One of the most challenging jobs for communicators in our business is connecting with the public about the value of Florida agriculture.

Our state has grown increasingly urban, and residents are several generations removed from the farm.

In many schools, agriculture is no longer a strong part—or any part—of the curriculum. And in today’s media world, a constant drone of information and clutter inundates consumers.

We can always improve on what we say about Florida agriculture and how we say it.

The Agriculture Institute of Florida is a statewide organization dedicated to doing just that: educating, encouraging and equipping individuals and groups to communicate more effectively about Florida agriculture.

I have the pleasure of leading the organization this year.

After months discussing whether the traditional ag messages were really connecting with the public anymore, the Ag Institute decided to commission research to explore that question.

After all, research lies at the heart of progress in our industry, whether it’s developing new varieties, improving crop protection tools or communicating with the public.

So in 2010, the Ag Institute partnered with the University of Florida’s Center for Public Issues Education to test public perception of words, phrases and images widely used in agriculture.

The results were interesting and in some cases surprising.

We learned that the public has grown increasingly wary of some phrases we commonly use. For instance, the terms “food safety” and “best management practices” were met with skepticism.

Talk about hard to swallow … consumers just aren’t buying some of the best news we have to share about what the grower community is doing.

The project yielded valuable results, and researchers provided a set of recommendations based on the findings.

For example, they recommended that when using photos of animal agriculture, choose images that contain an easily identifiable action, such as grazing.

As with most research, the study also led to additional questions to be explored. That brings us to the current joint effort by the Ag Institute and PIE Center.

This research will take the next step in helping us develop key messages that have a better chance of resonating with the public.

What are the most effective communication techniques?

The current project, called “Positioning Florida Agriculture,” will help us identify how to “frame” our messages—in what context to put them.

The research also will seek to determine the most effective communication techniques to use when developing key messages.

Specifically, the researchers are looking at how people perceive a message based on their internal attitudes.

For example, they want to know what motivates people more—a potential reward or a possible threat. That will yield valuable information about how to best frame the most effective persuasive message.

The research is underway. When it’s finished, the PIE Center plans to share the results. It’s exciting because this type of research has not been done before, and it promises to yield practical recommendations.

According to Tracy Irani, PIE Center director, the research also has caught the attention of other educational institutions, which are interested in replicating it.

Your help is needed

The Ag Institute Foundation funded all of the 2010 project. For this newest research, the organization is seeking industry support.

Leading ag organizations, such as the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, the Florida Sod Growers Cooperative and the Florida Golf Course Superintendents Association, already have become partners on the project.

All sectors of Florida agriculture will benefit from this research, and you can play a vital role in its success.

Tax-deductible contributions can be made to the Agriculture Institute of Florida Foundation at a number of different sponsor levels.

For more information on contributing, visit this site online: http://bit.ly/nUAKD5.

Lisa Lochridge is the director of public affairs for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association in Maitland. She can be reached at (321) 214-5206 or lisa.lochridge@ffva.com.