“Devastated.” “ Absolutely crushed.” “Caught off guard.” These are descriptions Ohio dairy producer Gary Conklin used to tell those at Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin (PDPW) 2011 Business Conference, how he felt when he learned about a video that had gone viral on YouTube on March 25, 2010. The video, which showed animal abuse by an employee of Conklin Dairy Sales LLC farm, was just 3 minutes and 44 seconds long but it delivered Conklin a hard lesson in consumer activism.
“The YouTube video had my name on it,” Conklin stated. “I wasn’t in the video. Yet we were the one receiving phone calls from across the world.”
Conklin said he was unaware of the video posted on YouTube until he was in his car and was contacted by a reporter who wanted his response to the posting.
After returning home and viewing the video, Conklin took four key steps. He contacted his county sheriff’s department, contacted his attorney, notified his staff and began steps to terminate the employee identified in the video.
By Day 2, the employee, Billy Joe Gregg, was terminated and charged with animal abuse. Security for the farm and Conklin’s homes were hired, and four entities—Union County Health Department, Union County Humane Society, Union County Sheriff’s Department and Ohio Department of Agriculture—had received invitations to tour the Conklin dairy facilities. A public relations firm was also hired.
“Hiring a PR firm was costly, but a smart investment,” Conklin stated, adding that the media consultants handled 917 initial media requests.
“The ag media were very good, fair and asked tough questions—and that’s OK,” he stated. “The general media like things like this. They seek controversy as it feeds their ratings.”
Prior to the Grand Jury hearing, Conklin said he watched all 20 hours—1,200 minutes—of recorded video.
“The 3 minutes and 44 seconds posted on YouTube represented just one-half of one percent of the total footage,” he stated. “Ninety-nine point ninety-eight percent of the video shows a clean, well-run facility.”
In the end, the Grand Jury cleared Conklin Dairy Cattle Sales LLC and all remaining employees.
Like most events in life, Conklin said his experience taught him several key lessons.
Today, Conklin has a list of all employee phone numbers and email addresses.
All employees are given an employee handbook that details on-farm procedures, including proper handling. Employees are aware that they must follow all procedures in the handbook and report any regulation in the handbook that is not followed.
Signs posted on the farm clearly state “no trespassing” and “no recording photos or videos.” Individuals seen taking photos or videos will face legal action.
“We also need to be careful who is allowed on our farms,” Conklin stated, “and we need to know what each person is doing on our farms.”