Agricultural Communications, Purdue University
An electronic newsletter with communication tips and information

September 1997

Help Us Help You

Remember the reader survey we sent out earlier this year? We found that one of the most requested topics was risk communication. That's a broad area to cover, so you'll be seeing more about it in the future--especially if you help us help you.

For this issue of "On Target" Ag Comm's Steve Cain and Ag Econ's Otto Doering put their heads together and came up with some questions you can ask and strategies you can follow when you think an issue may be "risky business." They hope this article will start an ongoing discussion about communicating risky issues. So do we.

If there are specific areas of this broad topic you want to see covered or a specific question you'd like to have answered, let Steve know. If you've learned a lesson from your experience on the front lines that'll help the rest of us, ditto.

The "On Target" Team

Controversial Issues: Questions & Strategies

Here are some questions and strategies to help you determine how to respond to controversial issues.


  1. Who is the audience?

    This is always the first and foremost question. Once you've answered it, other questions will help you decide what communication strategy to follow when dealing with a controversial or "risky" issue. You'll still have to come up with the answers, but these are some of the questions to ask.

  2. What is Purdue's role?

    Does the issue stem from Purdue research, or is it an "outside" issue that Purdue has been brought in on?

    For example, perhaps Purdue swine management research has introduced a new practice that is causing controversy. Or maybe it's a land-use issue involving competing outside interests and you are brought in to facilitate.

  3. What are the special concerns?

    For example:

  4. Who will manage the information?

    It must be managed. LUCK DOESN'T WORK! Being too busy to survey the audience, understand the issue, and bring the correct package of information to that audience is not an excuse. It's a deadly mistake.

  5. Are you and Purdue being used?
Scope the landscape. Find out who is involved, how intense the issues are, who gains, and who loses.


Say you've reviewed these questions, the battle lines are drawn, and you are inescapably involved. Consider these strategies.

  1. Do your homework. Use an impeccably reliable phone network. Start with colleagues. Call everyone you can think of to better understand the audience, issues, and options.

  2. Make sure the problem's been properly defined. Sometimes people become passionate about proxy issues. For example, the spotted owl was not the issue. The issue was cutting of old growth timber. A proper definition may lead to a solution and/or reduce the controversy.

  3. If you can, work ahead of time with key people who represent both sides of the issue but are less extreme. You might be able to find common ground or discover that they don't disagree on the main issue. This may help you redefine the issue for larger audiences, and it may form bridges across the gap.

Look before you leap into controversial issues. It's hard to do when the heat is on, but that makes it even more important.

How to Cite Web Sites: Part II

Last month, I presented my "angle bracket solution" to the problem of handling Web site citations in "On Target." Here, I discuss a way to address another Web citation problem.

The problem is that Web sites and their URLs change. They are moved or sometimes simply disappear.

Therefore, in a bibliography or other formal setting, it's becoming a convention to include, in parentheses at the end of the citation, the date you last accessed the URL, that is, the date when the accuracy of your URL information was last verified.

It's a good idea to make this one of the last steps you take in preparing your information for publication or presentation. This ensures that your information is as up-to-date as you can make it, and it's also a form of proofreading. (No spell checker I know of will spot a typo in a URL.)

If "On Target" were a more formal publication, you'd see (Accessed September 15, 1997) after the citation at the end of this article. But it isn't particularly formal, so you won't. We try to make our articles as short, informal, and accessible as possible. In this case, this means that we don't want to clog up articles with parenthetical information about date of last access on top of already cumbersome URLs.

Instead, it's "On Target" policy that the editor always verify the URLs cited by trying each and every one before an issue goes out. That way, you know that the date of last access is within a day or two of the date of the "On Target" issue in which the URL appears.

Again, if you don't approve of my shortcut and want to find enough information to come up with your own solution, see "Citing online sources," part of "World Wide Words" at <>.

Simple Is Better--Less Is Best

You've decided a display is the best way to reach your audience. Now you're ready for two new questions.


Passersby only take 16 to 30 seconds to look at a display, so keep your message brief, to the point, and easily understood. After all, a display is not a publication.

News-style writing with short, active sentences is a good way to start. Use bullet lists with key phrases instead of lengthy narrative. Keep the language parallel. (For example, start each item in your list with an active verb.)

Use only main ideas for the display. If you're handing out related publications, you can omit a lot of detail from the display because it's in the publications.

Captions should be one or two brief sentences. Information blocks should be no more than three or four short sentences. Bullet lists with three points--and perhaps a couple of subpoints--are acceptable.

Bringing neatly typed copy to the Ag Comm display staff saves turnaround time because it's easier to read than handwritten copy. If you use word processing, save your file as an ASCII file on a 3-1/2" diskette that can be easily transferred into a Macintosh environment. And, please, check the spelling of your message before you submit your project.


Photographs add appeal to displays. As you shoot or gather photos from colleagues, keep in mind the 8" x 10" format, a very adaptable size. We'll crop the photos to fit the layout and text of your display.

Unlike video and slide show images, display photos can be vertical or horizontal. To add visual interest, we'll crop them into a variety of shapes and sizes. Allow plenty of negative space (background) in the prints. That is, make sure the subject is well placed and composed so cropping the area around the subject enhances the image.

We place photos with people facing toward the center of the display to direct the viewers' attention to, rather than away from, the exhibit. Try to collect photos with people facing left, others with people facing right, and perhaps some with people facing straight ahead. This allows a varied and more interesting placement.

Don't know what to say or shoot? Still at the idea stage? Call us at (765) 494-7081, and we'll brainstorm.

Grammar Trap: Insure vs. Ensure vs. Assure

Hmmm. A tricky one. Tricky enough that only the pickiest among us still worry about the distinctions, especially between the first two words.

Strictly speaking--very strictly speaking--"insure" should be reserved for financial matters, when you're talking about insurance, about payment in the event of loss or harm.

Example: I have to find a company that will insure my house.

"Ensure," then, is what you use when you're talking about how to make something sure or certain.

Example: It's the editor's job to ensure that every Web citation in "On Target" is verified right before publication.

And "assure"? That's what you use when you're trying to give people confidence, when you're trying to reassure them.

Example: I assure you that it's safe.

If there's a grammar (or usage) trap you'd like me to discuss or you have a tip that will help the rest of us avoid one, please let me know.

We want to hear from you. Do you have a communication question? Do you have a comment on this issue of "On Target"? If so, please e-mail any of our writers.

It is the policy of the Department of Agricultural Communication Service of Purdue University that all persons shall have equal opportunity and access to its programs and facilities without regard to race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age or disability. Purdue University is an Affirmative Action employer. These materials may be available in alternative formats.