By: Owen Roberts
In May, one of my last official acts as IFAJ president was to join Alltech President Dr. Mark Lyons in virtually presenting Joseph Opoku Gakpo of Ghana with the IFAJ-Alltech International Award for Leadership in Agricultural Journalism (see story here). The ceremony was significant not only because it recognized Joseph’s accomplishments and leadership, but because it took place during what may have been the biggest gathering of international agricultural journalists ever – 585 of us from 57 countries. We were part of the 36th annual ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference, this year held online as the ONE Virtual Experience.
Those attendance figures were eye-opening for anyone wondering if virtual conferences would have the same allure for media or for attendees as long-established, in-person equivalents – especially those as successful as Alltech’s ONE.
Held each year since 1985 in Lexington, Kentucky, home of the company’s world headquarters, the conference has repeatedly broken attendance records by participants and agricultural journalists alike. Last year, it drew more than 3,500 attendees from 68 countries, including 119 journalists, many of whom are IFAJ members.
Organizers were ecstatic with the figures and had every intention of keeping the momentum going this year with an in-person event.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, they either had to throw in the towel, or shift their way of thinking to a virtual platform.
“To us, cancelling was never an option,” says Lyons. “People are hungry for information and we were determined to deliver.”
Alltech has had much experience in electronic communications, given its efforts to communicate to its 5,000-plus employees in over 120 countries. Every week since 2017, Lyons has issued a weekly video, talking about business strategies and other topics. When the pandemic hit, the company had already been working with the Microsoft Teams platform and had some familiarity with it through the transition to a virtual version of the ONE conference.
Lyons says going virtual opened doors. It gave access to people who would otherwise be unable to take part due to the cost of travel, or administrative hassles trying to get into the United States. Workshops and speakers – many of whom tackled detailed topics about various aspects of animal health — proved popular. When the final figures were tallied during the launch week, ONE had drawn a staggering 23,000 participants from 118 countries.
Those figures underline to Lyons that we’re in the midst of a total transformation in the way information is delivered and received. He says Alltech will increase its virtual information presence, with monthly knowledge-sharing events that complement the annual ONE conference.
And it will continue to prioritize media relations and support for the profession. Alltech has long been a strong partner with IFAJ, particularly with regards to professional development such as the international award won by Gakpo, and the young leaders’ award it has sponsored for more than 15 years. The latter has been responsible for helping develop the leadership capacity of many young journalists who have gone on to become IFAJ executive members and leaders of their own guilds.
Lyons understands the importance of agriculture being populated by competent, engaged journalists.
“Journalism is, at the moment, facing a lot of challenges,” he says. “But we know how important it is for sharing our stories, and for many other aspects that people seldom think about. I have read that in communities where local newspapers close, the cost of municipal borrowing goes up because lenders realize the risk of bad behaviour increases when there’s no media watching. We need media to protect us, and we need to realize that as a society we need to support it.”
He predicts the pandemic – along with the various creative ways companies like his have pivoted to new approaches to share information — will result in a hard look at where resources are spent.
“It makes me wonder about the future of traditional gatherings like trade shows for example,” he says. “There are so many, with a lot of suppliers and companies, but with fewer end users. Will they make a comeback after the pandemic? Will companies be as willing to buy a booth? Will people feel safe going there?”
And in the same vein, will the pandemic change where journalists get information? Trade shows, annual meetings and conferences have become a huge source of announcements; journalists have come to depend on them for news and contacts. Maybe the ONE experience shows sources will need to find new and better ways to deliver information, and journalists will need to be open to actively mining it in places they’ve only glanced at before.