How good milk turns bad
Farmers fighting the Brussels police with milk

On 26. (and 27.) November Brussels was flooded by hundreds of farmers, and their milk. But is this the way dairy farmers should communicate their concerns?

15 000 litres of milk were wasted in the EU quarter by angry farmers in an attempt to make MEPs aware of the low prices of milk, high production costs and the consequences for producers. After that, some farmers decided to set a fire in front of the European Parliament on Place Luxembourg.  

Many have raised their doubts about the actions and the behaviour of angry farmers. Certainly, while so many other people are suffering from famine and poverty, the meaning of these activities is highly provocative and causes a feeling of disappointment rather than one of compassion.

From a communication point of view this is one of the biggest mistakes one can make. There is nothing wrong with ‘shocking’ campaigns, but only when there is a high certainty that the public opinion can be influenced positively and eventually can change its way of thinking. Greenpeace is one of the leaders of this successful hard-selling strategy.

Instead, the milk producers could have spun their message in a totally different way by donating their milk to a charity or an aid organisation. By adding a clear message, reactions on the milk producers’ malaise would have certainly been more reasonable and understanding. A tag line like ‘Charity is worth more than the price of milk ’ could work, no? Just thinking out loud here, of course other suggestions are welcome!

What happened now is the opposite of what milk producers wanted; few people talk about the milk price, more people talk about ‘those idiots who set a fire and wasted thousand of litres of milk in Brussels’. 

This problem of communication not only applies to ‘independent’ protests but also to manifestations of e.g. large trade unions. A big part of our social welfare in Europe as it stands today was negotiated and enforced by trade unions. But the once so powerful organisations have been hit by a loss of credibility, members and power. Why? Because their way of communicating is not clear; the actions are out there but the message remains hidden. 

When the train service is on strike, people are frustrated and blame the unions. If you ask in Belgium what a person thinks about trade unions, 80% will answer: ‘they are always on strike, nothing more!’ But why, for who and for what? These questions remain unanswered.