Blazing new trails

by Bryan Salvage
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Michael Martin has only been in the saddle as Cargill’s director of communications for one year, after working 30-plus years as a communication professional with Fortune 500 and FTSE 100 companies.

“In less than a year at Cargill, Mike has left his imprint on the company and the meat industry,” says Mark Klein, longtime Cargill director of communications to whom Mike reports. “He shepherded Cargill’s involvement in a recent Oprah Winfrey segment on food, which included a visit to a Cargill beef plant. A seasoned public relations pro, he treats the media with respect. He has a strong commitment to telling the Cargill and meat industry story.”

Masterful move

Martin was the talk of the industry earlier this year for his role in getting Cargill on the Oprah Winfrey Show. The show’s production team first contacted him in mid-September 2010, citing a Sept. 12 Minneapolis Star Tribune article covering what Cargill does to ensure “your burger is safe from E. coli” as the example of what they wanted to do in a video broadcast format.

On Jan. 10, they asked for a facility tour at Cargill’s Fort Morgan, Colo.-based beef slaughter plant, so they could air a segment as part of their “Food 201” show that would be taped on Jan. 26, Martin explains. Producers wanted to interview Nicole Johnson-Hoffman, the general manager at the plant. “She would be credible to the core demographic that watches the Oprah Show,” Martin says he was told.

Lisa Ling, the reporter for the segment, went on a facility tour during the segment, which ultimately ran about six-and-a-half minutes. After the tour, the Oprah producer asked Johnson-Hoffman to appear at the Jan. 26 taping of the show in Chicago. “Nicole agreed and I secured internal approvals,” Martin says. “Nicole and I traveled to Chicago on Jan. 25 and did the taping session the following day. Our objectives were to show people how the beef they eat is produced and given the other guests for the Food 201 show…ensure Cargill’s point of view was represented. We feel the result was a resounding success for our beef business, the industry and Cargill.”

Receiving a high viewership rating, that segment reached 7.3 million households. “Voluminous favorable feedback came to us from consumers, customers, employees and their families, peers in the industry, trade associations and others,” Martin says. “We feel our efforts to demystify the business by being more transparent resulted in a very good outcome, substantially due to allowing the show access to one of our facilities and Nicole’s professional, credible, knowledgeable and capable presence on the show.”

Some communications directors may have advised their top executives to stay out of this spotlight, but Martin saw this as a golden opportunity.

“I strongly believe the best defense is a good offense,” he says. “Establishing relationships with the media and helping them understand our business is crucial. There is always the risk of unfl attering coverage, yet the risk is greater if a company or industry voice is not heard when there is discussion or debate on an important topic.”

Martin enjoys working with many people who are eager to help him learn about what they do and how it contributes to the success of the business. Most challenging for him has been countering the misstatements and misinformation about how the industry operates and industry’s perceived motives. “There are not enough hours in the day to do all the things that I’d like to get done,” he says.
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