I had the chance on July 1 to chat with Ray Gilmer, vice president of communications for United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C.

8:59 AM Tom Karst:  Hi Ray

 Ray Gilmer:  Good morning Tom.

9:01 a.m. Tom: Thanks for taking part in another Fresh Talk chat. What do you find yourself working on this week?

9:04 a.m. Ray: It's a short week here in Washington, with Friday being a federal holiday, so the issues communications work is probably a bit slower than usual.

9:05 a.m. This week is a good time for me to help focus on preparations on the Washington Public Policy Conference, September 9-11.

9:06 a.m. Tom: What is it like coming back to a produce association - particularly United - after your time at BASF? Are you getting acclimated to the city - you probably knew the issues already....

9:16 a.m. Ray: It's great to be at United and returning to issues work for the produce industry. It's been very gratifying to hear from so many friends and colleagues in the business. I think the time I spend with BASF was valuable in that it let me work in a very large multinational corporate environment -- big issues such as biotech acceptance and sustainability (in the US and EU). Moreover, because so much of the agchem industry is focused on the big program crops, such as field corn and soybeans, I got to work closely with agricultural interests outside of fruits and vegetables. I think that experience gives me a valuable perspective as the industry tackles challenges down the road. That said, I am very happy to be back working on produce industry issues. I spent lots of time in Washington when I was at FFVA, so the adjustment has been relatively easy.

9:18 a.m. Tom: Interesting thoughts. As you came into the United post in April - and of course continuing now - how do you define what you do? How much is internal focused and how much is externally focused?

9:30 a.m. Ray: It depends on the day. As you might expect, member needs are a top priority, and my very first week at United involved providing communications counsel on a recall issue. One of the reasons I was attracted to this post was the chance to have an impact across so many functions of the association. Tom Stenzel has challenged me to find ways to bolster United's value to the industry in many ways, and communications can have a real impact on a number of fronts. United's image and reputation among policymakers, industry leaders (domestic and international), influential media (such as The Packer) and others is critical to getting the job done in Washington and beyond. So, to answer your question, I believe I can help the members and staff at United reach the internal goals that support our external objectives. I think you'll start seeing a difference in writing, advertising, member communications, relations with key media. There's plenty to do, but it's all fun.

9:35 a.m. Tom: Well put. Here at The Packer, many have started Twitter accounts,(perhaps with a little prompting.) I know United also has a Twitter acct. .What's your feeling about "social media" in relation to what you are trying to accomplish. With United staff pressed for time, is it important or perhaps optional for them to try out these new media channels? What's your take on industry interest in "twitter" and other social media outlets?

9:49 a.m. Ray: Social media are a great tool, if perhaps a moving target. It's just one more chapter in the segmentation of communication outlets. A generation ago, the options for getting a message out were limited, but each one probably had a significant audience. Today, the audiences are fragmented, and the mainstream media channels (print, broadcast) are increasingly using social media as content sources. Moreover, the blogs, Facebooks and Twitters empower millions of people to create their own content. If they're good, they'll likely get an audience. You no longer have to own a printing press or a transmitter to have influence. How will our industry participate? I think we already are, especially when decision makers and key influencers are participating (or at least reading) social media outlets. If a young staffer at the Ag Committee reads something in your blog or the United Twitter page, that information might make its way into a conversation about policy. It might generate an in-depth discussion with lawmakers. The same could happen at USDA or FDA, or at any number of state agencies. Now, how do we manage the time to use these new tools? Good question, but I don't believe we can ignore them. I've been really impressed with the professionalism and energy here at United for embracing social media and other technologies -- this is a great team and we will always be exploring ways to keep our members and key audiences informed and engaged.

9:50 a.m. Tom: Ray. Thanks for your time and insightful comments. I won't keep you any longer today. Thanks again for taking time for this.

9:52 a.m. Ray: Tom. It was a pleasure. Thanks for the invitation. Would enjoy doing it again soon.