Fall 1993 // Volume 31 // Number 3 // To The Point // 3TP1
Facing the Image Deficit
...reputation is sound performance well communicated to, and appreciated by, influential audiences. We're doing great things. Our deficit is in how we tell people about it. Not enough of the right people know we're doing the right things.
The room has an air of relaxation, sport shirts and soft shoes abound. The speaker at the front of the room, however, wears more typical Manhattan attire and his message seems similarly outside traditional discussion boundaries for Extension and Experiment Station directors.
"The Land-Grant System is in an epic competition-dare I say a life and death competition-for the hearts and minds of America." The message, reminiscent of the motivational rhetoric from Roosevelt and Churchill, seems to ring true with the group.
"Priorities are shifting. We are approaching 'zero-based' public policy. That means 'don't tell me about what you did for me yesterday, tell me how you're going to help me today and tomorrow."
The speaker is John Paluszek, CEO of Ketchum Public Relations of New York City. His task is to provide an outsider's view of the Experiment Station-Extension System. What's our image with people who don't have to care about us? According to Paluszek, not great.
The cornerstone of Paluszek's remarks is our "reputation deficit." According to Paluszek, reputation is sound performance well communicated to, and appreciated by, influential audiences. He says a two-month review of what's happening in the land grant system convinced him that we don't have a deficit in performance. We're doing great things. Our deficit is in how we tell people about it. Not enough of the right people know we're doing the right things. That's pretty tough to swallow for someone like me who's spent the better part of my professional career trying to make sure this is not the case.
So, on a pleasant August day, a group of more than 50 Experiment Station and Extension directors spent an afternoon in Minneapolis building a consensus about whether this concern is real, and if so, what to do about it. The group agreed. The problem is real; and if we don't do something about it "we're dead."
But, what to do about it is the question.
Currently, a joint committee representing the Extension Committee on Organization and Policy (ECOP) and the Experiment Station Committee on Organization and Policy (ESCOP) is meeting to develop an action plan that will address the image deficit. As a member of that committee, I can tell you, we have our hands full.
Telling the stories of Extension and agricultural research are priorities at every land grant institution in the country in one way or another. Following traditional land grant system thinking, the combined efforts of each communication operation in the country ought to be enough to create a credible, effective national image. So, why is the outcome of all our combined effort not capable of overcoming the reputation deficit? Perhaps we need to test some of our basic perceptions.
For instance, what do we know about our "customers"? Paluszek says he could find no quantifiable data about who our audience and customers are. He's right. Extension and Experiment Stations have typically relied much too heavily on the fact that "we know our audience." After all, we've been serving them faithfully for 75 years. They know us, we know them, and it's worked out pretty well that way, right? Well, maybe not.
One indisputable point from Paluszek stands out. He represents a portion of our clientele-potential customers, if you will-who really know little about us and seemingly care even less. If we're to survive, we must evolve and change in response to our potential customers' demands.
Benchmarking is a hot management practice now. You check out how others do what you do. Find those who do certain things best so you can emulate. Along that line, companies who make money directly from the kind of public affairs and communications we do, dare not move without significant audience analysis and survey work. They risk losing their entire business by making a decision without adequate information. Why should we be any different?
If you look around at the number of land grant institutions facing dramatic budget cuts and loss of personnel, perhaps the similarities are there. The only difference may be a little greater delay in the ultimate, possibly inescapable, outcome.
Neville Clarke of Texas A&M and executive director of the Southern Region for ESCOP characterizes our land grant institution audience as a continuum. On one end, the perception is the land grant system is the source of all that's positive in the world of food, fiber, and natural resources; on the other end, we're viewed much less charitably. As Clarke puts it, the "increasingly broad zone in between of unawareness, apathy, and antipathy about Experiment Stations and Extension Services and the role they play in society" is what we must focus on.
He's right. And that's the part of the audience we know the least about.
So how do we begin to play in this new game? Hire a public relations firm like Ketchum and let them solve our problems? Probably not. We're paying for considerable expertise right now within the system. Even by shifting significant resources, I doubt there will ever be enough money available to "do it right." However, let's not lose sight of what selected individuals from operations like Ketchum might bring to our team.
That is, in fact, the key word: team. I believe we must do it cooperatively. The CES and AES systems are part of the "lan - grant team." Now is the time to reap at least one of the benefits of a team effort. Synergy must be part of how we create more efficiency. And efficiency will be required to find the time to make this work.
Finding the issues and projects that can be dealt with cooperatively will require some compromise for the traditional players in the process. Public affairs communication for Experiment Stations focuses on developing a positive image for agricultural research. Similar effort for Extension tends to focus on the actual process of education, expecting the positive image will naturally fall into place if you educate well.
Reconciling the outward differences shouldn't be that difficult. As we scratch the surface, these differences begin to disappear. The image of Extension must be promoted just as the image of agricultural research must be promoted. The reputation deficiency must be eliminated.
Both ECOP and ESCOP have developed national communication committees to review what to do on a national scale. The ESCOP plan calls for a relatively horizontal structure of project-based communication hubs around the country. The Extension structure appears more vertical, drawing its strength from the federal/state/local network of offices in every state and virtually every county of the country. There are good examples of our state-based system crossing state lines to address national concerns. The various iterations of the FACT committee, the national CES Distance Learning committee, and the ESCOP/CSRS Committee on Communication are among them.
However, for the assault on the image deficit to be effective, it will take a greater commitment from directors and communicators. To find the solutions we need, it will take an interesting combination of factors yet to be found in our system. It will take the best communicators we have, thrown together in a mix we've not tried before. It will take new coalitions. It will take consulting communicators at every institution. It will take a cooperative effort. It will take a national perspective. It will take directors who trust their communication staffs to get the job done. It will take communication staffs who can get the job done.
To have a direct impact on the reputation deficit identified by Paluszek, it will take money, spent on well-defined, well- executed national projects that may not have a direct impact in any individual state.
The reputation deficiency must be eliminated.