Blog 8: Case studies and theory in agricultural communication research

This week we read two articles from JAC. The Palmer, Irlbeck, Meyers, and Chambers reading introduced us to the concept of case studies in agricultural communication research. The use of case studies is a common practice in agricultural communication research. Case studies offer an opportunity to examine a phenomenon or issue in-depth in order to understand it. In some instances this may mean developing new theory or identifying how theory applies in a new context or setting. When a phenomenon or issue arises, a researcher may notice a tie to an existing theory and use the theory as a guide to research the phenomenon or issue. The latter is similar to this study, although new recommendations based on this analysis were presented. This is applied research at its finest; this is a research study that investigates a crisis in order to develop recommended practices for future crises. These authors chose excellence theory to guide their investigation. Why was this an appropriate choice? Is there another theory we have studied that would have been useful in guiding this research? Explain your reasoning.

The Abrams and Meyers article demonstrates how theory can be utilized in a study to investigate a specific population and determine if this unique population reacts in the theorized way. In this article the authors utilized two theories: social amplification of risk and gatekeeping. These authors provided much more information on the theories they utilized than the first article. In a study that is testing theory, it is of utmost importance to provide adequate background as the research questions or objectives of the study are typically built upon the theory. Additionally, the findings of such a study will likely have implications for the future of the theory in the profession. The authors of this study recommend several followup studies. Pick one of the recommended followup studies and suggest a theory or multiple theories you believe would be appropriate for the study you select.  How would you set up the study in a way that would make sense for the theory or theories you suggest? Use the way the authors we read this week set up their studies as a guideline.

18 thoughts on “Blog 8: Case studies and theory in agricultural communication research

  1. In the case study covering the salmonella outbreak, the excellence theory was an appropriate theory to apply. The communication and interaction between stakeholders and the organizations is important to crisis communication and how that is relayed to the public/consumers. The definition of symmetrical communication that Palmer, Irlbeck, Myers, and Chambers provides emphasizes “equal communication between the organization and the audiences, where an organization is willing to alter its practices based upon audience research to benefit both the organization and its audiences.” This definition shows that the public’s opinion and safety is important to the tomato industry, while still maintaining the business’s success.

    Another possible theory that could be incorporated into this case study is the communication accommodation theory. In the book, this theory includes differences in groups pertaining to language, accent or dialect, but has the opportunity to be applied differently. The case study involves several different groups and audiences with differing knowledge on the tomato industry. From the standpoint of an individual in the tomato industry, one may accommodate the information relayed to the media in order to create clear message. The basic knowledge of a tomato plant is a great place to start with a consumer not familiar with the industry. Then, more information could be shared to build off of the basics – without withholding information. In other terms, an individual may consider assuming the consumer knows nothing of tomato production and start from the ground up. This strategy may also appear demeaning to the consumer.

    Though I suggested the communication accommodation theory, the excellence theory is still the most appropriate for the cases study.

    In the study by Abrams and Meyers, a recommended study is to to “compare what editors say they cover to what is actually covered in agricultural publications.” The gatekeeping theory would fit into this study as well. Should I continue this study, I would select individuals to interview based on what they think they cover and on what they believe the general agricultural publishers cover as a whole. Their publications would also be evaluated and compared to what the individual believes they cover. In this study, both individual coverage and the industry’s general coverage would be evaluated. The interviewee selection would be similar to both case studies in this week’s readings.

    1. Jessica,

      I agree with your idea to incorporate communication accommodation theory into the noted case study. As you describe, if this theory was used, careful consideration into planning a strategy is necessary to not offend consumers who are very knowledgeable of the industry. I am curious how you would identify those that you would interview. You separate individuals into two categories but miss a step on how you will separate the two groups. Would you send out a survey earlier, or have them select a category when agreeing to be interviewed?

      Best,
      Christina Peterson

  2. This week’s articles really helped understand how to use theoretical frameworks with real-world scenarios in agriculture. The first case study about risk and crisis communications used in the 2008 Salmonella outbreak uses excellence theory as its theoretical framework. The authors are justified in their decision to use this theory as they study risk and crisis communication. Excellence theory describes how organizations and stakeholders interact with each other during a decision-making process (Grunig, Grunig, and Dozier). A crisis is often scrutinized by the decisions made or lack thereof with the public and stakeholders. Excellence theory helps lay out a path for organizations to follow during the decision-making process with stakeholders. This theory helps the authors analyze the public relations personnel’s decision when evaluating the 2008 salmonella outbreak.

    Another theory that we have studied that would have been useful in guiding this research is classical rhetorical theory, which we learned about in week four. This case study analyzed the public’s opinion on the effectiveness of communication from various organizations within the tomato community. Part of risk and crisis communication is to get information out quickly but also to have your audience believe you. The study mentioned that most consumers did not believe what their organizations were saying because the FDA often was disseminating conflicting information. Classical rhetoric primarily was persuasive communication. This case study needed to determine how effective the organizations were at persuading the audiences to believe and utilize the information that was being handed to them during a time of crisis.

    One of the follow up studies from Abrams and Meyers recommends surveying agricultural publication readers to determine their perception of risk coverage, what information they receive from agricultural publications, and what other needs they have that are not being met. A theory that I would use to guide my research would be face management theory. This theory explains politeness in interaction towards face work. Each risk article that a publication publishes either gains or loses face for the publication.

    This follow up study would be guided by politeness and face management theory. Politeness theory explains how everyone tries to balance the need to fit in, the need to be competent, and the desire not to impose on others. I would set up this study by surveying 100 current annual subscribers from four major agricultural publications, 25 from each publication, using the Dillman surveying method. The survey would include qualitative and quantitative questions pertaining to the research questions. The three primary research objectives are:

    1). Determine what topics agricultural publications subscribers received in their selected publication during the years of 2010-2015.
    2). Describe agricultural publications subscribers’ individual perceptions of risk coverage.
    3). Explore new topic areas that are of interest to current agricultural publication subscribers.

    Looking forward to hearing other classmate’s study selections.

    Christina Peterson

    1. Christina,

      Great job I enjoyed learning from you! I too really appreciate being able to put what I am learning with the reading into play in real life situations. Reading about various theories is a great learning opportunity but truthfully it is best to be able to put what is learned into action. Good luck in the remainder of the course!

      Ashlyn Richardson

    2. Christina,

      I agree. The classical rhetorical theory would have been an interesting theory to help guide the study. Since the theory examines how people examine and weigh evidence, I feel that the theory would have been appropriate. The stakeholders had to examine and weigh the evidence from both the FDA and the tomato industry. Since the case study sought to examine the effectiveness of the crisis communication efforts by the tomato industry, I feel that this theory is applicable.

      Additionally, I really appreciated your insights into how you would conduct further research based on the Abrams and Meyers article. I would have never thought to apply the face management theory. However, I see how it would fit, since maintaining face is a key motive in all interactions. In addition to your proposed objectives, it would also be interesting to see how face-threatening acts affect the information published in the agricultural publications.

      Best,
      Alyssa S.

  3. Class,

    This week’s blog was very interesting because it posed many aspects of agriculture communication that do not always initially come to mind. The articles displayed wonderful examples of theoretical framework and how they are incorporated into real life and day to day scenarios related to agriculture. I believe that the 2008 outbreak of salmonella exhibited a great example of theoretical framework. Taking a step back and observing the outbreak it was definitely a risk and crisis situation because the way that the decision making and observations after the event played a role made the entire process very vital for agriculture communication. The situation served as a turning point in the food industry as well.

    Another theory that I studied that I found to be very prominent in the entire makeup of theories is the communication accommodation theory. The way in which a conversation is directed and approached can make the entire difference as to the outcome of the conversation. For example, the tone of voice and even dialect can extremely alter any communication situation. Communication can be difficult enough to determine in the first place, but let alone with various styles that communication can be used many things can be difficult to read.

    In conclusion, I believe that all theories play a vital role in the communication styles as well as being suited the best for the readers to understand the various types of communication. The theory that I would pose would be related to advocating of agriculture and determining the best ways to convince the public of those positive factors.

    Thanks!

    Ashlyn Richardson

    1. Ashlyn,

      I agree that these articles were interesting to read because they put into practice theories we have read about and make a great real-life example of theories in action.

      Until reading your post, I (somehow) didn’t even think about the communication accommodation theory. I think this could have been a great theory to examine communication efforts and messaging used by producers and organizations toward the media. I believe this could have shed light to maybe how/why some producers and organizations had different views toward the media and how they handled the outbreak coverage. In any situation, it can be difficult to keep in mind our messages and tailor them to our audience for an increased understanding. So I can imagine that some communication accommodation theory principles could have been left off of some producers and organizations’ checklist during an unexpected, whirlwind crisis. I think it would be interesting to see if there was a correlation between those who felt negative toward the media and those didn’t have a crisis communication plan practiced and in place prior to the Salmonella outbreak.

      Thanks for reminding me of this theory, as I see it definitely plays a role in this study!

      – Anissa

  4. Ashlyn,

    I believe the communication accommodation theory would fit into the case study as well. There are so many different ways people communicate and interpret messages and this theory would fit well in the salmonella outbreak. It is difficult to accommodate all communication styles, but finding the disconnect and difference between the industry and the consumers is a vital part of success in crisis communication.

    Jessica Woofter

  5. In the Palmer, Irlbeck, Meyers, and Chambers article, they chose excellence theory to guide their research. I believe that since the authors were agricultural communicators, they had had some idea or knowledge of the efforts made by tomato producers and organizations. Therefore, if they knew that some of the efforts made by producers and organizations were aiming toward symmetrical communication in their crisis communication efforts, the excellence theory would be the best and most applicable theory to build off of. I think it was a very appropriate choice given the producers and organizations’ actions and messages during and post-crisis. The majority of the producers and organizations interviewed for this study utilized and practiced excellent public relations, according to Grunig’s theory. Although I view Grunig’s theory as being the most appropriate for this research and their objectives, I think diffusion of innovations could have also been an interesting aspect to apply to this data. Since there were differing opinions about the media, from those who communicated with them and those that did not, it would be interesting to see the travel of the different messages through media and then through personal contact. Additionally, the influence of different messages on consumers and the industry would be an interesting aspect to add to this study.

    To build off of this study, I believe the next step in the research process would be to address what agricultural publications are actually covering. This could be conducted through a content analysis of those publishers previously interviewed. During this content analysis, more insight and information could be gained to what is actually going out to readers. In addition, I believe advertisements should be included in the content analysis, so stories can be compared to ads to see if there is any organizational influence over the themes and direction of stories. Once these themes are established, I think researchers would have enough information to create a surveys for those in the chosen publications’ readership to see if needs are being met. I believe it would be best to keep this further study secluded to only the previously chosen agricultural publications. Thus, you could gather solid data on a smaller scale with hopes of eventually duplicating the study to different regions and publications.

    -Anissa

    1. Anissa,

      I thought that your idea to further research the content of the magazines was a great step forward in this research. Your suggestion to analyze the content and readership of the magazine is interesting. As I mentioned in my post below, I thought that the Agenda Setting theory would be a good approach to further understanding the magazine’s influence over its readers. Just as you suggested that research be done to analyze the readership and see if their needs are being met, this theory could help to understand the influence that the magazines have over agricultural producers and consumers. It is so important for editors to understand the influence, or agenda setting power, that their publications have. I think that your suggestions would help to provide editors with just that. Thanks for sharing!
      -Hannah

  6. do believe that the Excellence theory was an appropriate choice for this case study. The researchers evaluated the 2008 Salmonella crisis and the risk and communication efforts taken by public relations practioners in the produce industry. Grunig (1992) explained that the effectiveness of an organization is determined in part by the organization’s ability to identify key stakeholders, and develop and maintain a mutually beneficial relationship with said stakeholders. Stakeholders can affect the organization’s ability to achieve its goals and in turn, an organization can have the same effect on stakeholder goals (Grunig et al., 2002).
    In this case, the “organizations” indicated in the above definition include the representatives of the tomato industry, and the stakeholders are consumers, the FDA, and the media. The Excellence theory allowed the authors to evaluate the communication efforts between both, the organization and the stakeholders in order to better understand the communications during this crisis and evaluate their effectiveness. By understanding the communication from both sides, the impact of this crisis is better understood and this information can be used to be better prepared for a future crisis.

    One theory that we read about in the book was the Social judgement theory. This theory classifies attitudes along a continuum, which is divided into latitudes of acceptance and rejection. This theory could be applied to the 2008 Salmonella Crisis to understand assimilation and contrast effects that consumers to change their minds and begin purchasing/eating tomatoes again.

    Another theory that I thought may have been helpful in guiding this research is the Corporate Reputation Management theory. CRM is defined as “the orchestration of discrete public relations initiatives designed to promote or protect the most important brand you own – your corporate reputation,” (Morely, 2002). Because this theory evaluates a reputation over time based on a stakeholder’s experiences, communications, symbolism and comparison, the application of this theory may be more useful for evaluating the tomato industry’s reputation five, ten or fifteen years after the 2008 crisis. It would be interesting to see the recovery process and how the industry has rebuilt its reputation (or not).

    One of the recommended follow up studies from the Abrams and Meyers article suggests that agricultural magazine editors should consider how their coverage could help readers better understand the disconnected public and their consumers’ conceptualization of agricultural production and risk. A theory that could be sued to further examine the power of these editors news and ag issue coverages is the Agenda Setting theory. This theory examines the creation of public awareness and concern of salient issues by the news media. Research could be done to examine the agenda setting power of these editors and their magazines, which could in turn allow agricultural magazines to communicate more strategically with consumers.

    Morley, M. (2002). How to Manage your global reputation. Palgrave MacMillan, Basingstoke, P. 10

    -Hannah A.

  7. The excellence theory was an excellent theory to guide Palmer, Irlbeck, Meyers, and Chambers’ (2013) study, since the theory emphasizes a two-way process of communications. The theory suggests that the ability of an organization to identify and maintain a mutually beneficial relationship with key stakeholder groups is a contributing factor to the effectiveness of the organization. As it pertains to the 2008 Salmonella outbreak, the tomato industry was trying to maintain/restore symmetrical communication with consumers. These efforts were in the context of crisis communications because consumers had a negative perception of tomatoes following the outbreak. Therefore, the tomato industry had to alter their communications practices to maintain a mutually beneficial relationship with consumers. Thus, the excellence theory was an appropriate theory to help guide the study.

    While I found the excellence theory to be an appropriate theory to help guide the study, the cognitive dissonance theory would also have been an appropriate theory to apply. The cognitive dissonance theory explains how behaviors can alter attitudes. For example, when consumers were told that the Salmonella outbreak stemmed from tomatoes, consumers experienced cognitive dissonance. To reduce their dissonance, they changed their behavior and stopped purchasing tomatoes. As a result, the tomato industry experienced losses of approximately $100 million. Based on this reasoning, I believe that the cognitive dissonance theory would have been an appropriate theory to help guide the study.

    In the Abrams and Meyers article, the researchers recommend a follow up study to determine the readers perceptions of risk coverage, what information the readers receive from agricultural publications, and what other needs they have that are not being met. If I were to conduct further research to study this topic, I would utilize the theory of reasoned action to guide my research. The theory predicts behavioral intention based on attitude toward the behavior and subjective norms; behavioral intention influences behavior. By surveying readers and asking them about their perceptions of risk coverage, we can try and predict their behavior.

    I would use qualitative research design to conduct this study. I would select 25 readers from each of the seven different agricultural publications studied in the Abrams and Meyers study. The readers of the various publications would be chosen randomly to participate. I would then conduct interviews with each participant. The interviews would be recorded and transcribed, and I would conduct a content analysis to determine emerging themes from the interviews.

    The three primary research objectives would be:
    1. Determine what the readers’ perceptions of risk coverage are in each publication.
    2. Determine what information is being received from the agricultural publications.
    3. Determine how the readers’ behavior has been influenced based on the information in the publications.

    1. Alyssa,
      I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog this week as it provided me with a new insight on the excellent theory as related to Palmer, Irlbeck, Meyers, and Chambers study. I also believed that this was an excellent theory to use simply because they needed to examine the public relations of the produce industry. I feel that you really took this response one step further by identifying that the tomato industry had to alter their communication practices to maintain appropriate relations with consumers. Before reading your response my perspective was not as in-depth as it could have been, you helped me see this study from a new perspective. The theory that I thought that would be appropriate for this study is the theory of planned behavior because this theory explains human behavior which could be very beneficial when examining behaviors in public relations.
      Thanks for sharing!
      -Leah

  8. The excellence theory was an appropriate choice to guide this investigation because the purpose of this study was to examine the risk and crisis communication efforts taken by public relations practitioners in the produce industry. The excellence theory was designed to do just that, in fact this theory was designed to determine how valuable public relations is to an organization. Another theory that I feel could have been useful in guiding this research is the theory of planned behavior, this theory explains human behavior which could be very beneficial when examining behaviors in public relations.

    My follow up study is going to be on the long term challenges of food security. We live in a time where people are more concerned with the safety of their food then they have ever been before, over the years there has been much controversy that has damaged the reputation of fresh produce for most consumers. Some studies have revealed the economic impact during the year the food crisis was announced but it is still unknown what impact that has had on the industry for years to follow. This study will look into the economic impact several years after food safety outbreaks have been identified. The theory that I would use for this study is the theory of planned behavior because this will help identify human behavior and the positive or negative effect their purchasing power has on a specific industry that has suffered from food safety outbreaks. If we can pinpoint whether or not food safety outbreaks have contributed to consumers purchasing a specific produce less in years to follow, then we can figure out a way to work with our public relations department to make this news less damaging to our products. My study would begin by first determining which five industries have experienced the greatest economic loss as a result of a food safety outbreak, and five industries that have experienced the least economic loss. I will then look into how many years this economic loss has impacted each of these industries, as I do this I will take note on the actions of the public relations and their communication with the public. My goal is to try and determine if there is anything specific done by a public relations department that causes consumers not to completely lose their trust in a product.

    1). Determine industries that have experienced significant economic loss as a result of food safety outbreaks from to 2008-2016.
    2). Determine industries that have experienced inconsequential economic loss as a result of food safety outbreaks from to 2008-2016.
    3). Determine public relations techniques that were used to communicate food safety outbreaks to the consumer.
    4). Explore the industries will the strongest public relations communications.

    These are my thoughts.
    Thanks,
    -Leah

    1. Leah,

      I had not thought of the theory of planned behavior, but that is a great example of another theory that would be appropriate for this study. People’s behavior is just as crucial as individual’s communication when it comes to a crisis and how its handled. I had used the example of the theory of reasoned actions which is along the same lines as the theory of planned behavior. Both theories strive to explain people’s actions, and could be an added benefit to research when examining individuals’ communication during a crisis event.

      Your follow up study was written extremely well, and is very interesting to me. I am really interested in what the research would find. Do you think if there was no lasting negative impact on the industry following a food crisis, the industries would view crisis in another, possibly less threatening way? Potentially, if the results yielded positive growth in the industry economy after a food crisis, do you think this growth could possibly come from the crisis prevention team and their ability to handle whatever crisis was posed.

      I really enjoyed your input on this week’s blog post and am very interested in your follow up research proposal!

      -Kelsey Tully

  9. The choice to use the excellence theory was an extremely appropriate decision for this case study. The article describes the excellence theory as a “two-way symmetrical communication.” Without communication things tend to fall apart and fast. This article covers the importance of communication when dealing with a crisis situation. Examples of both good and bad communications, that took place during the salmonella outbreak, are covered in the article. One instance that was brought up, really stuck out to me. The communication between the FDA, the consumers, and the individuals of the tomato industry. There seemed to have been a breakdown of communication, starting with the FDA. This breakdown was extremely costly to the tomato industry. This is an unfortunate example of how a lack of communication can potentially make or break and industry.

    Another theory that might be useful in guiding this research might have been the theory of reasoned actions. According to our textbook this theory was designed to predict behavioral intentions toward specific objects or situations. This theory could have been applied to the salmonella outbreak by helping to determine how individuals would react to the situation at hand. Allowing producers to better handle situations in the future.

    The recommended follow up study that I chose is, the research that compares what editors say they cover to what is actually covered in agricultural publications. One theory that could be used to guide this study is the symbolic convergence theory. This theory suggest that humans communicate with one another as social actors, but use different set of concepts. This could potentially be used to see if editors are telling researchers what they want to hear, but really writing about other topics more controversial in agriculture or vice versa. Another theory that could be used is the theory of communicative action. This theory states humans act in the world in a strategic or communicative way. This could explain how editors choose what they write about and what message they are trying to get out to their readers versus what they are telling researchers. To set up this study, I would run a content analysis on the materials produced in a certain year range, for example the years 2013-2016. I would then interview the editors of the articles involved in the content analysis to examine if the editors are being truthful in their answers. I would then compare the two sets of results to find out if the material covered matches the editors’ claims of what they are covering.

    1. Hi Kelsey,

      You make some really good points in your post! Your statement about how a lack of communication can negatively affect an industry is very true. The articles this week were good illustrations of that. Your thoughts on the theory of reasoned actions are very interesting. That theory did not come to mind but, used in the way you described, I think it would work.
      A content analysis on the materials that are actually put into agricultural publications would be very interesting, indeed. I had not thought about editors not putting information into publications before I read the article by Abrams and Meyers, but it makes sense. I would love to see just how much either gets put in or doesn’t. I would definitely read your study!

      -Deanna R.

  10. In the case study on the 2008 Salmonella outbreak, excellence theory is appropriately applied. Since excellence theory deals with the interaction of organizations and stakeholders, the article explains a disruption in the symmetrical communication between the public and tomato growers. As suggestions to the food industry, the authors describe many ways to prepare for a future crisis. The list of suggestions includes listing the audience the organization communicates with and developing messages to send to that audience. I think this illustrates excellence theory in that it involves both organizations and stakeholders and promotes symmetrical communication.

    I think that the elaboration likelihood model could be applied to this study as well. Because peripheral processors are more affected by images and information that does not require much cognitive processing, it seems that consumer opinion was impacted because of the immediate news and, though it later became evident that peppers were the cause, the tomato industry still took the blow. Perhaps this goes to show that the population, as a whole, processes information peripherally. In the same way, the evidence for the outbreak was presented as scientific information that would affect central processors, which might be why it caused such a scare.

    In the study by Abrams and Meyers, several follow-up studies are mentioned. If I were to suggest a study based on the research in this article, I would look at agricultural publication readers and their perceptions of the information they are or are not receiving from that media. The uses and gratifications theory could be applied to determine why readers are interested in the agricultural publications that they read. In addition, I think that the communication accommodation theory could also be applied to assess the interaction between publications and readers. It would be interesting to see how much agricultural publication companies are adjusting what they write to satisfy their readers. Of course, in order to keep readers, they must have interesting and relevant material, but it would be interesting to see if all of the information that editors say that they cover actually makes it into publications.

    To do this study, I would do a survey of readers to gauge their perceptions of the information that they do receive or that they would like to receive. Since it was mentioned by many of the editors interviewed, it would be interesting to see if the content of agricultural publications mirrors what readers want to see. As we saw in both articles, it is important to not only get information to the public quickly in a crisis situation, but it is also important to disseminate accurate information. Part of my study would focus on public perception of crisis and risk management information in agricultural publications as well.

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