Reducing the Impact of Disasters Through Education
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Building Extension Capacity to Support Effective Risk and Crisis Communications with Agricultural Stakeholders

Julie Smith, University of Vermont, Katherine Waters, University of Minnesota, Traci Naile, Texas A&M University, Shannon Degenhart, Texas A&M University, Faith Peppers, University of Georgia


Nationwide, the need is growing for Extension to develop increased capacity to communicate effectively with agricultural stakeholders, thereby improving the capabilities of agricultural communities to mitigate, prevent, prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters affecting agriculture. Risk and crisis communications are important and distinct avenues for helping stakeholders build resilience to disasters. Risk communication refers to informing people about hazards and what steps they can take in advance of a crisis to reduce the likelihood that they could be affected or reduce the consequences of being affected. Crisis communication refers to messages that are generated in the event of a disaster that explain the situation as it unfolds and help people take immediate protective or reactive actions. Because the needs of agricultural stakeholders may differ considerably from the general public, strategies to create and deliver targeted messages to agricultural audiences must be built into emergency communications plans. Extension is positioned to play a key role in this process.

Given the diversity of agricultural stakeholders, a single message/single messenger model is likely inadequate to generate desired responses uniformly among the target population. “Often, when the common single spokesperson model is used for communicating during a risk or crisis situation, the general public receives the focus of attention and diverse perspectives are not acknowledged” (Sellnow, Ulmer, Seeger, & Littlefield, 2009, p. 33). Communications activities must include consideration of how people see themselves in relation to the things around them and how various social and cultural factors will affect the interpretation of messages. The words and language used to convey messages, the contexts for delivering messages, the choice of spokesperson, and the media used to transmit messages will influence end-users’ interpretations of and responses to messages. Thus, message testing, such as that done by advertisers and marketers, becomes an important element of risk and crisis communications because the message senders may be quite different from those receiving their messages. Effective communications strategies acknowledge multiple perspectives and encourage sharing of information and understanding.

Conveying risk and crisis messages to agricultural producers is a complex process, making communications skills and strategies an important element of Food and Agriculture Safety and Defense. Although providing public information in an emergency is a response task, the plans, procedures, and message templates required to complete this task successfully must be created in advance. A comprehensive plan for reaching various types of farmers and livestock owners requires engaging with stakeholders, conducting research about how best to reach various producers and livestock owners, developing and testing messages, and developing and implementing a plan to disseminate messages through appropriate channels. The Extension System can play an important role in this area of preparedness (Ashlock, 2006; Miller, Israelsen, & Jensen, 2008; Riley, Cartmell, & Naile, 2008).

The Extension Disaster Education Network (EDEN) is well-positioned to leverage existing resources and relationships to develop and provide risk and crisis communications training to Extension educators nationwide. Extension and university communicators collaboratively developed the Ready, Set, Plan crisis response curriculum and conducted a workshop in 2006. A risk and crisis communications curriculum that dovetails with the existing Media Relations Made Easy curriculum is ready to be implemented. A new curriculum could be developed by combining the best of these materials with new research-based strategies for effectively communicating with agricultural stakeholders.

The Extension Disaster Education Network (EDEN) could play a key role in supporting the development and delivery of this training nationwide in a train-the-trainer format engaging agricultural communicators and public information officers, and offer hands-on training for subject matter experts, university faculty, Extension personnel, agricultural business leaders and producers. This training, in conjunction with state-by-state implementation of the “Animal Health Network” concept focused on providing emergency alerts to hard-to-reach livestock owners, would further engage local Extension personnel in the creation and implementation of comprehensive state agricultural crisis communications plans. Such plans are needed to support preparedness, response, and recovery efforts in the event of large-scale emergencies such as radiological or highly contagious disease incidents.

Summary of Literature

In the mid-to-late 1980s, the theory of risk communications appeared in the literature, although people had been communicating about risk management decisions for decades (Morrow, 2009). Over time, risk communications has evolved from the unidirectional concept that “All we have to do is tell them the numbers and what they mean” to the current multidirectional concept of stakeholders as partners in interactive communication. Currently, risk communications is defined as an open, two-way exchange of information and opinion about risk that leads to better understanding and better risk management decisions by all involved. The idea that expert advice would be accepted without question by the public is no longer valid (Morrow, 2009).

Effective communications with people who are affected by large-scale emergencies requires listening to and acknowledging their concerns to build trust and to encourage informed decision-making. Proper risk communications discourages negative behavior and/or encourages constructive responses in crisis situations. In addition to engaging stakeholders, an understanding of risk perception is critical to effective risk communications. Vince Covello from the Center for Risk Communication states that, “There is virtually no correlation between the ranking of hazards by experts and the ranking of those same hazards by the public.” Further work in this area has been done by Peter Sandman and is captured in his concept of Risk = Hazard + Outrage. This led to development of three risk communications paradigms:

  • Precaution advocacy – alerting apathetic people to serious risks.
  • Outrage management – reassuring upset people about small risks.
  • Crisis communications – guiding appropriately upset people through serious risks.

Dutta and Littlefield have recognized the multidimensional, multicultural nature of risk and the challenges it presents to risk communicators. Their work has shown the importance of cultural learning styles and relationship building in communications with diverse audiences. Typically, a trusted source will be more effective in risk communications than someone without a relationship with the audience (Morrow, 2009). For example, research has demonstrated agricultural producers prefer to receive information about disasters and agrosecurity from veterinarians (Ashlock, 2006; Extension Disaster Education Network, 2002; Riley et al., 2008) and from county Extension educators (Extension Disaster Education Network, 2002; Miller, Israelsen, & Jensen, 2008). However, government officials, law enforcement officials, and livestock associations have not been ranked highly as sources of preferred information (Riley et al., 2008).

Finally, the communication methods by which the messages are conveyed are critical to reaching target audiences. In some situations, a poster or news release may be effective; however, as communication channels evolve, web-based and mobile technologies and audiences they reach must be understood. In addition, these methods must be combined with stakeholders’ preferred sources of information (Ashlock, 2006; Riley et al., 2008). The role of Extension in facilitating information dissemination was recognized by Riley et al. (2008), who found that producers strongly preferred and trusted veterinarians as a source of information about animal disease outbreaks but were likely to attend county Extension or livestock association meetings to gather such information. However, Extension educators previously have identified a need for training in various aspects of communications (Erichsen, 2008).

Two existing curricula, Media Relations Made Easy and Risk Communicator Training for Food Defense Preparedness, Response and Recovery, have been developed with agriculture and food issues in mind. Evaluations of the Media Relations Made Easy workshop revealed that attendees were not confident in their ability to create messages. However, message mapping and audience analysis are covered in the food defense Risk Communicator Training. Portions of existing curricula could be incorporated into stakeholder-focused risk and crisis communication training.

Extension's Role

The target EDEN deliverable 10 years from now is a cadre of trained risk and crisis communicators among Extension personnel in every member state and territory. These personnel will be plugged into the communications channels of emergency management, particularly related to agricultural issues. Over the next 10 years, in support of achieving this goal, Extension professionals would lead the following activities:

  • Host train-the-trainer sessions at upcoming national Extension meetings (NAE4-H, NACAA, NEAFCS, ANREP, NACDEP, ACE, Galaxy).
  • Engage with commodity groups, Farm Bureaus, and other agricultural organizations to build understanding of risk and crisis communications principles and to identify spokespersons.
  • Collaborate with state emergency response agencies, agricultural leaders, and public information officers at all levels to develop state-specific agricultural communications plans.
  • Host message-mapping clinics in face-to-face and virtual formats.
  • Offer an online course with required assignments and certificates of completion.

A train-the-trainer approach is likely the most effective investment of resources to develop capacity in this area. This is the model followed by other EDEN courses such as Animal Agrosecurity and Emergency Management and On Guard, which are offered online. The Strengthening Community Agrosecurity Planning curriculum is currently certifying trainers through in-person workshops. Multiple formats allowing access synchronously and asynchronously, in-person and self-directed, would allow learnerswho are prospective trainersthe most flexibility in accessing course content while still having opportunities for interaction and feedback.

The first steps in conducting these activities include:

  • Establish an Extension-led team of communications trainers.
  • Collaborate with agricultural scientists and graduate students who have conducted or would like to conduct research and evaluation related to stakeholder engagement, communications strategies, message development, and curriculum development.
  • Secure funding. The Food and Agriculture Defense Initiative, NIFA Special Needs, USDA Risk Management Agency, and USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension are potential federal funding sources for increasing capacity for risk and crisis communications skills and networks in agriculture. The National Center for Food Protection and Defense (NCFPD), one of the national Homeland Security Centers of Excellence, is another potential source of funding.

Extension efforts in this area offer opportunities for communications and community-participatory research and graduate student involvement from several disciplines such as agricultural communications, education and leadership programs; community development and economics programs; or other agricultural and natural resources programs.


Much work has been done to develop models for effective risk and crisis communications. The Extension System is ideally suited for facilitating and providing such communications to agricultural stakeholders because it has established connections with them. Ensuring that targeted messages reach agricultural stakeholders is a role that Extension personnel can fill. The goal of EDEN is “reducing the impact of disasters through education.” Education before or between disasters can be expanded to include concepts of risk communication. In addition, Extension personnel can facilitate communications planning and preparedness, thereby facilitating crisis communications. Extension’s engagement in this area can enhance its profile with state response agencies while at the same time enhancing the resilience of rural communities.


Ashlock, M. A. (2006). The uncertainty of agroterrorism: A study of Oklahoma beef producers' risk perceptions, information sources and source trust in the pre-crisis stage (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No. 3211351).

Dutta, M. J. (2007). Communicating about culture and health: Theorizing culture-centered and cultural sensitivity approaches. Communication Theory, 17(3), 304-328.

Erichsen, A. R. (2008). Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service educators’ accessibility to resources and training regarding communications and marketing: A needs assessment (Master’s thesis). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No. 1453038).

Extension Disaster Education Network. (2002). [Homeland security survey of ag and hort producers].

Unpublished raw data.

Miller, R. L., Israelsen, C., & Jensen, J. (2008). Agroterrorism: A mixed methods study examining the attitudes and perceptions of Utah producers. Journal of Agricultural Safety and Health, 14(3), 272-282.

Morrow, B. H. (2009). Risk behavior and risk communication: Synthesis and expert interviews. Retrieved from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Coastal Services Center website:

Riley, K., Cartmell, D. D. & Naile, T.L. (2008). Kansas beef feedlot managers’ trusted sources of information concerning an agroterrorism event. Paper presented at the 106th annual meeting of the Southern Association of Agricultural Scientists, Atlanta, GA.

Sandman, P. (2000). Open communication. In E. Mather, P. Stewart, & T. Ten Eyck (eds.), Risk communication in food safety: Motivating and building trust. East Lansing: National Food Safety and Toxicology Center, Michigan State University.

Sellnow, T. L., R. R. Ulmer, M. W. Seeger, R. S. Littlefield. (2009). Effective Risk Communication: A Message-Centered Approach. New York: Springer Science and Business Media.

Last Updated:12/14/2011 7:57 AM

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