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Improving Public Communications in the Agriculture Industry

Miller, Jefferson
University of Arkansas
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End date
Specifically, this project has two primary objectives:
  1. Investigate agricultural communications and media relations efforts related to current issues in agriculture. a. Describe and evaluate various communication systems and situations related to the food and fiber industry. Examples of situations to be studied include risk and crisis related to food safety; agricultural biotechnology; environmental issues; and emerging markets (such as agritourism). b. Identify barriers to clear communication about agriculture, and propose practical, research-based solutions that can be employed by agricultural communicators.
  2. Improve formal and non-formal educational efforts in agricultural communications, including curriculum and training needs in the discipline of agricultural communications. a. Determine communications-related curricular needs, especially of agricultural communications academic programs and of industry and extension professionals. b. Based on the findings related to objective 2a, develop and evaluate formal and non-formal educational and training materials, including web-based curriculum and experiential learning programs, to help students and professionals develop and improve their communications skills.
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NON-TECHNICAL SUMMARY: The fate of some agricultural innovations and initiatives lies in the agriculture industry s ability to publicize them in a way that wins the trust of the general public. The agricultural community should equip itself with well-qualified professionals in the discipline of agricultural communications. The purpose of this project is to improve the communication abilities of organizations and individuals who desire to educate the public about their agricultural endeavors and who seek to improve and maintain the public image of agriculture.

APPROACH: Investigate current agricultural communications and media relations efforts This objective will be addressed through the following major activities:

  1. Content analysis research examining news articles and other communications efforts related to crisis and risk, new technologies, political issues, and economics in agriculture in U.S. newspapers and other mass media.
  2. Focus group research with consumers of news and other information related to crisis and risk, new technologies, political issues, and economics in agriculture.
  3. Journal articles and conference presentations to disseminate research findings to agricultural communications practitioners and academicians nationally and internationally. Investigate formal and non-formal educational needs related to agricultural communications.
This objective will be addressed through the following major activities:
  1. Surveys and qualitative methods, including focus group research and open-ended interviews, to continue identifying educational needs of students and professionals related to agricultural communications.
  2. Journal articles and conference presentations to disseminate research findings to agricultural communications practitioners and academicians nationally and internationally.
  3. Use of new knowledge about curriculum needs in the development of agricultural communications curriculum at all levels of instruction.

PROGRESS: 2007/01 TO 2007/12
OUTPUTS: Objective 1 Case-study work related to the analysis of news coverage of the Oklahoma-Arkansas water quality dispute came to a close and entered the dissemination stage. Findings resulted in practical advice for communicators involved in the dispute.. Objective 2 The PI has taken a prominent role among a group of Arkansas leaders working together to promote agricultural tourism in the state. The group, calling itself the Arkansas Agritourism Initiative, is involved in developing a media campaign and a series of expositions for agritourism business owners. A USDA NRI grant proposal is under development to identify educational needs and to support educational efforts, including an agritourism business management and communications guidebook, regional workshops, and an on-line Masters-level course in agritourism business management and communications. In addition, a final manuscript related to previous research on genetically modified food labeling was accepted for publication in the Journal of Applied Communications.
PARTICIPANTS: Courtney (Wimmer) Meyers, AECT graduate student; Sarah (Heuer) Hale, AECT graduate student; Macey Panach, AECT graduate student; Jay Mirus, AECT graduate student; Katy Amaral, AECT graduate student; Joe Foster, Winthrop Rockefeller Institute Project Director; Mary Hightower, Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service; Stacey McCullough, Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service; Jennie Popp, UA Agricultural Economics and Agribusiness faculty; Casandra Cox, AECT faculty
TARGET AUDIENCES: Professional communicators and public relations professionals in the agriculture industry are the primary consumers of information related to Objective 1. Audiences at the Association for Communication Excellence in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Life and Human Sciences are key. For Objective 2, especially the ongoing research and educational efforts related to agritourism, the target audiences will include small- and mid-sized farmers who are or who aspire to be agritourism business proprietors.
PROJECT MODIFICATIONS: No modifications at this time.

IMPACT: 2007/01 TO 2007/12
Results related to Objective 1 were disseminated in the form of a Masters thesis and have been submitted for presentation at the Association for Communication Excellence in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Life and Human Sciences. Specifically, the two groups at odds in the issue, the Oklahoma Attorney Generals office and area poultry producers, proved to be following sound, theory-based public relations practices by appointing spokespeople to be the main communications contacts for the media. The primary frames emerging in the media related to this issue included education and responsibility. Conspicuously absent as a frame was safety, a common media frame in crisis situations and usually a desirable frame from a public relations perspective. Finally, it was suggested that University scientists were a source to which reporters should have been directed more often. These findings have important implications for industry communicators as well as for agricultural researchers at universities. Results related to Objective 2 are forthcoming, as the Arkansas Agritourism Initiative makes headway with its needs assessment, communications campaign, and educational efforts.

PROGRESS: 2006/01/01 TO 2006/12/31
Objective #1 Work on the communications aspects of public acceptability of biotechnology continued and came to a close. Practical findings related to consumers' perceptions of food labels on genetically modified foods were reported. Additionally, this research project took a new direction, as crisis communication became the focus. One media study on the newspaper coverage of poultry food recalls provided valuable information about how journalists cover these types of issues. Another media study is underway to examine news coverage of a legal conflict between Oklahoma and the Arkansas poultry industry regarding water quality. Objective #2 Three projects related to academic programs in agricultural communications highlighted the year. A content analysis of the primary journal for the discipline provided good insight into the research foci of agricultural communications. Also, an employer survey of curriculum needs of the agricultural communications undergraduate program at Arkansas provided some guidance for planning the growth of the program. Finally, a project to evaluate the Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences Web site was successful and practical and resulted in useful changes to the College's new web site.

IMPACT: 2006/01/01 TO 2006/12/31
Results related to Objective 1 were shared with researchers and communications practitioners at various conferences. They add significantly to a limited body of knowledge about two important agricultural issues: labeling of genetically modified foods and mass communications during times of crisis. The research on food labeling led to some theoretically derived prototypical labels, which will be useful as industry and regulatory agencies work toward developing a labeling system for GM foods. The media study on coverage of poultry recalls has significant practical value to PR professionals in the poultry industry and has been shared with them through several venues. Results related to Objective 2 led to significant changes in the agricultural communications program and to the Bumpers College Web site. As a result of the employer survey, a philosophical shift has occurred in the agricultural communications curriculum, placing more emphasis on communications related courses and less emphasis on the science and agriculture-related courses. As a result of the Web site evaluation, several changes were made to the beta version of the College Web site to facilitate ease of use for prospective students in particular.

PROGRESS: 2005/01/01 TO 2005/12/31
Objective #1 New projects related to risk and crisis communications resulted in research findings with important implications for marketing and public relations professionals in the food industry. A focus group study to develop and evaluate potential label designs for foods containing genetically modified ingredients concluded that consumers in northwest Arkansas prefer labels that incorporate appeals to both the central and peripheral routes of persuasion. A second project focused on crisis communications characterized in the news coverage of three poultry meat recalls and examined if the frames present in organizational news releases were present in news coverage. Results showed that two key frames identified in the news releases, consumer education and company concern for consumer safety, were, indeed, the frames chosen by print journalists. Objective #2 A study of potential employers' perceptions of curriculum needs in the University of Arkansas agricultural communications program was completed. Findings indicated that the Arkansas undergraduate curriculum should include more emphasis on specific communications skills and possibly less emphasis on agricultural education.

IMPACT: 2005/01/01 TO 2005/12/31
The results of this years GM labeling study were significant and were eagerly consumed by the agricultural communications academic community. Two manuscripts resulting from this study were accepted to regional and national conferences, and one manuscript won the outstanding conference paper at the Southern Association of Agricultural Scientists Agricultural Communications meeting. The results will likely be of interest to industry professionals as well, and plans for communicating the results through trade publications and mainstream media are under development. Likewise, the research on poultry recall communications and on agricultural academic programs was well-received by academic reviewers. The resulting manuscripts were accepted to a national conference and will be presented in Quebec City at the Association for Communication Excellence International Conference in June 2006.

PROGRESS: 2004/01/01 TO 2004/12/30
Objective #1 Work on measuring public perceptions of biotechnology continued as a collaborative project with a multi-state consortium to study the social acceptability of agricultural biotechnology wrapped up. Funds are still needed to support a national survey on public perceptions of agricultural biotechnology. Results from several studies on communicating about biotechnology were shared at a Farm Foundation conference at Tennessee State University, which was attended by agricultural scientists and communicators. Objective #2 A USDA Higher Education Challenge Grant proposal was submitted to fund a national curriculum needs assessment project but was unfunded. The proposal will be submitted again and will be strengthened by a new national effort among agricultural communications faculty to develop a core curriculum for the discipline. Additionally, a curriculum needs study for the University of Arkansas agricultural communications program is in the data collection phase. The statewide survey project focuses on the needs of potential employers of agricultural communications graduates.

IMPACT: 2004/01/01 TO 2004/12/30
Though a national study on public acceptability of agricultural biotechnology still awaits funding, a healthy dialogue among key scientists and communications experts related to communicating biotechnology was facilitated at the November Farm Foundation conference. The conference was attended by about 35 scientists and communicators. Also, though the USDA Challenge Grant proposal for a curriculum needs assessment was unfunded, its development sparked useful discussion among agricultural communications faculty at national meetings and played a role in the current effort among U.S. agricultural communications faculty to decide upon core curriculum areas in the relatively new academic discipline.

PROGRESS: 2003/01/01 TO 2003/12/31
Objective #1 Work on measuring public perceptions of biotechnology continued in the form of a collaborative project with a multi-state consortium to study the social acceptability of agricultural biotechnology. A national survey instrument was developed and pilot tested and is now ready for administration, pending funding. Also, in the process of developing the instrument, a national media content study was performed, and the results identified some trends in popular issues, tone of coverage, and terminology used to refer to the technology. The results were reported in an article in the Journal of Applied Communications (see publications). Objective #2 A collaborative project is underway to develop a set of core curricula for college-level agricultural communications programs. A USDA Higher Education Challenge Grant proposal was submitted to fund a curriculum needs assessment project, which will be followed by curriculum development and evaluation. Collaborating faculty are at the University of Florida and Oklahoma State University.

IMPACT: 2003/01/01 TO 2003/12/31
The national biotechnology survey instrument will provide public relations professionals, journalists, and scientists and others involved in communicating with the public about biotechnology with more evidence to use in characterizing their audiences. The curriculum development project has already sparked some useful discussion among the agricultural communications discipline at national meetings. The project will provide faculty at universities considering adding agricultural communications courses or degree programs with turn-key curriculum for the core courses in the agricultural communications discipline, as identified by academe and industry.

PROGRESS: 2002/01/01 TO 2002/12/31
Objective 1: Two groups of researchers in the UA Department of Agricultural Economics and Agribusiness, both with external funding to study public acceptability of new food-related technologies, recognized the need for focus group research and media content studies in their projects and invited collaboration. Two media content analyses and a focus group study helped describe public opinion and characterized past and present public communications efforts related to (1) food irradiation and (2) agricultural biotechnology. The results of the media content study on food irradiation, which showed new trends in coverage of food irradiation will be published in an upcoming issue of Dairy, Food, and Environmental Sanitation (Thomsen, Longstreth & Miller, in press). The focus group work led to the development of a survey instrument to evaluate the public acceptability of agricultural biotechnology in the United States. Possibly the most notable results to date are findings from a content analysis of U.S. agricultural biotechnology coverage demonstrating that certain terms used in reference to biotechnology can be linked to the rhetorical tone of articles about biotechnology. These findings were shared in the Agricultural Communications section of the meeting of Southern Association of Agricultural Scientists (Miller, Annou, & Wailes, 2002). The presentation was selected as the Outstanding Presentation at the SAAS-Agricultural Communications meeting. Many of the meeting attendees were communications professionals employed by state Extension Services and Experiment Stations, which demonstrates the practical value of this project. One extramural grant proposal (Food Safety Consortium, $38,000, unfunded) was submitted in support of Objective 1, and a second is under development. Objective 2: Research relationships with faculty at universities with new and expanding agricultural communications undergraduate and graduate programs have been developed. A survey instrument originating at Clemson University, which assesses agricultural communications professionals' perceptions of training needs for undergraduate students, is under review by faculty at the University of Arkansas and Texas Tech University. The final instrument will be used in regional surveys. The results of the regional surveys will provide information to guide further curriculum development in undergraduate and graduate agricultural communications academic programs.

IMPACT: 2002/01/01 TO 2002/12/31
The content analysis findings that demonstrated relationships between tone and terminology used in reference to agricultural biotechnology are of particular use for communicators, who must choose terminology carefully in order to communicate most clearly. The findings are equally important for public opinion researchers, who must develop survey questions employing words that are least likely to elicit biased responses. Miller, Annou, and Wailes (2003) work demonstrated that three terms related to agricultural biotechnology are most commonly used in print media: "biotechnology," "genetically modified," and "genetically engineered." "Biotechnology" was least often associated with a negative tone; "genetically modified" was most often associated with a neutral tone; and "genetically engineered" was most often used in scientific reporting, where the tone toward biotechnology was usually positive.

Funding Source
Nat'l. Inst. of Food and Agriculture
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Education and Training
Meat, Poultry, Game