Communications in agriculture, as a means. Not a goal.

Confusion of goals and perfection of means,
seems, in my opinion, to characterize our age.

Albert Einstein

Will you forgive me, if I step onto my preaching soapbox for a moment? But this is a topic very dear to my heart.

People often ask me for the latest trends in communications, where they refer to the latest technology and tools, the newest features.

Sure, there is a clear advantage in continuously innovating the way we communicate, but all too often, we forget “why we communicate”. The greater good.

While in the past years, particularly since social media stepped into the world of agricultural communication, there is an applaud-able trend to implement objective metrics to measure our performance and outreach. But lately, these “means” and their metrics have become our “goals”. It seems we’re more and more focusing on increasing our pageviews, our click-rates, our Twitter followers,.. while forgetting those are just metrics for our tools. They have become our goal, rather than our means or the metrics of our means.

So, if you’d ask me what the latest trends are, I would answer: “I know what I’d wish for those trends to be”: “to go back to our roots of “communications in agriculture”, and focus on making comms a means again”.

Of chickens, eagles and astronauts

In workshops, I often refer to communicators of being either “chickens or eagles”. If you want to scratch with the chickens, you play safe and use communications in a safe space of press releases, organizing conferences like hundreds before, doing a bit of Twitter and Facebook, “as all others are doing it too”.

But if you want to fly with the eagles, you take risks. You constantly innovate, you invent new ways to communicate, you see every single comms project as an opportunity to experiment, doing things you have not done before.

Beyond the “eagles”, the communications “astronauts” amongst us, though, are the ones who truly take every communications project, not solely for the purpose of bringing a message, such as announcing a new research report, for advocacy purposes, but also for a greater good. Either in process or in purpose.

Conferences as an example

Let me give you an example: when organising a conference, we can start on the first day of the conference, and end on the last day. We throw in a couple of media alerts and press conferences, publish the proceedings, and “basta cosi”. This is how “it used to be” until about 10 years ago. Chickens.

The communications eagles discovered, around 2009-2010, onsite social reporting as a way to broaden their reach way beyond those physically present at a conference. They started to integrate the online public as an integral part of the audience at a conference. Throw in more recent tools such as live webcasting and ways for the online public to interact live, with the onsite panel discussions, and you have an eagle recipe.

Communication astronauts take it several steps further, and use the communications around a conference to stretch the reach and momentum for months around the time of a conference, and as a project to achieve longer term impact:
Back in 2010, we started to give onsite (pre-conference) trainings for social reporters. In the “eagles” chapter, it helped us to improve the quality of the social reporting, but in the “astronaut” chapter, we used this as a capacity development tool for youth (which often form the majority of conference’s social reporters), and a way to motivate youth to work, to think and to report on the conference topics. Gradually, it also became a tool to further integrate youth into the core of conferences: as part of the discussion panels, organisers and facilitators.

The “astronauts” started to experiment with virtual pre-conference competitions, to select youth speakers for the conference e.g., through applications which needed to reflect their projects and motivation to work on the key topics of the conference. While these were all published online, the public was asked to vote on these applications. As each of the applicants reached out to their communities and networks, to get online votes, the visibility of the conference and its topics, automatically and exponentially increased. And it was a natural way to select good youth speakers. This was a means. The “eagles” part.

The “astronaut” part, though, relates to how we can use these online submissions and competition, to motivate youth to think about the conference topics, and to show, through their projects, how much youth are innovative and motivated to work on these topics. It is highlighting the key role of youth in the future of the conference topics, in the future of agriculture. It shows youth how they could use online media and social media as an effective way to communicate their projects and initiatives, which was a far longer-lasting deliverable which goes way beyond “a conference”. Astronauts.

I met a few astronauts

Through the recent GFAR webinars, I had the honour to meet a few astronauts in the area of agricultural communications. People who took comms as a tool, rather than merely a means.

Check out our webinar on “Participatory communications and uptake communications” (the webinar recording and the presentation slides).

Michael Victor framed how the presenters used communications beyond outreach and advocacy, as a social learning process to create empowerment and involvement: “Communications for change”, going from “Research Communications” to “response driven strategic communications”, via “participatory communications” to true “social learning and empowerment”, stressing, again, the “positive deviance” in being innovative.
Meredith Giordano, as a researcher, concentrated on the role of communications in the synthesis process of research outcomes.
Long term astronaut Peter Ballantyne highlighted participatory agricultural research communications, stressing that “our usual research communications” is not enough to achieve outcomes and advocated for effective and rich participatory engagement of the stakeholder.
Julian Gonsalves, another long term comms astronaut, presented the use of “writeshops” as an example how we can repackage research.
Fisher Qua highlighted how multiple stakeholder – with potentially conflicting interests – can be brought together into a single platform to enrich a process.
Juliet Braslow joined in to highlight “participatory video” as a process for interactive research in development, giving a voice to those often not heard.
Karen Hampson, likewise, highlighted the use of “Farm Radio” to share knowledge and giving a platform to those involved in our work, but often lacking that voice.
Beatrice Makwenda, through Francois Stepman, gave an actual example on the use of phone videos to foster the research uptake for a specific research uptake of aflatoxin/groundnet research by farmers.

Likewise, in the second part of our “Challenging Communications” webinar, we concentrated on the use of our comms tools for internal communications. (Check out the webinar recording and the presentation slides).

Long term colleague and astronaut Simone Staiger highlighted the challenges and impact of internal communications at CIAT.
Cavin Mugarura highlighted how to use a comms tool for internal team project management.
Carina Carrasco shared her experience of internal communications in a multi-stakeholder environment.
Peter Casier highlighted the art of facilitation in online participatory communities.

And we went on with the next webinar, where we showed how to use the “astronautical” process of participatory video as a form of participatory media-generation in which a group or a community creates their own video to make an issue, a research, a process more accessible, and would be better adapted to the target audience.
Juliet Braslow, Nelson Ojijo, Manon Koningstein, Shadi Azadegan and Soledad Muniz shared their experiences, challenges and lessons learned in using participatory video where the process was at least as important as the outcome itself.
Check out the video recording of this webinar, and the presentation.

And, at the moment I write this, we’re about to have the webinar on using “radio” as a medium to “participatorily” engage with our audience and stakeholders. Check out the announcement and registration details. Join us!

Be an astronaut

Beyond anything, this is a call not to be a chicken or an eagle, but to become an agricultural communications astronaut.

Don’t use communications as your goal, but as a means, as a process to reach your higher altruistic goals. Don’t get stuck on pageviews and Twitter followers, but use your projects to make this a better world, starting with agricultural development….

Blogpost and picture by Peter Casier, GFAR community coordinator

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