Q&A with Brian Long of the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs

Brian Long is director public affairs North Carolina’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. In that role, he oversees the department’s communication efforts, including the N.C. State Fair. He is a 1988 graduate of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill. In this interview, conducted by email, Long talks about his job and what to expect at this year’s fair.

Q. Describe your job. What is your typical day like?

A. Unpredictable. It doesn’t matter what I’m planning to get done on any given day, there’s always the possibility that I’ll end up spending my day working on something entirely different.

The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has a lot of service and regulatory responsibilities, so there’s always a possibility of some issue popping up. The unpredictability keeps my job from being boring, but some days can definitely be a challenge.

I usually start my day reviewing news stories related to agriculture or other topics the department has some connection to. I spend a good chunk of time editing news releases, speeches and blog posts written by the other members of the Public Affairs staff. I also do a bit of writing myself, though not as much as I would like because I find myself pulled into a good number of meetings.

Q. It’s almost time for the State Fair. How does your job change in the weeks leading up to this event? In the aftermath?

A. We begin working on the State Fair in the winter, developing a theme and working with the fair’s ad agency on a media plan and creative concepts. We do some publicity during the summer — announcing the theme, updating the website and publicizing the concert lineup and advance ticket sales, which usually start in early August.

We get more focused on the fair in September, planning what I call “events within the event.” Our staff is responsible for organizing a pre-fair media lunch, a press conference focused on safety, an opening ceremony and the annual State Fair Livestock Hall of Fame induction. We move our office from downtown to the fairgrounds a week before the fair opens.

Once the fair opens, our duties involve responding to media requests and helping reporters with story ideas, publicizing winners of livestock and cooking contests and taking photos of the fair. After the fair, we typically deal with any follow-up media requests regarding attendance and our overall impression of the fair, and we announce any remaining livestock show results.

And before we know it, we’re getting ready for the next year. I also should mention that even though we’re absorbed by the fair, we still have responsibilities for assisting the rest of the agriculture department with any communications needs.

Q. Each year, the fair has a theme. This year it’s “the October Original.” How do those themes come about?

A. Caffeine and sugar usually play a role in our theme development. We get together and brainstorm ideas based on the fair’s characteristics.

We strive for themes that create a certain mood or feel. For this year’s theme, we wanted to play up the fact that the fair is a unique North Carolina experience.

Q. Unfortunately, the fair is not just fun, food and games. Last year, an accident on a ride injured several people. This year, a concealed-carry group said it wants to bring guns to the fair, bringing a political debate to the event. How does your office handle these situations?

A. We believe in transparency and accuracy.

When the ride accident happened last year, we immediately began gathering as many known facts as possible so that we could hold a news briefing and put out a news release. The initial focus was on what happened, because we didn’t know when the investigation would determine why it happened. By providing accurate information as quickly as possible, we hope to guard against speculation and rumors.

When situations like this occur, the relationships we’ve built with news media over time are invaluable. We have a track record of being accessible and helpful to the media, and there is a mutual respect for our respective jobs.

Q. Social media must play a role in the fair nowadays. Any advice for those of us visiting on how and what to tweet and post to Instagram this year?

A. Because of the popularity of selfies, we are rebranding our photo-op spots as “selfie stations” this year. We also encourage visitors to post about their favorite things at the fair, whether it’s the food, the exhibits, the rides, the animals or the entertainment. Use #ncstatefair or #octoberoriginal (this year’s theme).