October 1994 // Volume 32 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA1

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Effective Public Relations in Extension

Communicating the impacts and accomplishments of Cooperative Extension programs is vital for the continued support of these programs by legislators, community leaders, and the general public. This article outlines the steps which one county office followed in developing and implementing a proactive public relations program, which resulted in a 116% ($75,000) increase in local support for the office. Included in the article are some simple, low-cost ideas which almost any county Extension office could implement.

Mike Hogan
Extension Agent and Assistant Professor
Agriculture, Natural Resources
Ohio State University Extension
Carrollton, Ohio
Internet address: hogan.1@osu.edu

Communicating the impacts and accomplishments of Cooperative Extension programs is vital for the continued support of these programs by legislators, community leaders, and the general public. Simply doing good work and helping people to help themselves will not maintain or expand financial support and positive public opinion in a climate of scarce resources.

Several studies have found that legislators and the general public lack a clear understanding of the mission (Adkins, 1981) and funding (Blalock, 1964) of Cooperative Extension. In fact, research in one state has indicated that a majority of state legislators view Cooperative Extension as a public service agency, rather than an educational institution (Miller, 1986).


Beginning in 1988, the Carroll County office of Ohio State University Extension began an organized, proactive public relations program. The overall objective of this program was to increase the effectiveness of the entire county Extension program by increasing the understanding of and support for Extension by county residents and legislators. Specific goals included the following:

  1. Make the general public more aware of Extension and the impacts of local Extension Programs.

  2. Increase the public support and financial resources for the local Extension program.

  3. Make legislators (county, state, federal) more aware of the impacts of local Extension programs.

  4. Increase the size and scope of the local Extension program.

To accomplish these goals, Extension staff members sometimes had to confront paradigms regarding how resources were allocated. Spending a few thousand dollars on public relations projects and toll-free telephone lines is not yet routine practice for Extension professionals, but was necessary to communicate our message to users and non-users of Extension programs, legislators, and other community leaders.

Innovative Communication Methods

One very simple but effective communication tool that was developed was a periodic report to legislators. Currently titled "Priority Press," this two-page (front and back) report is distributed to county commissioners, state legislators, U.S. Senators, Congressional Representatives, and Extension Advisory Committee members three to four times per year. This communication tool has proven to be a highly effective, low-cost method to keep lay leaders and legislators informed of Extension programs and impacts.

Recognizing that an effective public relations program should promote two-way communication, attempts were made to make it as easy as possible for the public to communicate with county staff members. To facilitate this communication, a toll-free telephone number was established and marketed with a specially developed refrigerator magnet. These 3" x 3" magnets contain the Ohio State University Extension logo, as well as local and toll- free telephone numbers to call for information. Several thousands of these magnets have been distributed to traditional users of Extension programs and to the general public. These magnets are being used in homes, farms, and places of business throughout the community.

Another successful method used to communicate with the public is a high-quality yearly "Report to the People." This professionally prepared yearly report of impacts is distributed to the general public each December. In 1994, a combination calendar/report format was used. This format served two purposes: first, it provided a yearly calendar listing of Extension events, and second, it featured a full 12 pages of Extension program impacts. These pages were also used to highlight the work of Extension volunteers and to thank various legislators for their support.

Several thousand copies of this calendar/report were distributed to Extension program users, legislators, and the general public through direct mail and giveaways at libraries, feed mills, grocery stores, etc. This has proven to be an excellent way to educate both users and non-users of Extension programs about the breadth and scope of the total Extension program. Even repeated users of a particular Extension program may not be fully aware of the scope of other Extension programming efforts.

Many other approaches to tell Extension's story have been used including:

  1. Tours to highlight Extension program impacts for county commissioners and other legislators.

  2. A yearly "Program Topics Brochure" distributed to various community groups.

  3. Special newspaper supplements that highlight Extension.

  4. Displays about Extension at non-Extension community events.

  5. A Town Meeting conducted by Extension to help inventory and prioritize community needs.

Results of the Project

The effects of this on-going public relations and education project are cumulative and long-term in nature. One of the most tangible positive results has been an increase in county funding for Extension. From 1987 to 1994, funding for Extension increased by 116% or $75,000 in the county. It should also be noted that this increase came during a period when county commissioners had extremely limited funds to allocate, and were forced to "level-fund" or decrease many other county programs and offices. Commissioners apparently believe that Extension programs are more valuable or critical than others which they fund.

The size and scope of the Extension program has also increased. Between 1987 and 1992, the size of the county Extension staff has increased from 3.5 FTE's to 5.8 FTE's. Both the quality and quantity of Extension programs offered locally have also increased. Additional funding has also been used to upgrade equipment and improve communications technology, including the purchase of a satellite dish and portable computers.

Another benefit of these public relations efforts is the closer working relationship which has been developed with legislators and county commissioners. It is not uncommon for county commissioners to seek assistance from Extension to solve various community problems and issues not typically related to our traditional program areas.

People Involvement is Critical

The key to the success of this project seems to have been the involvement of lay leaders throughout the process. The entire Extension staff has teamed up with advisory committee members and other lay leaders to promote Extension. It is the responsibility of these citizens, and not Extension staff, to secure funding from county commissioners. Each year, a group of citizens discusses the importance of Extension program impacts as they present Extension's annual budget request to county commissioners.

One of the most critical components of involving citizens in this process is to identify the most appropriate and effective community opinion leaders who might help. One year, direct quotations and testimonials from lay leaders and 4-H members were used to document the impact and value of Extension programs in a "Report to the People." These citizens are respected opinion leaders in the community and proved to be very effective advocates for Extension.

What Can You Do?

There is no limit to the number of creative approaches which Extension professionals and lay leaders can use to make legislators and the general public aware of Extension programs impacts. Why not sit down with fellow staff members or advisory committee members and ask yourselves these questions:

  1. Do legislators in your area know how Extension impacts the lives of their constituency? All Extension professionals must be able to document programs impacts. Counting "noses" does little to document our effectiveness and substantiate the value of public funding.

  2. Do legislators know how their constituents perceive Extension? Nobody is more qualified to tell legislators about the effectiveness and usefulness of Extension's programs than participants themselves. For several years the State Extension Advisory Committee in Ohio has conducted a Legislative Aides Tour for aides of Ohio Senators and Congressional Representatives. This successful activity provides an opportunity for users of Extension programs to show legislative assistants the impact of Extension programs and the value of federal funding for Extension.

  3. When and how do you communicate with legislators? If the only time you discuss the accomplishments of Extension programs is during a yearly budget request, your effectiveness will be limited.

  4. Are there other groups who can help communicate with legislators? Perhaps we in Extension should consider working more closely with advisory groups for research and resident instruction when communicating with legislators. It is often difficult to separate the benefactors of Extension, research, or resident instruction. Perhaps a unified effort (much like the efforts of CARET at the national level) would produce greater benefits for all components of land grant universities.

How you answer these questions will likely determine whether or not your Extension program could use a boost from a public relations project.


Adkins, R. (1981). Motherhood, apple pie, state legislators and Extension. Journal of Extension, XIX.

Blalock, T. C. (1964). What legislators think of Extension. Journal of Extension, II.

Miller, J. (1986). South Carolina legislators' perception of the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Clemson University, South Carolina.

Author Notes

Additional staff members contributing to the success of the public relations program include: Cindy Bond-Zielinski, Vicky Piechuta, Jane Carpenter, Michelle Crall, Cookie McGhee.