16 August 2013

Worlds collide on Loos Tales

Yes, he really wears this stuff everywhere
A couple of months ago I returned to my "old Kentucky home" and the Alltech 29th International Symposium in Lexington. It's a wonderful event - the largest (and arguably most diverse) conference in Kentucky each year - and it's put together by a relentlessly entrepreneurial, socially conscious and hard-working group of people.  I'm proud to have done some work for them.

I was at the Symposium to give a couple of presentations and attend a discussion dinner on crisis communications.  While there, a friend from Alltech asked me to appear on a radio show hosted by one of the people there covering the event, presumably to talk about crisis communications and how agriculture companies can do a better job talking with consumers. The radio host's name was Trent Loos - I hadn't heard of him before.  "You'll like Trent," my friend said. "He's... interesting."  He said he would introduce me ahead of time and do the show the next morning.  Oh, and he told Trent that I spent some time working for Senator Ted Kennedy, and that piqued Trent's curiosity.

I met Trent that night.  He looked like he just walked off the set of The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly - apart, of course, from the nametag he wore that said, "Catherine Keogh, Chief Marketing Officer, Alltech." He sauntered into the discussion dinner, telling the young Hungarian woman who was checking the list of pre-registered attendees that his name was "Dick Cheney" as he walked by.  (It took a minute for the woman to realize what had happened.)  He spent the evening peppering people he hadn't met with questions that seemed more like statements out of the "Things We Say To Annoy Liberals Handbook."  He wasn't thrilled with the "socialist" systems they have over in Europe and didn't mind telling the Europeans in the room about that.  He was even less thrilled with the regulations "Obama is imposing" on American farmers, and with people who "don't know a thing" about how food is made but keep telling farmers how to do their jobs.  Oh, and it's totally cool to eat horses.  Yes, Trent said this in Lexington Kentucky, "Horse Capital of the World."  And yet everyone in the room thought he was funny and charming - even me.

After the dinner, I sheepishly went up to Trent and asked him what he wanted to talk about in the morning. "I don't know," he said. "I'm sure we'll think of something."

So later that night I checked out Trent's website and learned he's on 100 radio stations with an audience of 3 million people. Gulp.

The next morning I went on his show - and he started off by introducing me as a "crisis communicator." Fair enough, I thought, we're gonna talk shop.  I can do this.  First crisis he wanted to talk about?  Newly-elected Congressman, Mark "hiking the Appalachian Trail" Sanford.  So I knew where this was going, and I basically walked right into the question about Senator Kennedy.  Then he started talking about his history of controversy with Robert Kennedy Jr. and made a few sweeping statements that made me think he was trying to push my buttons - things like "men make better leaders than women" -  and comparing the plight of Governor Sarah Palin to that of Secretary Hillary Clinton, and so on.  So I started thinking I was talking with a Rush Limbaugh clone in a cowboy hat.  Even when I agreed with him he said, "well, I don't want to talk about that anymore." The sixth-generation farmer from Nebraska was just looking for an argument with the  liberal Bostonian PR flack to entertain his predominantly rural, conservative audience.

In other words, he was doing his job.  And by not getting tripped up or too emotional about it, I was doing mine.

But then something really weird happened.  We started finding substantive common ground on really important issues and ideas.  Things like how crises are opportunities to show your mettle as a leader. Or how too many people ignore sound science when it comes to making decisions about food or food policy.   Or how an emotionally-driven insistence on certain farming practices can ultimately hurt animals, people, and the environment in the long run.  Most importantly, I think we agree on this - we will never solve the world's most pressing problems if the only people we talk to think exactly the way we do.

I think that's why the premise of Trent's show, Rural Route Radio, is bringing urban and rural perspectives together.  It's why Trent has had me back on his show twice now.  Once he had me on with a doctor and researcher from Texas to talk about how the mainstream media sometimes botches science reporting. Earlier this week he had me on with a farmer from Kansas to talk about everything from feed additives to global food markets to rodeo clowns.

That's also why I've written so much about the single greatest threat to the human race - homophily. It's why I follow smart-but-not-famous thinkers like Ethan Zuckerman and  Alice Marwick.  It's why I think it's so important for a liberal Bostonian PR flack like me to talk with and listen to moms, scientists, political activists of all stripes, environmentalists, and farmers.

So yeah, Trent may look and act the part and he may spout the typical right-wing talking points from time to time.  But there's no doubt in my mind that he's sincere about solving problems and about preserving and protecting a way of life that has served him and the generations before him very well.  More importantly, there are very few people today who actively seek out perspectives they don't share with the intent of having an honest, substantive discussion. In my experience at least, Trent is one of those people.

Tell you what, though - if he ever disses the Red Sox on his show I'm gone.

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