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«13TH INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC RELATIONS RESEARCH CONFERENCE “Ethical Issues for Public Relations Practice in a Multicultural World” Holiday Inn ...»

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In March 2009, numerous media outlets descended on the White House to cover a group of visiting 5th grade students from Bancroft Elementary School in Washington, D.C. The students were present in order to assist First Lady, Michelle Obama, in cultivating an organic, vegetable garden on the White House grounds, which notably, is the first garden of its kind to be cultivated there since Eleanor Roosevelt’s tenure as First Lady during the 1940s (Burros, 2009).

Although this initiative has garnered a great deal of media attention and has refocused the spotlight on the practice of urban farming as a way to incorporate sustainable living practices, the activity of urban agriculture is not necessarily a new one. However, it is significant to detail what urban agriculture—which includes urban farming and community gardening practices—is.

Simply, urban agriculture is defined as, “the growing, processing and distribution of food and other products through intensive plant cultivation in and around cities” (Community Food Security Coalition’s North American Urban Agriculture Committee, 2003). Community gardens, which are similar, but also emphasize the communal perspective, are defined by the American Community Gardening Association’s website (ACGA) as, “any piece of land gardened by a group of people” (2009).

There are a number of reasons that urban farms have become increasingly popular as of late. First, these establishments have stimulated interest as a result of heightened awareness and interest among consumers in understanding how food is cultivated and produced. Furthermore, consumers increasingly want to incorporate activities and overall lifestyles that will contribute to individual health and well-being. Reynolds (2009), appropriately adds that residents often, “practice urban farming and gardening for recreation, health and nutrition, community empowerment and urban greening”; the latter being a concept which the author clarifies as “the planning and establishment of vegetative landscapes in urban settings” (p. 1). Considering these factors, along with the emergence of these non-profit organizations, coincide with a general increase in awareness of environmental practices through many well-publicized “green” campaigns and business initiatives.

Second, these developments are promising, but there remains a large segment of the population that are—due to their socio-economic status—disproportionately affected by adverse health conditions. Bernheim, Ross, Krumbolz and Bradley (2008), indicated that socioeconomic status affects a human being’s access to quality health care services, particularly those services that are deemed as ‘preventative’, and that this impediment to quality health care also occurs among individuals who carry full health insurance.

Additionally, with the alarming prevalence of ailments such as diabetes, hypertension and obesity—National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey researchers found that, from 2007 to 2008, among children ages 2 to 19, “32 percent were at risk for being overweight or obese” (Ostrow, 2010). This premise underscored Mrs. Obama’s reasoning, aside from providing healthy meals for the first family, that these initiatives should “educate children about healthful, locally grown fruit and vegetables at a time when obesity and diabetes have become a national concern” (Burros, 2009).

Moreover, there are some communities in which people do not have access to consistent quality food retailers and other services in order to adopt a healthy lifestyle. Several factors may have created this situation, but most glaring is that many of these communities are situated in areas where upscale grocery store chains are non-existent, which increases the need for quality transportation.

160 Thus, if the lack of transportation becomes a dilemma, then the ability to maintain a healthy diet may present greater challenges, as opposed to those in communities which offer a variety of food options. A recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, suggested that there were strong correlations between diet and socio-economic status, which indicated, “higher quality diets are associated with greater affluence, energy-dense diets that are nutrient-poor are preferentially consumed by persons of lower socio-economic status” (Darmon & Drewnowski, 2008, p. 1107).

Finally, many communities view the importance of the urban farm and community garden movement from a social context—particularly as a means to bring together residents of a specific neighborhood. For instance, the 11th St. Bridge community in Wilmington, Delaware, currently uses their urban farm to not only grow and sell produce at a local farmer’s market, but residents have indicated that since the farm’s establishment, it has helped to both unify the neighborhood, by helping “neighbors get to know each other” (Zewe, 2009).

Purpose of the Study Incorporating a textual analysis, the purpose of this exploratory research was to examine the Facebook profiles or “fan” pages of 13 urban agricultural, non-profit organizations (NPO) based in the U.S. to determine what elements of the stewardship model—reciprocity, responsibility, reporting and relationship nurturing—as proposed by Kelly (2001), are present in the online external communications conducted by the organization with their stakeholders, which on Facebook, are referred to as ‘fans’.

The overall aim of this study was to conduct an exploratory investigation to establish an understanding of: (1) what components of the stewardship model are present on the Facebook profile page through communicative patterns and themes from the organizational leadership to fans, and (2): what comments/posts by the organization’s personnel (who act as ‘admins’ of the social networking site to communicate with stakeholders) and fans indicate components of the stewardship model.

Building upon the previous research, (Waters, et al., 2009; Waters, 2009) this qualitativebased study focused on an examination of the stewardship model from the perspective that it can be also used as a way to engage non-profit volunteers and community members, who donate their time and other resources, as opposed to solely focusing on those who make monetary contributions.

Overall, this work contributes to the existing body of public relations research in two, primary ways. First, it extends the discussion of how social networking, when incorporated and used both ethically and in a creative manner, can yield significantly positive results for nonprofit organizations that want to engage with current and potential online stakeholders. Second, it suggests that examinations of the stewardship model can, and should focus in the long-term, or go beyond those simply focused on financial returns, but also take into consideration those who give of their time and expertise, on a voluntary basis.

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was conceptualized and adapted for public relations practice—primarily from a fundraising perspective. In particular, the stewardship model includes four stages—reciprocity, responsibility, reporting and relationship nurturing.

However, to fully understand the concept of stewardship, literature on donor relations was also reviewed. Hedrick (2008) conducted research among a group of board of directors, she found that they identified stewardship as, “honoring donor intent, prudent investment of gifts, and the effective and efficient use of funds to further the mission of the organization” (p. 180).

When asked to elaborate on those responses, the research participants could not provide any further details on the concept, promptly to which the author quickly indicated that, all too often, organizations forget to include the importance of reporting in developing the stewardship process.

Unlike Kelly’s (2001) outlining of the components of stewardship, Hedrick’s (2008) assessment does not include a category on relationship nurturing. Perhaps this is because much of what the donor relations was traditionally thought to be, did not include an attempt to actually report how the financial contributions were used. For example, when asked to extend their thinking as to what should occur after the donation had been made and the appropriate thanks extended, most members of several board of directors that participated in the exercise appeared to have forgotten that reporting is a critical factor in the stewardship process.

Social Engagement & Non-Profit Organization’s Use of Social Media When stakeholders participate in online communication, the most basic element that is being nurtured and cultivated is that of the relationship. As one of the leading studies on relationships, Ledingham and Bruning (2001), suggested that the community is where strategic communication is perhaps most significant and critical to organizational success. In this work, they also discussed the emergence of community relations activities that appeared in the late 1800s and early 1900s, because of the advances in industrialization that fueled America’s economic rise. While some would believe that public apathy towards businesses is only a recent phenomenon, this is something that was becoming problematic even during those early years.

However, business literature is keenly aware of the importance that community involvement plays in a corporation’s success. While the public relations literature is limited, scholars such as Coombs (2000, as cited in Ledingham & Bruning, 2001) have included an examination of the role of community relations during crises, and asserts that a “mutually beneficial approach to organization-public relationships can minimize the impact of crises when they occur” (p. 529).

Previous research that examined social networking sites and stewardship was conducted by Waters et al. (2009), in which the researchers applied a quantitative approach to examine the process by which nonprofit stakeholders were engaged when the use of social networking— specifically Facebook—was incorporated into the overall fundraising strategy. This same year, Waters (2009) also examined the stewardship model strictly for fundraising and general relationship-building purposes in a second, quantitative-based study. These studies are critical to our understanding of how stewardship can be facilitated through online, social networking. In addition, these investigations have led the way, particularly in public relations research examining social networking sites such as Facebook, thus legitimizing the exploration of this social network as a viable public relations tool.


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