The art of story telling

Writing last month’s piece about the last 50 years reminded me how much the industry has changed in other ways. When I first started to understand how we were seen by our critics, it became obvious that our story telling just simply wasn’t good enough. In those days a view prevailed that PR and marketing was just about telling lies. There was an even more damaging belief that PR was a way of hiding stuff and didn’t make any difference anyway.

What mattered to the thinking of that time was either to be robust and strong with our critics or to be the opposite, and to try to find common ground. In fact, neither matter nearly as much as telling your story well. The industry’s approach to criticism should always be a mixture, as it appears to be now. We have grown up and it shows. Luckily, we have never lost the faith of the public despite some very serious attempts by our critics to do us damage.

We take way too much of what we read for granted. Is it purely coincidence that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds releases stories about raptor poisoning just before the grouse shooting season starts? Smart organisations not only work out the angle of the story and who their audience is but also when to release it for maximum impact.

I am not here to decry the arguments of the RSPB or the veracity of their releases, but they are well aware that the public are uncomfortable about shooting, generally against estates and view gamekeeping as a sort of licensed killer. They know which buttons to push.

The above is so important because people are assailed with so many stories. The public’s mood changes, not because it is fickle but because its attention span can only at best be short. It is clear, not only why we have to fight for our view to be heard, but also why negative headlines always seem to trump the good news. A small industry like ours, especially one that is new and challenging, has a much harder time being heard.

Having said all this, it is heartening to see a more reasoned tone on the part of the wild salmonid lobby. Perhaps they have started to realise that, like the estates being targeted by the RSPB, they too are regarded as rich, entitled and using a wild resource. Perhaps it is because our arguments and liaison with them have improved. It is hard to regard someone as evil with whom you have broken bread. More than anything I hope it is because they see our industry as being here to stay and thus that working with us is going to be inevitable.

Nonetheless I would counsel a bit of caution still. I remember meeting a young toff at a conference who was a very passionate anti-fish farmer and  supporter of all things wild salmonid. He was posh-voiced, dressed in a tweed jacket, posh trousers, the whole shebang.

Not long after I was discussing fish farming matters with one of our loudest critics; a new age, matted hair, scruffily dressed weasel of a fellow when he told me that he was regularly having dinner with the young toff at his flat in Edinburgh to discuss tactics. It’s amazing what you can get out of someone with a few drinks. Alliances make for strange bedfellows. At times when you think you can predict or even know those who oppose you, you can still be amazed at how they work together.

I am not suggesting that we should not work with those who do not have our best interests at heart, nor that we should distrust what they say. It is merely to suggest that “trust but verify” is a very good mantra. I am glad we seem to be on a better footing and I long for the day when rural industries realise that we have to work together to get the public’s attention. Bickering and infighting between small industries only serves to aid our critics. Whether it is over planning, development or operations, working together quietly and calmly will always trump shouting in the media.

Once a nameless shellfish farmer, in a private meeting, asked me what it would be worth for him not to object to our next planning application. I replied: “It’s worth nothing, except that I won’t object to any of yours or note any of the rubbish you are leaving in the bay which we tidy up!”

He replied, “fair enough” and the conversation moved on. I’m sure that there are those that regard his attitude as reprehensible but I would rather he said it and we discussed it than he objected and then we discussed it. So much is better out in the open between differing parties.


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Fish Farmer February 2024 cover, net pens in winter with snow

The February 2024 issue of Fish Farmer is out now online