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.

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

  1. Excellence theory was an appropriate choice for this research because the excellence theory states that, “For an organization to be effective, it must behave in ways that solve the problems and satisfy the goals of stakeholders as well as of management” (Grunig 1992). This fits well with research being done because in a time of public relations crisis, like the 2008 Salmonella outbreak, stakeholders and management have to work together to make decisions that they think will best help the reputation of their company and the industry. By using this theory, we are able to look at how decision made during this crisis and decisions that could be made in future crises could impact companies and their stakeholders. Another theory that we learned about that could be used is Agenda Setting. In a time of crisis, often times the media focuses a spotlight on that specific industry or company. This theory could be used to see how media altered the opinions of consumers about the tomato industry in the 2008 Salmonella Outbreak.
    One of the follow up studies suggested was to survey agricultural publication readers and determine their perceptions of risk coverage, what information they receive from agricultural publications, and what other needs they have that are not being met. To do this study I think it would be helpful to use the Theory of Planned Behavior and the Knowledge Gap theory. I think these theories would be useful in a qualitative research study where participants would participate in a semi-structured interviewed about what they think risk coverage is and how it effects them. I also think you could use these theories to ask questions about what information the consumers get from agriculture publications and what information they would like to see more of in agricultural publications. The interviews would then be transcribed and sorted for underlying themes that fit into each theory.

    1. Tabitha,

      I like your idea of exploring the readers’ perceptions with Knowledge Gap theory. This theory is valuable in the agricultural communications discipline as a whole, but I think sometimes we assume as communicators that all producers speak the same language as us, which is not always true.

    2. I have to agree using the theory of planned behavior and knowledge gap theory will help see what information consumers are getting from agriculture publications and also what information they would like to see more of.

  2. I think excellence theory was an appropriate choice because it accurately depicts the relationships between public relations professionals and stockholders, especially in the agriculture industry. Because agricultural businesses have many stockholders, including consumers, processors, government regulatory agencies, and the rest of the agricultural sectors, excellence theory is crucial to the success of agricultural businesses. They must keep open communication with all stockholders, standing their ground on issues but also listening to the concerns of the stockholders and adapting to them.

    Excellence theory is displayed in their case study work in the quote from Brianne, “I think our constant engagement with the media, the constant availability to Congress, working and having good relationships with FDA so we got separated out quickly. So we were part of the wave, but we were able to separate ourselves out. I think those efforts were successful, yes.”
    This quote demonstrates the importance of having good working relationships with many stockholders to be more prepared for crisis communications.

    While excellence theory applies well to this case study and crisis communications in general, I think that based on many of the participant responses the study could also use theories about face-saving to guide the research. Even if participants had good working relationships with stockholders, some stated that they still battled negative framing by the media. Face-saving practices would be a useful addition to excellence theory to better crisis communications for public relations professionals.

    I would explore the follow-up study on determining if agricultural publications were actually meeting the needs of readers. While this study could be related to theories of rhetoric that examine the trustworthiness of the speaker (in this case, do the readers trust the information the agricultural publication is giving them), it could also examine cultural Marxism or social formation. Because agricultural populations have readers with varying sizes of agricultural operations within the same industry (for example, the Missouri Cattlemen’s magazine goes to large feedlot owners and the owners of hobby herds), the could explore whether or not the needs of small and large farmers are being met by the publication’s risk coverage.

    To explore this theory, qualitative research could be conducted on two groups of publication readers: one group with small farms and one group with large farms. Research could be conducted through phone interviews, and researchers could ask the same set of questions to both groups. It would make sense to ask both groups about a recent risk-related article in the publication they both receive, such as the drought. After the qualitative research was conducted, the interviews could be analyzed to see if the small and large farmers had different opinions on the risk coverage and if it was meeting both of their needs. This method of study would also determine if the solutions to risk or action items presented by the publications were actually used by the readers.

    1. Elizabeth, I like your thought about adding Face-Saving to the findings from the Excellence Theory. I think that some of the results from a study using excellence theory in a situation like the 2008 Salmonella crisis could lose the smaller producers “through the cracks.” A strategy like face-saving could help serve as a preventive measure to protect all producers/parties.

    2. Elizabeth,

      I also considered rhetoric theory when looking at the follow up studies. Piggy-backing off of your comments about trusting the speaker, I wonder what perceived credibility is of editors in their roles as gatekeepers. Are consumers getting the content and coverage they want and need? How do we select those individuals that are responsible for deciding what is relevant and what is not? This study really interested me and I’d be interested in looking into some follow-ups.

      -Rachel Waggie

  3. The 2008 Salmonella crisis presented a crucial time for the agricultural world to rally together to create a unifying message that would help consumers still feel confident in purchasing and consuming a product. Excellence Theory and its very “team” philosophy, was an appropriate choice for this situation because of its goals to develop mutually beneficial relationships between stakeholders. All parties had to win in this situation. The produce producers needed the most positive light they could get, commodity groups and wholesalers needed buy in for a reason to support the producers. Previous positive working relationship helped develop positive working relationship when in crisis. For all parties involved, if the consumers got the wrong message, no one made money. I think an example like this presents the agriculture industry, in all of its facets, in such a unique light. In good times or bad, the industry can pull together to develop this “mutually beneficial relationship.”
    It was recommended by Abrams and Meyers to expand the study to include more editors to give access to a better sample of data. This would also help confirm more of the findings related to authenticity and definition of risk related to agriculture. A theory that would be appropriate for this additional study could be the Theory of Reasoned Action. This study would allow for the collection of data through a survey or interview of some format that will help predict the individuals personal perception, experience with, fears or desires related to risk in agriculture. I think this theory could help produce a more genuine set of responses from respondents because of how it combines current attitude with subjective norms (Figure 9.3) to evaluate and predict the way the individual would respond.

    1. Janae,

      I think that your idea of a study over the theory of reasoned action would be appropriate in this situation. I agree that the survey and the data received from that could be very helpful in determining individuals perceptions related to risk in agriculture! Great idea!

  4. With the 2008 Salmonella crisis this created a very important time for agriculture to share information in which would keep consumers purchasing products. With tomatoes pinpointed as the source and the result being the jalapeño peppers this left consumers unsure about two products and the safety of their health. I believe the excellence theory was an appropriate choice for research. “Public relations is a function of management that describes how organizations and stakeholders interact with one another during the decision making process (Grunig, Grunig, and Dozier 2002). Due to the fact that so many parts were involved in this crisis this theory is fitting to help all parties work together. In this situation you would have the stakeholders being the produce producers, wholesalers, marketing, and a few other groups. Excellence theory was displayed through this case study as they maintained constant engagement with all sources necessary.

    Another theory that could be used in a time of crisis is agenda setting. Many times in media not only about agriculture this theory is used and I think in a time of crisis a survey could be useful to see if after the fact did the media change the opinions of the industry due to the amount of coverage on that specific event. If an event happened and the media didn’t cover it, would the consumers have the opinions that they do?

    A potential case study would be taking the recent announcement of USDA providing aid to farmers to study the knowledge gap theory. I believe in this situation there could be a potential for quality research to determine if that theory holds true to the sharing of media in this “topic” in agriculture. Any topic that has high coverage due to political context could be a simple one to survey on. This theory could be tested in different areas of the United States as those that might have been directly affected would be more knowledgeable compared to possibly interviewing someone on Times Square.

    1. Michelle,

      I enjoyed your idea for a potential case study. It would be interesting to test the knowledge on some of these topics and notate the differences between perceptions/understandings based on where they are in the United States. That suggestion made me think about the New York Times (I think it was) that had two different headlines on papers which were delivered to different places within the United States. It makes me wonder how different news stories are across the U.S. and how this would potentially affect some of these topics in agriculture.

    2. Michelle,

      I like your idea for this type of study. Although I would find it interesting to study areas across the United States to see how information is relayed differently to the public, but I wonder if we could do the same study but within the same region or state? Would we see the same information being presented in different light based on location? or would the information be presented differently based on the target demographic of that particular publication? I think this study could be applied to many different cases within the same study, and I wonder if we would see any trends.

    3. Michelle,
      I agree with you that agenda setting would be another good theory option for this research. I would be interested in seeing how the media effects consumers opinions of the same event in different geographical regions because of the difference in media coverage.

  5. I would agree with many of my peers that the excellence theory was an appropriate method to use for this research. While exploring more about the excellence theory, I came across a key point to consider not only with outbreaks such as the salmonella crisis in 2008, but all of agricultural education, “To behave in socially acceptable ways, organizations must scan their environment to identify publics who are affected by potential organizational decisions or who want organizations to make decisions to solve problems that are important to them. Then, organizations must communicate symmetrically with publics (taking the interests of both the organization and publics into account) to cultivate high-quality, long-term relationships with them (Grunig, 2010). As I read this, the key takeaway is the suggestion that agricultural organizations must think about problems/issues that are most important to the consumers and focus communication/media efforts on those particular subjects which will, in turn, create stronger relationships between producers and consumers. Because of the extent of the salmonella outbreak, public relations became extremely important to keep consumers up to date with any relevant details about the outbreak. In the research study, Sheldon mentioned that the most important thing in a crisis is remaining completely visible and not hiding as it gives consumers the idea that producers have something to be guilty of. Hiding would break trust and weaken relationships between producers and consumers.

    In the second study, one of the recommendations was as follows, “…, they specifically said they do not cover or address agricultural risks typical of public concern or, if the topic itself is addressed, it is not taken from the angle of interest to the more general public” (Abrams & Meyers, 2017). Not to beat a dead horse or anything, but this recommendation would align with the excellence theory to address issues that are important to consumers. All too often, I would argue that agricultural producers or educators focus more on what they feel is important to teach consumers instead of what the consumers have concerns or questions on. This is one strength that Chipotle or PETA has in their marketing efforts. They have a good understanding of this idea and use it to their advantage and have formed those strong relationships with consumers since they target the needs/issues that are important to those individuals.

    1. Tayla,

      I agree with your idea that people in agriculture focus on what they want to tell consumers more than what consumers want to learn. Someone told me once that think one of the problems we have while speaking with consumers is our focus on “educating” them when they simply want to have a conversation. I think there’s a fine line between the two that is easily blurred when those in agriculture have a story they’re anxious to tell.

  6. I have to agree with other students in this course that the excellence theory is an appropriate way to use for research. 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. During public relations crisis, for example the Salmonella outbreak, stakeholders and staff had to communicate together on a plan that would best suit there company. The excellence theory was widely used through this case study to show how all parties maintained engagement.

    Agenda setting is another theory that can be used during a crisis. Sometimes the media focuses on one industry or company. This can be used to see if the media did in fact alter the opinions of consumers. During the Salmonella outbreak, the media did alter the opinions of consumers about the tomato industry.

    1. I also considered media influence! A lot of platforms are aware of the power they have even if their audience isn’t aware that they’re being influenced. I feel a solid study on this would empower audiances to be more analytical of what they intake instead of just consuming information from one source!

  7. The excellence theory was an appropriate choice due to its ability to unite stakeholders during this particular crisis. Because of the many parties impacted by the salmonella outbreak, it was necessary for agriculturalists to be able to strategically and accurately relay information to consumers and middlemen. This is a direct reflection of the interaction that is needed to help, in this case study, producers make informed conclusions in their decision making process.

    When I consider the word strategic, agenda setting theory seems to be another appropriate approach in this study. When we think about what sources of media we use to get our news, it is often set up to sway our opinion in a particular way, this same concept is applicable in agriculture (just as we witness it with anti-agriculture). Different platforms would have the opportunity to assist in the spread of information regarding the outbreak, but each platform has a choice to make regarding how they spread said message through the use of tone, verbiage, jargon, buzzwords, etc.

    For a follow up study the knowledge gap theory could be applied. As I studied this particular theory for my analysis, it is beneficial in helping researchers understand why there is a lack of shared knowledge between two or more particular parties. I would find it especially interesting to also apply technology with this theory as it is become more and more prevalent in the knowledge gap. Survey could be conducted on multiple demographics affected by both access to technology and/or competency regarding use of technology. Topics to consider might include a well publicized issue related to agriculture, the accessibility of information as we move towards technological news platforms, or perhaps even the use of technology in agriculture itself.

  8. Utilizing the excellence theory in a case study of crisis communication is highly logical. Because excellence theory emphasizes the importance public relations, it is only natural for it to be a center point of the study of crisis communication during the large-scale Salmonella outbreak in 2008. Identity management theories could also come into place here as the tomato industry and those who work in public relations for the industry would be trying to save face after an outbreak of Salmonella that was originally linked to their product. Given the choice between the two theories, I would have also chosen to use the excellence theory.

    I was intrigued by the second study, conducted by Abrams and Meyers. I would be most interested in following up with their suggested research on readers’ perceptions of risk coverage in agricultural publications, and how that aligns with what respondents to the initial study claim. I would use social judgement theory to guide this follow-up study. Social judgement theory is one that looks at the effectiveness of the message posited by persuaders (agricultural publication editors) and the perception of that message by the intended audience (readers of the agricultural publication). If the readers feel threatened by a certain area of risk that a publication addresses, they are more likely to fall into the latitude of acceptance with that publication. Similarly, if a reader feels unconnected with a certain risk, they are more likely to fall onto the latitude of rejection.

    -Rachel Waggie

  9. Since Excellence Theory focuses on a team-like philosophy, it was a good choice for the Salmonella crisis of 2008 case study. Producers needed to band together to convince the public that their produce was still good. The public needed convinced that they could still buy safe produce from grocers and farmers markets. Another part of the excellence theory is to deliver the messages that the consumer wants to know more about. With the Salmonella outbreak this was highly important because the consumers needed to know the latest information about where the outbreaks were located and how close to home they were hitting. This relates to the agenda setting theory, where bloggers and the media determine and control what information is presented to the public the most. In agenda setting theory the bloggers and media also determine what tone the information being relayed is going to have. I remember during the Salmonella outbreak the news reports were always talking about how many consumers were affected and dwelled on the sickness and potential death tolls instead of discussing what the producers distributers were doing to stop the outbreak. Once again the media focused on the negatives instead of the more positive solutions to the issue at hand. Agriculture communicators could have used agenda setting to publicize how this outbreak was being handled and fixed instead of letting non-agriculturalists to create their own agenda about what was occurring.

    One of the areas of recommended future research was evaluating newly graduated agriculture communicators/journalists to understand their level of knowledge of agricultural topics and effective writing skills. This particular research could be conducted in a quantitative, qualitative, or mixed methods study. Quantitatively, this study would involve surveys where participants would need to rank their comfortability with a range of agricultural topics and different styles of witting and media practices. Qualitatively, the investigator would interview participants to ask them questions about their experiences in college and in their new positions in the agriculture industry. The investigator would also observe the participants in their work environments as they interact with producers, the public, and fellow agricultural communicators. In a mixed methods study, all of these research methods would be used to create a more accurate picture of how the participants perceive their roles within the industry and their true understanding of their integration into this career. The theory of planned behavior could be used to frame this study because you are trying to understand how a current graduate is using their attitude and understanding of an industry to try to communicate to others.

  10. Excellence theory embodies the idea of two-way symmetrical communications. In public relations, specifically risk management, that two-way symmetrical communication usually occurs between an organization and its stakeholders. This communication is especially important in diffusing a crisis situation. Therefore, the excellence theory fits in the study we read. In risk communications, if organizations don’t open a two-way street to communication, they only see one side of what is happening. Public perception is just as important as the events occurring in a crisis situation.

    Another theory we have studied that might have been useful to include in the study we read is agenda setting. I think risk communications would be one of the main circumstances agenda setting might be at play, especially for the organizations involved. It would be interesting to see how the media influenced the importance placed on the 2008 Salmonella crisis in the eyes of the public.

    The Abrams and Meyers article suggests a follow-up study that compares what editors say they cover to what is actually covered in agricultural publications. I think it would be interesting to use the theory of reasoned action in this recommended study. We learned that this theory states the best indicator of behavior is intentions. Focusing on the intentions of editors would assist in exploring why there is a difference between what they say they publish and what they actually do. Maybe the idea sounds good, but the intent to publish was never really there.

    To conduct a study centered around the theory of reasoned action, I would be sure that questions asked focused on both intention and the end result, or what was actually published. This could be furthered by comparing interviews with the editors’ publications in a document analysis to determine whether or not they followed through with their intentions.

    1. I agree that the theory of reasoned action would be a great tool to use for the follow up research. I could see this being useful in a variety of industries to see if everyone has the same goal in mind.

  11. For the salmonella outbreak, I think that the excellence theory was a good choice. This theory requires more team work and with a public relations issue like this, everyone has to be on the same page to provide the necessary information to the public. In this particular case study, it was important for producers, government officials, health care professionals, consumers, and stakeholders to all be on the same page. Excellence theory is a great tool for any risk management issue in my opinion.
    I also think that agenda setting would be an important tool when dealing with a risk management or a public relations problem. In cases like these, the media tends to portray agriculture in a negative light and the general public tends to believe them unfortunately. If agriculture communicators used agenda setting to persuade the public to understand the problems more thoroughly and if they could show the steps that are being taken in the agriculture industry to prevent future crises, I think that would be helpful.
    For a follow up to the Abrams and Meyers article, the social judgement theory would be interesting. I would like to see the effectiveness of the communicators and how the audience is reacting to the information that’s being shared. If we as communicators are going to be successful, we need to understand what the public reacts positively to and what areas we need to improve on.

    1. It is regrettable to know that the information generated in cases such as salmonella outbreak is not uniform and it not contained investigative bases in depth. In Ecuador all information is channeled by the control organisms and there is a strong communication law with severe penal impacts to the people who publish information without adequate investigation.

  12. Based on the theory of risk amplification, which can be useful to explain why certain events can be catastrophic with a high potential lead society to react, while others, despite containing a high cost of human, social and economic lives, they are promptly relegated by the members of society. The theory of risk amplification is useful to explain and predict the reaction of the public to a risk and can be used to complement models of crisis management.

    The theory of risk over the time has undergone a transformation. It is a change in the treatment of risk since it goes from a purely quantitative level (in which the probability of an undesired event occurs) to a qualitative model (in which the risk from the point of view of the perception that the individual is present).

    In numerous risk assessments and analyzes (whether environmental, labor or otherwise), concepts of a quantitative nature are considered, the social nature that any risk entails tend to be forgotten. That is the intrinsic nature of risk as an element of the individual’s daily life, which is practically not considered when considering risk analysis. In the article about the case of Salmonella outbreaks in 2008 and 2009, it can clearly be verified that reporters and scientists had problems communicating in a clear and simple matter. This led to misleading information to the decision makers. By correctly using a Framing theory where the construction of history has several clear and relevant points of view, a direct and poorly structured inclination of conflicts has been eliminated.

    That is why the information channels are very important, and also all the relationships that companies in a risk situation must have with the media, without forgetting the informal communication channels with workers and general social groups, since the rumors that are generated depend on the perception and attitude of the people.
    The interpretation and response to information is the second most important instance in the amplification of risks since they involve social, institutional and cultural contexts in which the information is interpreted differently by each group.

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