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Ag Communications reaching wide, diverse audience

Starkville — It has a long name and, as a service agency, its staff members do many things. It’s Mississippi State University’s (MSU’s) Office of Agricultural Communications (OAC), and it provides a wide range of communications planning and production services for the Division of Agriculture, Forestry and Veterinary Medicine. That division includes the Office of the Vice President, MSU Extension Service, Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station (MAFES) and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

This unit was formed in 1988 by combining all the separate communication functions that had been performed for decades by the experiment station and the Extension Service, according to office head Dr. Tom Knecht. “The university has three focuses,” he said. “Those are teaching, research and extension which is to carry the latest findings out to people who can use it.”

Opportunities for students

Located on the first floor of the Bost Extension Center, the agricultural communications office employs 30 people in four production groups. Those four include graphics and photography, marketing and special projects, print media and electronic media. Each section functions as a team with much of the production work involving collaborative efforts among sections. Also, eight or 10 university student interns work each semester.

“It’s a great arrangement,” Knecht said. “The students have things for their portfolios, and it helps us get a lot of work done. We have no trouble getting students.”

Most products OAC develops are educational in nature, but some are designed to publicize programs and enhance the visibility of division units and the university. A Web site, MSUCares.com, offers information in a format Knecht says is easy to use, intended to be customer-friendly and gets a lot of hits.

The most widely utilized service the OAC provides is the weekly television program, “Farm Week,” that appears on the public network, RFD TV and Direct TV. Produced in cooperation with the University Television Center at MSU, the program is watched by 250,000 viewers on a regular basis.

“The show has news involved with agriculture that’s of interest to rural people and feature stories to see what others are doing,” he said. “Every week we’re working hard to produce it.”

To choose content for the program, the production crew keeps in touch with what’s going on, watches the markets and uses intuition. “The biggest news right now is the threat to the state’s soybean crop from soybean rust,” he said.

This group also produces videos and public service announcements.

Into print, too

Every week, the print media section provides a newspacket of news and feature stories to 92 daily and weekly newspapers in the state that keeps several people writing. Working with specialists, this section is also responsible for developing brochures on a wide variety of subjects — everything from “How to Grow Roses” to human nutrition and health to lengthy research papers. The OAC has about 2,000 published titles, all available on its Web site. Knecht says they get a lot of feedback from the Extension offices and working with community groups to decide topics to be covered.
Mississippi LandMarks, a quarterly magazine for a diverse readership, was launched last month. It covers all aspects of agriculture, forestry and veterinary medicine.

“We are moving all printed materials for the Extension Service to a print-on-demand basis so we won’t have so much inventory,” Knecht said. “We can print and ship as needed.”

He notes the trend of younger people and urban dwellers to go to the Web site as the first source of information. “There will continue to be a need for print, but it’s shifting,” he said. “For economy, we’ll be printing things on paper for a long time.”

The graphics and photography section does a lot of design that is incorporated into other products, providing assistance for all units. They also design and produce displays for trade shows and community events.

Moving to digital

A former editor, who has worked in agricultural communications for a long time, Knecht finds it exciting to see things move to a digital format. “With it we can do our job better and reach more people,” he said. “We will continue to use a variety of media to reach all people.”

At MSU since 1988, he sees the OAC reaching a more diverse audience. They hired a cross cultural communicator in November 2003. “We see a need for that,” he said. “It’s mostly Spanish. Unfortunately, we can’t have every language, but the state is experiencing the same growth that the Southwest experienced.”

Knecht feels the OAC touches a lot of people with what it does. Its primary goal is to support education and outreach.

“We will continue to do that, capturing changes in opportunities that the digital era offers us to communicate with people,” he said. “We will be more targeted and more timely to reach more people.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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