked participants at the Peninsula Pride Farms conference to write their No. 1 challenge followed by three opportunities.
“You’re here because you’re passionate about your business, but how do you begin telling your story?” he said.
Leverage the creativity of your community, he said, by using the strengths of your supporters. In the seafood industry’s experience, those key advocates were chefs, foodies and marketers.
Smidel said it was helpful to hear Smith’s outside perspective.
“All we hear about is dairy,” Smidel said. “To get a different industry to come in and talk about their dilemmas and how they solved their problems is very interesting.”
For more information about Peninsula Pride Farms, visit www.peninsulapridefarms.org.