Fall 1993 // Volume 31 // Number 3 // To The Point // 3TP3

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Survival Depends on Reaching Influential Audiences

Image has two components: awareness and favorability. A lingering attitude exists among some faculty members, administrators, and land-grant communicators against marketing their organizations and especially against image building. ...survival depends on reaching those "influential audiences."

David Jenkins
Head, Department of Agricultural Communications
North Carolina State University- Raleigh
Internet address: djenkins@wolf.ces.ncsu.edu

When Paluszek says that the Extension Services and Experiment Stations have a "reputation deficit," he's really saying they have an image problem. The problem isn't they have an unfavorable image; they don't. The problem is they have no image at all (or only a very weak and fuzzy one) with certain vitally important groups that will have a significant impact on their future.

Image has two components: awareness and favorability. Those individuals and groups who are aware of our Extension and research organizations generally view them favorably. Warner and Christenson have documented that the Extension Service is seen positively by clientele most familiar with its programs and services.1 What we need to do, then, is identify what Paluszek calls "influential audiences" and deliver information to them in a way that will increase their awareness of our organizations and help them view those organizations favorably.

Identifying the key audiences correctly will be one of the factors of success. King implies that those are our "customers," the users of the educational programs that Extension Services deliver or of the new knowledge that the Experiment Stations generate. Our customers often don't have a significant direct influence on continued support for our organizations. The pregnant teenager in the inner city isn't likely to mention the value of Extension's nutrition program to her state legislator. The scientist in Montana whose research program benefits from a discovery made by an Experiment Station scientists in Georgia isn't likely to communicate that information to her senator. We're here to educate and to create new knowledge for the public good. We make our appeals on the basis of principle, inviting people to become wiser, better educated, more productive citizens. The private sector exists to make a profit, typically by appealing to appetites, desires, fantasies, and fears.

Now it's true that certain techniques can and should be learned from people in private enterprise. It's also fair to say that we're not doing enough research to ensure our programs and communications are having the desired effect. But I don't think our "image deficit" can be blamed on communicators' failure to adopt the corporate marketing model. Land grant universities are making a painful transition from the days when farming occupied most of the population to a time when it will occupy less than two percent of all Americans. That transition isn't complete. Too often Extension communicators are placed in the position of promoting programs designed for another era. And yes, it's true that "we're doing great things." We all want to be cheerleaders for our organizations. But we can't let that zeal blind us to the possibilities that some of our critics are occasionally right.

As King observes, we believe we know our "customers," and, in fact, think we know them very well. In a sense, we create our clientele. Particularly in Extension work, we consciously tailor programs to specific audiences. Identifying clientele appropriate to our mission and assessing their learning needs is the first step in the Extension program development model. What we don't do as well is identify key "influential audiences," that ultimately decide whether our organizations thrive or fold, and communicate to them the value of our products and services. Why don't we? There are several reasons. One is fragmentation: we're working with a network of administrators and communicators spread across the nation and coordinated only loosely, if at all. As King rightly observes, a concerted effort to develop teamwork across state lines will solve the fragmentation problem. We're more fortunate than many public agencies in that our state Experiment Stations and Extension Services have a cadre of skilled and experienced communicators dedicated to getting the word out. Working individually, they can address our image problem on the local and state levels. Cooperating as a team, they can address it on the national level. It will take some leadership and effort to develop that national team spirit, but it can be done.

The second reason is an internal attitude problem. A lingering attitude exists among some faculty members, administrators, and land grant communicators against marketing their organizations and especially against image building. They believe advancing our image is unethical or unprofessional. Or, they cling to the naive belief that if we do good work, if we produce goods and services of value to society, our efforts will be noticed and rewarded. As budgets are slashed in one state after another, this belief is gradually dying. Concomitantly, among some communicators, there's a belief our job is to disseminate "hard" information of value to our clientele such as reports of research results for the scientific community, pest management updates for farmers, or waste management information for community leaders. Advancing the image of the organization is seen as an encroachment on time that could be better spent in more conventional ways. As land grant communication units are decimated and dismantled, this belief is also gradually dying.

Attitudes will continue to change as more and more faculty members, administrators, and communicators become acutely aware that survival depends on reaching those "influential audiences." But the will to succeed isn't enough. National teamwork isn't enough. As leaders and communicators, we must retool ourselves. How many of our land grant communicators are well-read in the principles and practices of marketing for nonprofit organizations? How many know how to critically analyze audiences, or "publics," with which their organization interacts and to select those that hold the keys to their future? These skills will be crucial to building the awareness and favorability comprising a positive image. Through our professional societies and our communication units, we must provide opportunities and incentives for land grant communicators to improve their marketing communication knowledge and skills. We need the national perspective and national teamwork King advocates. But we must also be sure our communicators and their leaders have the attitudes and skills essential for success.


1. Paul D. Warner and J. A. Christenson, The Cooperative Extension Service: A National Assessment (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1984).