A Farmer's Instinct to Crisis

By Matter

Me with one of our pigs; 1973

Here at the Matter Chatter blog, we talk about all things public relations, marketing, and communications, so I’m going to talk about baby ducks and apple pie.

I grew up on a farm in Vermont. As any farmer will tell you, it’s a place of great wonder and great tragedy — and of course, the realities of what you do as a farmer. (Let’s just say as a child, I learned quickly not to give the cows names.)

Wonder arrives with baby farm animals. There’s nothing quite like watching eleven piglets swarm the pasture (yes, they got out), or the determined look on a young calf’s face as he wills his legs to work for the first time.

And then there were the baby ducks. My family and I painted a wooden dog house and filled it with hay to give the ducks a warm home near the pond where they swam. We spent hours with them, laughing as they’d fall in line behind us, following us wherever we went. It was the living version of Make Way For Ducklings.

Life was not all hay and pitchforks, however. Our family loved going to the movies, and on one such August night, while we were enjoying the latest Bond film circa 1973, the temperature dropped to an unusually low temperature. When we returned home, my mother put an apple pie in the oven, and my brother and I ran down to the pond to check on the baby ducks.

To our horror, the ducks had washed up on shore; from all appearances, they were dead. Their feathers had not yet developed the protective oil that allows adult ducks to swim in cold water, and they succumbed while we were away. Tears and calls for help led my father to the scene. Without a pause, he scooped up the ducklings in his arms. Rushing to the kitchen, he yelled for my mother to pull the apple pie out of the oven. Out came the pie and in went the ducks, wrapped in a kitchen towel.

Within minutes, the chirp, chirp, chirp of baby ducks filled the kitchen. They were fine. They lived a long and happy life. The apple pie was tossed in the pig trough, half-baked and soggy.

I don’t know what made my dad think about the warmth of the oven, I just know he did. And as PR practitioners, we’re often filled with that gut instinct to do something outside the normal methodology, to the benefit of our clients.

There are tried and true methods when it comes to crises communications, and volumes of pages dedicated to plans, procedures, and protocols. And then there are the things that come from instinct, a farmer’s instinct. Perhaps from something you’ve experienced before or even something you can’t quite recall, like the fact ducks can lower their body temperatures to a near hibernation-like state, and revive fully when warmed. Don’t ignore that instinct. You may have to throw out the apple pie, but it will be worth it.