How Now Brown Cow?

By Rich Nagle

A widely covered story in June seemed to show that some Americans were either poorly informed, not very bright or just plain gullible. But what it really showed is how smart PR people who understand how information travels through the media and the public can generate a huge amount of publicity for their clients. It’s also a useful lesson for anyone who wants to sharpen their media literacy skills.

Milk It For All It’s Worth

The story cited an online survey commissioned by the dairy industry organization Innovation Center of U.S. Dairy which found that 7 percent of Americans think that chocolate milk comes from brown cows. Coverage of the survey in the Washington Post and hundreds of other news outlets predictably provoked a wave of eye-rolling, forehead-slapping, “people are so dumb!” reactions especially on social media. Even more, the story highlighted how little Americans know about agriculture and where their food comes from. It also prompted analyses of how gullible people are in the age of “fake news” (leaving aside President Trump’s frequent use of the term to attack mainstream media coverage he doesn’t like). The story was everywhere for almost two weeks.

Let’s Break It Down

My early journalism training, experience as a wire service reporter and my career in public relations gives me a more nuanced take on the story. I don’t have any direct knowledge of the genesis of the brown-cow survey but I can take an educated guess.

From the PR side:

  • It’s the job of the PR people at the dairy Innovation Center to communicate the organization’s mission and educate the public about dairy products and agriculture.
  • June is “National Dairy Month” and probably a key point in the calendar as the PR team created their annual communications plan.
  • Surveys, contests, quizzes, etc., are one tool among many used in PR programs to get an organization’s messages out. Others are news releases, ghostwritten articles under executive bylines, funded research reports, public speaking appearances for executives and so forth. The tools used depend on the message you’re trying to communicate, the audience you’re trying to reach and the broader business goals you’re trying to achieve.
  • We don’t know how the survey questions were worded, but the results found that 93% of Americans know that chocolate milk does not come from brown cows. Not much of a story there. However, the fact that 7% think it does becomes your lead.
  • There’s a ready-made audience for “people are so dumb!” stories. “People” never includes ourselves, of course, as we perversely enjoy that we’re not one of the dummies.

From the news side:

  • The dairy group’s survey results might have shown up in reporter’s email, on one of the news release distribution services or on another verifiable source.
  • The brown-cow angle is an attention-getter that would get good play. It also seems harmless and funny so why not run it? Attribution to the U.S. Dairy Innovation Center gives it sufficient authenticity and context, and the group appears to be reputable.
  • There’s a legitimate angle about how little people know about agriculture or where their food comes from.
  • If a reporter felt it was a just a promo from a business group and skipped the story they’d catch holy hell from their editors and fellow reporters the next day when competing news outlets ran with it.
  • When a story appears in a top-tier publication like the Washington Post it’s going to push other news organizations to jump on it too.

Ironically, one follow-on analysis about the public’s lack of agricultural knowledge used a picture of a bull instead of a cow. It was later corrected.

Farming For Information

The brown-cow story shows how people know as little about how food reaches them as they do how information reaches them. One of our early blog posts, “Cui Bono,” encouraged people to recognize that information often reaches us not just because it’s worthy or important. With notable exceptions like unplanned events and investigative stories, a lot of information reaches us at a particular time and place to accomplish a purpose for an organization or an individual. There’s no conspiracy, mind-control or other weirdness at play. In fact it’s far simpler and vastly more boring than that.

Mooving Right Along

With the brown-cow story, it’s not really about how dumb some people are. Instead, it’s a story about a survey from a dairy industry group that says a small number of people responding to some questions might think chocolate milk comes from brown cows. More accurately, it’s a story about a clever way to get people thinking about how food – and information — actually reaches us.

Each of us has the tools and ability to learn more about both.