by Springfield Lewis/Louisiana Seafood News
The 13 new members of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board inherit an organization proven many times over as an advocate for the state’s commercial fishing community – in good times and especially bad.
They begin their terms representing six distinct industries: crab, finfish, oysters, shrimp, alligator and crawfish. And as diverse as those industries might be, the board’s overall effectiveness will come down to its ability to work together to benefit the entire community of 12,000+ fishermen.
That’s the vision behind its creation 30 years ago by the Mike Voisin, according to Ewell Smith, its executive director. Voisin, who passed away earlier this year, was the chief executive of Motivatit Seafoods.
“In the 1980s, Mike created the board, believing these industries were more powerful together than they could ever be alone,” said Smith, who’s led the seafood organization for the past 12 years.
“Mike’s company was one of the larger oyster processors in the state and the nation. He understood, however, that if the shrimp industry was strong, then oysters would be, too. And if crabs were in a good position, oysters also would benefit. Given that, the board’s true power today draws from all six industries across the state – and not just one parish.”
Rebuilding the Brand
Seafood is a $2.4 billion industry in Louisiana. While well-respected, the Louisiana brand continues to rebuild in the aftermath of the BP oil spill, Smith said. Since the 2010 disaster, Louisiana seafood has made steady progress in changing consumers’ perceptions for the positive.
For instance, at the height of the spill, 90 percent of consumers surveyed expressed concern about the safety of Louisiana seafood. Today, that figure has dropped dramatically, with now only 20 to 30 percent of consumers being concerned.
And that number continues to trend downward, which Smith said is good news regarding the board’s efforts to educate consumers about the premium quality of Louisiana seafood.
Introduced with the Louisiana Seafood Board’s help last year, the state’s new certification program for its wild and authentic seafood also is making inroads to strengthen and broaden the brand. It certifies seafood that’s caught, landed and processed in the state.
While Smith praises the program, he sees more work for the board to do here – as well as leading seafood in other important areas. To that end, Smith outlines five points the new directors need to address after being confirmed by the Louisiana Senate in June.
Issues Facing New Seafood Board
Develop the next generation of leadership from Louisiana’s fishing community – throughout the entire business cycle all across the state.
This business is built on generations of family fishermen, veteran business people and longstanding communities, where seafood is synonymous with making a living. The combined expertise runs wide and deep.
With a whole new board, Smith looks to incoming members to rise to the occasion, leveraging relationships to find fresh talent in the next generation. He believes leadership needs to be cultivated throughout the seafood business cycle – from the harvesters to the processors to the people who prepare and sell the products, chefs and restaurateurs.
Different perspectives will give the board a balanced view of the business, broader insight and a shared voice.
Prepare a crisis communications team of new board members – now.
Many of the retiring board members played critical roles as crisis communicators – starting with Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike, then the BP oil spill, and recently Hurricane Isaac. In short, they knew the drill.
Given the frequency of disasters, the time to prepare new members is now, said Smith, who’s been there on the front lines from Katrina through Isaac. The board needs to assess who will make great spokespeople, can be on point for their communities and serve as experts for their industries.
For instance, during the BP oil spill, the board coordinated more than 3,000 interviews in just three months. That hard-won experience needs to be shared so incoming members can step in to:
- Aid in the recovery of fishing communities.
- Fill the news vacuum before the media does with inaccurate or damaging stories.
- Be a public face for the board in times of need.
Develop a core of leadership who can communicate well with policy makers at state and national levels – as well as with the White House.
Less than two weeks after Katrina hit, Voisin and Smith were the first to go to Washington, D.C., to find funding for the recovery of Louisiana’s fishing community.
“Mike was an incredible mentor,” Smith said. “Working with and learning from him, we led the way to helping secure over $130 million. We knew how to build the coalitions to bring in the support and make that happen.”
Smith said Voisin understood two things well: First, the need to get to D.C. right away to tell the seafood story. And second, to tell it with great conviction – a hundred times over – until they were heard.
“And we did it again and again and again, following every crisis. We weren’t just visiting Congress, we are also visiting and working with the White House.”
Now, Smith said they need to identify those same storytelling skills in new board members, guiding them to influence legislators and officials at all levels of government.
Before Katrina, Smith said the board always worked with many partners to promote seafood. While the board always appreciated those relationships, it wasn’t until the 2005 hurricane that it came to truly value how important they would become and remain today.
“We turned to so many for help to leverage our efforts,” Smith said. “That was the only way it was ever possible to help begin with the rebuilding process following Katrina.”
In good times, those relationships also proved financially sound through joint activities that capitalized on the board’s funds.
Smith is quick to point out the pivotal role that chefs in the state and elsewhere played in showing the world the quality of Louisiana seafood after the BP oil spill. “They got it right away and stepped up.”
The Great American Seafood Cook-Off, produced with NOAA for the past 10 years, has created long-term relationships nationwide with chefs, who are advocates for Louisiana seafood.
Beyond them, Smith looks to the board to find more valued partners and inventive ways to promote the brand.
Cultivate a wave of new ideas – within an ever-changing landscape of the Gulf seafood industry.
Over the years, the board created marquee events that took on a life of their own. One is the Louisiana Seafood Festival, which last year attracted more than 100,000 people.
The Louisiana Seafood Cook-Off, now in its sixth year, and the Great American Seafood Cook-Off have proved to be high-profile forums, where chefs gained fame while showcasing seafood dishes to millions. The event has been key in building a long-term working relationship between the Board and the U.S. chef community, enabling the Board to build a team of Louisiana seafood ambassadors across the country.
“This board will bring a whole batch of new ideas to market the product and also help us see new ways to deal with crisis issues as they arise,” said Smith. “That energy will be exciting to harness.”