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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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RQ1: How do urban agricultural-based, non-profit organizations (NPOs) use their Facebook profile page to engage active publics who have become a fan of their organization on a social networking site, such as Facebook?

RQ2: What components of the Stewardship Model are present through communicative patterns and themes present on the NPOs Facebook profile page?

RQ3: What specific comments/posts by admins who represent the NPO and/or fans on their Facebook profiles suggests the presence of components of the stewardship model?

Methodology The study incorporated the use of qualitative methods, particularly a textual analysis to review both the organization’s traditional website and supplementary sites for social networking—specifically focusing on the Facebook profile pages for 13 non-profits focused on contemporary urban agriculture in the U.S.

Because engagement through social media was at the core of this study, it was imperative to include organizations that referred to themselves as “urban farms” and “community gardens” in the overall investigation—regardless of whether the reasons for the existence of the NPOs were to cultivate locally grown food for social, economic or health reasons. To determine which organizations would be used for analysis, a list of 20 urban agricultural, non-profit organizations were outlined based on results from a traditional internet (i.e., Google) search.

Next, after compiling the list, visits were made to each organization’s website, to determine and confirm that: (a) the organization was a 501 3(c) designated non-profit organization, and (b) there was a link or some other indicator offered on the traditional website to any social networking sites—specifically Facebook. If there was a link to a Facebook presence, it was identified as an icon with a blue background and white lowercase “f”.

If there were no apparent links or indicators present on the traditional website, two other methods were employed. First, the general search function on the Facebook website was used to determine if that organization had an active Facebook profile, and/or, a Google search would likely indicate a Facebook profile. Surprisingly, it is important to note that some of the organizations did not have an existing link from their traditional website to their social networking site, although they did have a Facebook profile, the NPOs social networking site was only discovered after exhausting the first two search options, and conducting a Google search.

In terms of each site, there was no particular person(s) of interest, but rather, the study sought to solely explore the discussion text—mainly from the perspective of the NPO, directed to their external stakeholders who were fans of their Facebook profile. To conduct the actual analysis portion of the study, the main discussion feature on Facebook (referred to as the ‘Wall’) was reviewed and any words or phrases that indicated a relationship to one or more of the steps within the stewardship model, were examined more closely. Simple wording that are considered to be universally agreed upon, such as whether or not the organization posted a comment that included ‘thank you’ or ‘appreciation’ which would demonstrate reciprocity, were identified as well as more complex wording that was not as obvious, but still indicated that one or more of the stewardship model were present in the text.

163 Although this study does incorporate the stewardship model—which has its traditional foundation focusing on fundraising matters and maintaining relationships with donors—it intends to examine the model in such a slightly different way. Specifically, the conversational text was examined for words or phrases that would be consistent with the general ideology that undergirds stewardship, but also adapts those concepts for the urban agricultural NPO. These organizations, while similar to other non-profits in the fact that they rely on and need financial support—from donors and grant-funding agencies—differ because they also equally (if not more) rely on volunteer support for the intensive labor that is involved in the creation and maintenance of farming. Therefore, this study makes some modifications to the traditional stewardship model, which are discussed in more detail in the results section.

Results Of the organizational Facebook profiles that were examined, a considerable number seemed to be able to engage vital stakeholders through their social networking presence. Not only did they list events that were both sponsored by their own organizations, but some went as far to post articles that either featured their organization, or information on various campaigns and/or pending legislation that would influence their organizational mission.

For instance, the Jones Valley Urban Farm (JVUF) nonprofit organization, based in Birmingham, Alabama, was featured on the independent website, Civil Eats, and in a recent issue of Elle Décor magazine, within a general feature story highlighting the city. While some urban agricultural NPOs had as few as 250 fans, there were some organizations that boasted over 2,000 fans that participated with their organization’s social network. Furthermore, some organizations appeared to be more consistent with their external communication strategies, by communicating nearly on a daily basis, while other organizational profiles had not been updated with new content in several months.





Reciprocity Although, at its core, reciprocity is about exhibiting gratitude towards stakeholders that have been supportive of specific initiatives and programs of an organization, it is useful to explore how the concept could be adapted to an urban agricultural NPO. For instance, “an effective and simple form of recognition is to personalize, whenever possible all future communications to supportive publics, thereby recognizing their special status to the organization” (Kelly, 2001, p. 284). Similarly, Waters (2009) described the first component of stewardship—reciprocity—as, “the acknowledgement of the publics and a sincere expression of appreciation on behalf of the organization” (p. 114).

Applied to urban agricultural NPOs, reciprocity need not explicitly be related to extending gratitude to target stakeholders for their donations. As suggested in an earlier section of this study, a mention was made that reciprocity could simply be thanking volunteers for their support of the organization’s mission and operating procedures. In December 2009, for example, the Gateway Greening NPO in St. Louis, Missouri, acknowledged a monetary donation, by posting the following message, “Many thanks to the SLU [St. Louis University] Dietetics Intern Class of 2010 for your donation” (Gateway Greening, 2010). Similarly, demonstrated is gratitude for growing interest in their programs, with the JVUF admin writing a comment to inform stakeholders that, “we are getting tons of requests for CSA [Community Supported Agriculture] memberships (thanks, y’all)! See our notes tab for complete details” (Jones Valley Urban Farm, 2010).

164 Responsibility & Reporting With over 250 Facebook fans and based in Detroit, Michigan, the profile page for the Earthworks Urban Farm clearly demonstrates its efforts to engage in reporting with its stakeholders, with a full-time volunteer posting the following message to the profile, asking

Facebook fans to:

Join us as we come together to rally behind the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act!

Learn about how we can advocate for $1 more per student school lunch, farm to school programs and more! Let’s work together for some CHANGE (Earthworks Urban Farm, 2009).

The keywords and/or phrases that indicate that this is an effort that is most closely related to reporting are “advocate”, “rally behind”, and “work together” for change. This is because, not only is reporting about being transparent with donors to ensure that the intent of their donation was fulfilled, but also because, as Kelly (2001) writes, “organizations are required to keep publics informed about developments related to the opportunity or problem for which support was sought” (p. 285).

Thus, it could be argued that rallying behind legislation that ultimately supports the mission and goals of the organization, and asking that supporters be involved in potentially facilitating the legislation passes, would qualify as an example of the responsibility function of stewardship as well.

Also, with urban agricultural NPOs, there may be some considerable overlap with one or more of the components that consists within the traditional stewardship model. For instance, there might have been a comment posted by the admin which included key words or phrases that encompassed and could be applied to two or more of the stewardship model’s four steps. The previous text from the Earthworks Urban Farm alerting stakeholders to the Childhood Reauthorization Act could also be used as an example of responsibility, because as Waters (2009) indicated that there is an implicit understanding that organizations maintain their core principles through their behavior and actions.

Finally, one could argue that a component of reporting could be informing the organization’s social networking fans about certain procedures that—if incorporated into the farming process—might be helpful as spring planting season is nearing. For instance, St. Louis,

Missouri’s Gateway Greening organization recommends that:

The new Farm to School (FTS) Tips, Tools & Guidelines for Food Distribution & Food Safety manual is intended to provide information, insight and useful tools for farmers and school service directors interested in FTS program participation, distribution and food safety. (Gateway Greening, 2010).

In the previous quotation, terms such as “safety manual”, indicate that this is reporting, because the organization is taking an active interest in disseminating information related to safety issues, not to mention, taking an honest approach to being transparent with stakeholders about the potential hazards that might come with the planting process.

Relationship Nurturing As with other components of the model, urban agricultural NPOs tend to facilitate their relationship nurturing strategies mostly through encouraging stakeholders to attend various events or participate in purchasing items cultivated by the organization. After an organization has incorporated practices that are consistent with reciprocity, responsibility and reporting, they must then determine how they want to cultivate the relationship with target stakeholders to 165 cultivate the relationship. Kelly (2001), also discussed this component of the stewardship model, by indicating that “the most effective means of nurturing relationships are quite simple: accept the importance of supportive publics and keep them at the forefront of the organization’s consciousness” (p. 286).

Another example of relationship nurturing is from the Facebook profile of the Urban Farm at Stapleton, which focuses on improving the lives of inner-city, low-income neighborhoods in Denver, Colorado, which hosted a fundraising event, Arts for the Animals, in September 2009. In their reminder to Facebook fans on August 28th, the admin posted the

following comment:

Art for the Animals (AFTA) is an annual event and is just one way that the farm raises funds. Proceeds from AFTA are used specifically to feed the animals. Tickets are sold for the vent which entitles two guests to attend and enjoy light fare and wine. Each ticket also determines the order in which guests will choose from one of a kind art including framed photographs, jewelry, portraits and figurines donated by local artists and galleries.

Last year there were over 100 attendees with this year’s event promising to be even bigger (The Urban Farm, 2009).

As a result of the promotion of this event, there were two fan comments, with one fan commenting that “I participated last year and it was a stellar evening. And I came home with a beautiful piece of art work! Count me in for this year” (The Urban Farm, 2009).

Conclusion

Overall, the urban agricultural NPOs that participated in managing and updating their Facebook social networking profiles on a consistent basis—with at least two posts per week— were clearly able to encourage more activity and engagement from fans, on their profiles.

However, what appeared to be the most fascinating aspect of the study was that, those organizations which appeared to recognize the value in taking advantage of this participatory aspect of media, were also the ones who most closely demonstrated the four components of the stewardship model.

Second, over half of the NPOs reviewed for this study, were overlooking a critical opportunity to engage with current and potential stakeholders through social media. Either these organizations didn’t possess any user-friendly information on their website which clearly suggested a social networking extension, or the identifiable social networking icons or links, were simply non-existent. When considering this statement, it is certainly plausible that one could argue that it is almost better not to incorporate a social network into the organization’s external communication efforts, as opposed to implementing it, but failing to publicize this increasingly popular feature.

Finally, the NPOs that demonstrate the strongest skill by engaging in and conveying their messages with important stakeholders, as well as placing a premium on promoting their participation in social networking, are not without the need for improvements. As has been stressed in many previous studies, the practice of public relations is significantly strengthened when communication between the organization and its stakeholders is tactically facilitated through two-way communication. Thus, these organizations could truly integrate more participatory components to their social networking sites in a variety of ways. For instance, the organization could pose a question, or directly ask fans for feedback. This might generate more “conversation” as opposed to some of the Facebook profiles resembling a simple high-tech form of one-way communication.



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