Fall 1993 // Volume 31 // Number 3 // To The Point // 3TP2

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It's Time to Tell the Extension Story

We must be willing to commit to getting the message out. The message we send can portray an organization that's relevant, responsive, and visionary, or one that's viewed as unresponsive and outdated. We can frame the message, but clientele, decision makers, and the general public will form the image.

Paul D. Warner
Assistant Director
Cooperative Extension Service
University of Kentucky-Lexington
Internet address: pwarner@ca.uky.edu

As one who has worked hard over a number of years to improve our state's marketing effort, I'd readily agree with Paluszek that Extension suffers from a reputation deficit. It comes as no surprise Extension is perceived to be better at carrying out effective programs than at communicating that fact to our "customers" and decision makers. We've emphasized the development and implementation of effective, quality educational programs rather than telling our story.

For many in the Extension family, marketing has carried a negative stigma. Marketing efforts have often been seen as self- serving, as a combination of selling, slick advertising, and public relations. However, marketing (not sales) includes the concepts of determining client needs, developing programs responsive to those needs, targeting programs to specific audiences, repositioning the organization, coalition building, and the process of communicating information about the organization, its programs, and their impact. It's this last part that has often been slighted. Even though we have a cadre of communication specialists, they're primarily dedicated to the production function-carrying out the program rather than communicating its impact. We as a system must be willing to commit to not only producing excellent educational programs but also to getting the message out.

I'm sure sometimes we've been guilty of ignoring changing needs and have charged ahead in our efforts to carry out an outdated program in the face of its declining importance and participation. The danger is that we're so intensely focused on implementation that crucial issues pass us by. We may be chasing ants when we get stepped on by an elephant. Likewise, Extension has been criticized for developing a cozy relationship with a group of loyal followers and not being overly concerned with the large potential customer pool out there. But, we're doing better. Strategic planning and the identification of critical issues and National Initiatives have gone a long way toward making us relevant and stretching our limits to focus on the needs of more and different audiences.

King makes much of the coupling of Extension and Experiment Station Systems in a combined promotional effort. Definite commonalities encourage such a team effort and where joint interests are present, the land grant system should be advanced as a single entity. But the uniqueness of the partners in the marriage must also be recognized. Research agendas often are too narrow to serve Extension well. Within the Experiment Station System, research on such important topics as health care, youth at risk, and waste management is limited. To ignore the importance of these topics in the promotion of Extension's image would be to disregard critical elements of its agenda. As much as I agree that Extension and research ought to work closely together, there comes a point where each has to establish its own unique identity.

I was disappointed to learn that Paluszek was unable to find any quantifiable data about Extension clientele. Either he didn't look very hard, since articles have appeared in the Journal of Extension and we published a book on that topic, or we've done an inadequate job of disseminating the results of studies that have been done. What bothers me more is our lack of information on those who are not our "customers." We need to know why we're not speaking to their needs.

King concludes that communicators can get the job done, that with additional resources they can handle the task of developing a positive image for AES and CES. Of one thing I am sure: no one individual or group can market Extension. The marketing of Extension and its programs is everyone's job. Every leader, every agent, every specialist, every assistant, and every administrator contribute to Extension's image. Everything we do speaks. It's not a matter of whether we communicate; it's a question of what, how, and to whom we communicate.

The messages we send can portray an organization that's relevant, responsive, and visionary, or one that's viewed as unresponsive and outdated. We can frame the message, but clientele, decision makers, and the general public will form the image.