Whether stemming from a visit to a county fair or an arcade, most of us are familiar with Whack-A-Mole, a fun and frustrating game in which scoring is determined by pushing individual moles appearing at random back into their holes.  The method:  hitting them squarely on the head with a mallet.  Designed to force players to pay attention to multiple areas of the board at once and be constantly ready to take action, the game feels like the polar opposite to the way most of us were taught to develop issues management strategies…or any strategy for that matter.

I, for one, was taught to look at strategy as an extraordinarily linear, deliberate and step-wise approach to manage challenges and uncover opportunities.  Thoughtful strategy developing, considering both short- and longer-term ramifications with appropriate metrics in place to guide and to adjust  –  the space for senior counsel and gravitas.  Focus is maintained with strict control of message and deployment of messengers a central component.  This is serious stuff.

Well, brace yourselves, folks.  Those days have been disappearing, whether or not we as communications professionals have been willing to acknowledge it.    However, rather than debate the model appropriate for a given time in issues management, let’s take a look at both history and recent events.

 

The Road from Local to National is Far from New

While the federal government can be the incubator for change, programs often are not put in place nationally from the onset.  President Johnson began school breakfast as a pilot for children living in rural areas and poorer neighborhoods based on the beliefs that these children would skip breakfast in lieu of making the bus for a long ride to school and that resource-challenged families might not always have breakfast available.  The President’s belief was that breakfast was important for children’s school performance, a notion validated by the existence of the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs.  Over time, USDA has conducted a number of pilot studies to encourage and incentivize the consumption of fruits and among adults and children.  Nutritionists also have gone the route of intervention studies to examine ways to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables. These state and local pilots provide valuable fodder to the federal government by offering insight into ways to design national programs.

You don’t have to look far to see how advocates of various positions of what we should – and should not – be eating embrace local initiatives to test hypotheses and drive marketplace action to gain the attention of federal policymakers. Look at menu labeling, soft drink taxes and GMO disclosure labeling, to name a few.  And the United States is not the only country in which this is happening.

Momentum for locally-driven initiatives is increasing, no question.  Only recently, the National Food Policy Conference included a session titled “Going Local – Food Policy Reform Outside the Beltway,” in which Robert Paarlberg of Harvard University offered insight into factors contributing to the success of these efforts, including the availability of external financial support, targeting areas of Democrat majority and careful selection of process such as ballot initiatives.   Best practices on driving impact from local to national are being more closely studied and shared.

With some notable successes in hand and with all indicators pointing to reduced interest in nutrition policy in the current Administration, we all must get ready for a variety of players to take the state and local marketplace route to engage consumers, rally coalitions or donor groups, and educate policy makers.  This will require different kinds of thinking on the part of industry communicators as the linear and one-step-at-a-time approaches will not be either fast enough or nimble enough to make alternate strategies resonate among target constituencies.

 

What’s the Secret Sauce?

State and local advocacy jump right in, mallet in hand, to present the need for action and its impact to voters directly, leveraging media with an expert hand. While stakeholders continue to be critical, engaging them happens much more quickly, often done in concert with mobilizing consumers. They are provocative and compelling.  They are neither risk averse nor bound by cumbersome legal review.  They create language people feel to move the conversation and instantly engage consumers.  They develop messaging that works at multiple levels and among multiple constituencies.  They understand both grassroots and grasstops, and they take action, often leaving the food and agriculture industry off-balance and squarely on its back foot.

The question is, are we ready? If we’re not, we need to pin our ears back and get there.  While I’m not suggesting abandoning smart strategy for a flurry of action, we must think and act differently – faster, smarter and most importantly, braver.   Recent successes of local action driving the national conversation offer us best practices for consideration.  But, this doesn’t absolve us of the need to create our own.

As the U.S. Department of Agriculture takes shape under Secretary Perdue’s leadership, we must be surgically focused on our priorities and develop innovative ways of achieving them in states and locales across the country.   The action increasingly will be local.  There are exciting times before us.   Bottom line: put me in, coach, and please don’t let me forget my mallet.