Guest column: Pay Attention to What You Say!

Monique Coombs
Monique Coombs is the Director of Marine Programs for the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association

The Public Relations Society of America defines public relations as “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” Public relations (PR) can arguably be more important than paid advertising and marketing because PR is earned, rather than paid for. PR is often more positive and based on stories that validate a product or organization and moves people to think that something is important. PR is so critical, in fact, that companies like Burger King, Coca-Cola, and Nike have multiple PR firms on retainer to watch over their every move and favorably control the narrative in the media.

Good PR can change the way people think about an organization, or in this case, an industry.

The fishing industry in Maine and across the U.S. is more frequently in the news for unfortunate and dire issues rather than good news and positive outcomes. Whether it’s “Cod value plummets” or “Bait crisis” or “Lobster boom won’t last,” the media is full of stories that, although are often true, rarely take the time to frame the story in a way that doesn’t leave the reader thinking the commercial fishing industry is destructive, careless, or ill-fated.

In 2017, the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association began working with Knack Factory, a production company in Portland, to create short videos for social media outlets. These videos, named “Hard Tellin’,” depicted various parts of the commercial fishing industry in humanizing, engaging, and positive ways. From alewives and scallops to young fishermen and seafood, audiences viewed refreshing and positive videos; these videos got well over 150,000 views across the Fishermen’s Association’s media outlets.

In 2018, the Fishermen’s Association worked with Ihila Productions to put short video content to the test again when a hotel was proposed for the waterfront side of Commercial Street, an area of working waterfront where that kind of business would have drastically altered its character and usability. The video, “12 Little Wharves,” featured a handful of fishermen from Portland to Harpswell sharing their wonder, admiration, and concern for the working waterfront. In just a few days the video had been viewed over 300,000 times; the possibility of a hotel being built on Commercial Street became history.

Most consumers understand that about farmers, yet they still don’t quite connect fishermen to the seafood on their plates. We need to remind them.

The “Hard Tellin’” and ”12 Little Wharves” videos were not a marketing campaign for the Fishermen’s Association; they were an effort to change the way the public perceives the Maine fishing industry, from one that is dehumanized and over-generalized to something of value deserving support, admiration, and empathy.

While good PR on social media outlets can create a wave of support and enthusiasm, it can all be quickly disintegrated however with one poorly considered comment from an individual.

A simple Facebook outburst of anger or frustration, a meme expressing outrage towards a group, or a severe comment on an article someone else posted can change the way someone might think about commercial fishing and fishermen and, even more concerning, all these things are admissible in a court of law. In 2019, social media statuses and comments are frequently used in court to diminish the credibility of witnesses, prosecutors, and defendants.

If you’re angry, upset, or frustrated, rather than posting it on social media where it could negatively reflect on the industry, here are a few other things that you can do:

  • Join an association that can advocate on your behalf.
  • Attend meetings. Social media is a great place to share meeting times and how to get involved.
  • Pick up the phone and call someone who might know the answer to your questions. Association board members are usually informed because they are participating in various meetings and on email lists, and fishermen have seats on the council. They would all rather hear from you than read negative stuff on Facebook.
  • Stop attacking your own industry and fellow fishermen. (Same team, guys.)

Maine’s commercial fishing industry is made up of locally-owned and family-operated businesses, a hard-working group of people who depend on the ocean for their livelihood and are the foundation of many of Maine’s coastal communities. Most importantly, Maine fishermen harvest healthy, local, sustainable food that not only provides nourishment but also jobs for many people in the state. Most consumers understand that about farmers, yet they still don’t quite connect fishermen to the seafood on their plates. We need to remind them.

Maine’s coast is almost 3500 miles in length and that doesn’t include all the islands. Only Florida and Louisiana have more coastline than Maine. Maine is a small state with a lot of very close-knit communities and everyone who works on the water shares strong values, a commitment to work, a deep regard for tradition, and high hopes for the next generation. Mainers are a proud group, especially Maine lobstermen and groundfishermen, and we need to do a better job communicating that pride. Let’s all do our part to share the story of our industry and tell consumers the positive stories that we want them to hear.