Our Observations

Ron Nichols Gets His Hands Dirty; Creates Award-Winning Campaign

Ron Nichols is the Soil Health Communications Coordinator for the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  In this interview he discusses his teams award-winning campaign, “Unlock the Secrets in the Soil.”  

1. What were the goals of your campaign? Were the results what you expected?

One major goal of the Unlock the Secrets in the Soil campaign was (and continues to be) to get farmers to understand that soil is alive. I know that sounds really basic, but that fundamental understanding is critical in changing our target audience’s behavior. Our messages regarding adoption are simple: If producers farm in ways that enable the soil’s biologic activity they can increase their profits, make their farms more resilient to climate change, reduce chemical run-off AND even increase yields.

After just two years of the campaign, farmers expanded their use of cover crops from 2 million to 10 million acres. That just blows me away. Our campaign can’t take credit for all of that increase, of course, but we know it has given voice and exposure to the soil health movement, which continues to grow throughout the country.

2. Tell us about the critical steps in the campaign development process that you believe would be helpful for others considering a similar launch.

I often say “without research it’s just opinion.” Research is not only critical in developing an informed strategy and effective messaging, but it’s also critical as you pitch your plan internally. When you present your campaign plan to the final decision makers, it’s likely that some big-shot in the room will have some “better or more creative ideas” for the campaign. The more research you can provide (especially customer-centric research), the more likely it is you can fend off some of those non-researched-based “suggestions for improvement.”

Research sets the stage for planning, execution and evaluation. It tells you where you are and what you’ll have to overcome to get to where you want to be. Few clients want to spend the time or resources to get it, but there’s just no substitute for good research. I wouldn’t want to go into battle without good “intel,” and I wouldn’t want to launch a marketing communications campaign without good research. At best you may waste a lot of money, at worse you could harm your cause.

3. Measurement is critical to ensure that you're getting return on your investment. What metrics did you put in place?

Tactically, we tracked earned media placements, social media impressions, YouTube views, public service announcement placements and ad equivalency dollars. I know there’s some dispute in PR circles about the evaluation efficacy of the latter, but when you report back to management, you need to speak using the language of the boardroom. That language is often expressed in dollars: “You spent this. We got you this.” In the case of our “Unlock the Secrets in the Soil Campaign,” earned media placement alone yielded an estimated $6 million.

Through a partner organization, also we’ve been able track the number of farmer soil health workshops, field days and soil health meetings that are taking place throughout the country (though not the total number of participants).

Strategically, through the census of agriculture, we’re able to track the number of acres that are farmed using soil health management system practices and then compute the positive environmental benefits of those practices through our impact models.

4. It seems difficult for some government agencies to get recognition for valuable services such as yours. Are there strategies you recommend to overcome those hurdles?

Good PR is easy to get when you do good things. What I’m seeing increasingly, however, is a “message-first” approach, rather than a “govern-first” approach in PR (and especially in government). If you do the latter well, the former will be easy. It’s that simple, but many political types simply don’t get it. They just want to make a splash and move on. I still happen to believe that good governing means making a difference, not just making a splash. But that takes time and commitment, which is something that seems to be rarer by the day.

In the case of our “Unlock the Secrets in the Soil” campaign, it was the farmers themselves who discovered and developed these soil health management systems on their farms. Much of our communications campaign’s strategy focused on simply giving voice to their success stories – putting our customers first. Our agency messages focused on what we can do to help other farmers and ranchers achieve similar environmental and business success.

5. What about internal recognition and showing value?

Most of us who have been in this business any length of time know that it’s not uncommon for marketing communications to be an afterthought in business planning. On this rare occasion, however, we were at the table from the get-go, so we were able to integrate good research, planning, execution and evaluation practices into the overall business plan.

Consequently, we were able to demonstrate that marketing communications isn’t ancillary to the agency’s business goals, but rather integral to those goals. The success of the campaign has been bit of a double-edged sword, however. Now, everyone in our organization seems to want a similar campaign.

I also think that the best PR begins at home. So it’s important to continue to provide both tactical and strategic reports/updates to your leadership team throughout the campaign. I’m also a believer in entering your work in local, regional or national awards competitions so you can see how your work stacks up against other industries. And when you win, celebrate! Spring for donuts, a cake or ice cream and invite your leadership team (as well as the other departments in your organization) to the celebration. It’s not self-promotion. It’s just good PR.

6. On those rare occasions when you are not working, what do you like to do?

In addition to enjoying a good IPA brew, I love to garden, play tennis and take walks with my wife, daughter and dogs. Did I mention I enjoy a good IPA brew?

Ron Nichols also has authored four books - two novels for young adults, "Where the Sky Doesn't End" and "C.J. Brown's Diamonds in the Rough" (Martin Sisters Publishing) as well as two books on photography, “Great Pet Pictures” and “Picture-Taking for Moms & Dads”.  

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