Wednesday, July 31, 2019

A Q&A with New Western IPM Center Director Amer Fayad

Dr. Amer Fayad

Dr. Amer Fayad joined the Western IPM Center in July as its new director, coming from the IPM Innovation Lab headquartered at Virginia Tech University. This introductory Q&A was recorded in Davis, California and has been minimally edited for clarity and length.

Q: Tell us a little about your background and education.
A: I have a B.S. in agriculture from the American University of Beirut and I was very interested in crop protection so I did my master’s in crop protection, specifically in plant pathology. For my research, I worked on IPM for cucurbit viruses in Lebanon. I went on to do a Ph.D. at Virginia Tech in plant pathology and a post-doc at the University of Florida in citrus viruses.

After that, I spent six years teaching biology, environmental sciences and health and nutrition at Notre Dame University-Louaize in Lebanon and in 2011 I saw an opportunity to join the IPM Innovation Lab at Virginia Tech. I was really interested in going back into research and into the IPM field, so I applied for it. I got the job, moved back to the U.S. and I was involved in managing the project for eight years until I joined the Western IPM Center.
Q : What was the focus of the IPM Innovation Lab?
A: The IPM Innovation Lab is a USAID-funded program (United States Agency for International Development) focused on improving the standards of living of smallholder farmers specifically by helping them protect their crops from pests and diseases. The focus was on using economically sound, environmentally sound and ecologically sound IPM approaches to pest management. We worked to develop IPM tactics and also to find ways to disseminate that knowledge to farmers, to scientists, to the public and the private sectors and to policy makers in the developing countries where we worked.

Another big focus was capacity development for farmers and scientists, especially early career scientists. So we sponsored graduate students and post-docs and we conducted several workshops. We also focused on empowering women to make sure that they had equal access to resources and information about pest management and had a voice in making decisions and being involved in the program design and implementation.

The countries we worked in varied over time, depending on the phase of the project and on USAID and the State Department. Our last phase was focused in East Africa in Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania and in Asia we were working in Vietnam, Cambodia, Nepal and Bangladesh.

Q: What was your specific role there?
A: My role as associate director was managing the portfolio of projects – the coordination of the research activities, communication of results and planning for workshops and meetings. Most of it was linking U.S. scientists or partners with the national partners in the countries where we worked and also making the connections and linkages with the students, farmers, NGO partners and policy makers.

Some of my activities as a virologist were conducting workshops that focused on plant virus diseases and the management of those diseases, and representing the IPM Innovation Lab at scientific meetings and meetings with USAID or USAID missions in the host countries.

Q: I imagine you travelled frequently.
A: Yes, yes I did. I miss it, international travel.

Q: What elements of your previous work do you think will be most relevant to your new role at the Western IPM Center?
A: I think what's most relevant is the understanding of what IPM is and my experience working with different stakeholders – people coming from different cultures, different languages and different disciplines. I think the same applies here and I can use my knowledge and experience in working with diverse stakeholders throughout the West.

Q: What attracted you to this position what are you most looking forward to with this job?
A: What attracted me most is that it required a solid background in science and using science-based IPM approaches. I also liked that it presents an opportunity to create linkages between farmers and commodity groups and scientists and regulators. I think sometimes a common language is missing between all of these groups. This is a great opportunity to make those connections, which I hope can advance the mission of the Center.

Also these days, there's a lot of mistrust about pest management so I think there's a great opportunity for the Western IPM Center to educate the public, consumers and regulators about IPM and that IPM can be a safe alternative to chemical pesticides or standard practices some farmers use.

Q: Do you think the public needs to know about IPM?
A: Definitely. I think consumers want safe, healthy, high-quality produce but they’re unaware about agricultural practices and crop production and protection. And I think there's lots of misconceptions about pesticides, and about organic agriculture and biological control.

Unfortunately, the IPM community hasn’t been really vocal. We haven’t done enough to talk about how important IPM is and how safe it can be for the consumers and how it can deliver safe produce at a fair price. The community has struggled, especially with the rise of organic, but we also have to remember that organic doesn't always mean safer and not every consumer can afford to buy organic. And we have to think not just about the U.S., but also about all the billions of people who don't have access to food and resources.

IPM is a really important strategy to help produce enough food to feed the billions of people on the planet, but it's a challenge.

Q: What are your plans for getting started?
A: I think the biggest thing I need to do my first month or so is to get to know all the partners and the stakeholders. The Western region is huge and there are lots of players, from the commodity groups to the IPM coordinators and scientists and Center co-directors. I need to establish a rapport with them. And, especially since the position has been vacant for a while, I’ll need to make an extra effort to get to know all the people and get the discussion going again. It's a lot of people.

Q: What do you think will be the biggest challenges?
A: What we just talked about – getting to know all the players and seeing the areas where we can make the most impact.

I think another big challenge we’re facing is all the changes at USDA NIFA and its move from Washington D.C. to Kansas City. I hope that will not impede our progress and I’ll work to find ways to make sure that the Center is not affected and our work goes forward smoothly.

Q: Did you have similar situations with USAID?
A: Yes. All the time. Yeah, we had budget cuts, budget delays.

Q: So how do you deal with it?
A: You have to make sure that our stories are out. Make sure our legislators are aware of what we're doing. I think the same applies to the Western IPM Center in that we have to make sure that all the people who make decisions are aware of what we do and the importance of what we do and the impact that we can make.

We need to keep telling our story. We have to have the data, have that evidence and then we have to make our case. Science doesn't speak for itself. We have to be the voice for science.

Q: What else do you want people to know about you?
A: Well, I will say that, yes, I'm passionate about the science but I'm also passionate about the people. One of the things that attracted me to this position and my previous position is working with people and connecting with different stakeholders. I'm passionate about people having equal access and equal opportunity to resources, to education, to food and health.

I value diversity and human rights. I've been involved in many activities to promote those principles throughout my career and I hope to continue to find ways to be engaged in making a difference in the lives of my community and the community at large.

I'm passionate about teaching. I miss teaching college students. I had the opportunity to do workshops in my previous job and I hope I will have similar opportunities in this position.

I'm passionate about running and indoor cycling and food, culture and travelling.

Friday, January 4, 2019

To Communicate Better, Start with Audience

by Steve Elliott

A few years ago, at a meeting of the four Regional IPM Centers, a web designer was briefing the group on a new website he was building. The first question someone asked was what colors he planned to use.

I cringed. We hadn’t talked about the purpose of the site and who it would reach and what content we’d post but here we were picking colors.

Unfortunately, at programs and laboratories and companies and districts everywhere, a lot of communication comes about this way. Someone decides they need to be on Twitter or update a brochure or do a podcast (or use blue on a website) without asking the basic questions first. Who is our audience? What do they need? How can we best reach them?

Good communication doesn’t start with hexadecimal color codes or clever Twitter handles. It starts with audience. Here’s a process we use, share and find valuable.

Start with Audience
Who do you reach, and who do you want to reach? Who can you reasonably expect to reach? Then ask what you know about them. Where do they get their information? What formats do they find useful? What stories do they read – or what videos do they watch, podcasts they listen to, etc.?

If you don’t know, ask. Make some phone calls. Send out a three-question survey. Look at your web traffic and newsletter stats. See what people use and value and what they ignore. Look for discrepancies between who you think your audience is and who they really are. (If, for instance, you think your audience is primarily farmers and ranchers and every email address you’ve collected ends in .edu, there’s something wrong.)

Also, recognize your audience isn’t some monolithic entity. Define the audience for your overall communication strategy, but recognize that within that there will be elements you can best reach in different ways. We identify a specific audience for each different communication vehicle we use and look for specific ways to target each group we want to reach.

Know Your Message
Message is the one or two sentence key idea you’re trying to communicate with each piece you publish. It’s the one point or idea or impression you want a reader to remember if they remember nothing else. It should be simple and direct: “We fund grant research.” “We add value to IPM programs.” “We have pest-management answers.” The more clearly you know your message, the more clearly you can communicate it.

(FYI, the message for this blog post is “Start with audience.”)

Have a Purpose
Purpose is the specific thing you’re trying to accomplish with each communication piece. It’s what you want to provide your audience – how to reach your program, what types of grants or services you have available, what you’ve accomplished in the past year. It’ll support your message but go beyond it.

In a perfect world, we’d do all these things first – define and develop the audience, message and purpose – and only then decide on medium, content and design.

Choose the Right Medium
A common place where communication strategies fail is when someone starts with the medium rather than an audience. “We need to be on Twitter,” “We should do an app,” “We have to update these brochures” are all perfectly reasonable statements and all perfectly wrong if that’s not what your audience needs, uses or wants.

Be on Twitter if the people you’re trying to reach are on Twitter (and use Twitter for what you’re doing). Print a brochure or flier if you're trying to reach people who don’t have good Internet access and need hardcopy documents. Shoot video if there’s a specific audience you believe will get your message that way.

The advice from the baseball movie “Field of Dreams” – build it and they will come – doesn’t work for communicators. We have to go where the audience is, not expect them to come to us.

Keep the Content Focused
One of the great things about working through the audience-message-purpose process is not only does it guide you about what to include in a communications piece, it helps you see what you can leave out. And if something doesn’t serve your audience, support your message and further your purpose, leave it out. People are busy. We’re competing for their time so the more clearly, quickly and concisely we can give them the information they need, the better.

Do Design Last
This doesn’t mean design isn’t important, it just means it comes last in the process. And doing it last leads to better design, because then your designer can choose formats, fonts, images, everything to support all the work you’ve already done. The design is aimed at a specific audience, visually reinforces your message and clearly communicates the purpose. It makes for a better, more effective piece.

Finally, Try this Self-Evaluation Exercise
A while back, we developed a survey to see how other programs communicated – what methods they used, what audiences they targeted and how they measured the effectiveness of their efforts. As a survey, it was too long and complex and I’d have been better off just making phone calls.

As a self-evaluation tool, however, it turned out to be really effective. Everyone who took the survey said they were going to change some aspect of their communication strategy as a result. So we edited and shortened and reconceived the survey as a reflective, self-directed evaluation tool; a way to systematically work through all the ways you communicate and see if they’re working as well as they could.

You could do the exercise as a group – a leadership team and communicators – or individually. Save and print your answers at the end because nothing is stored or shared. It can take an hour or maybe longer if there’s a lot to think over and talk about, but communicating well is worth the time. Here’s the link.

But if you’re not keen on doing that, here’s a shortcut: Start with audience.