Ted Batkin, Citrus Research Board
Ted Batkin, Citrus Research Board

Long before the Asian citrus psyllid made its way to California, the citrus industry was moving to protect California citrus trees from this pest and the disease it can carry — huanglongbing, or citrus greening disease.

It ravaged Florida’s citrus industry and continues to be a problem, averaging up to a 15% reduction in trees annually. We don’t intend to let this happen in California.

Realizing the pivotal role of homeowners and their resistance to treating pests in the past, a public outreach plan was designed to create an environment of cooperation whereby homeowners would be willing to inspect their citrus trees and allow state and local agriculture officials to inspect and, if needed, treat their trees.

You can’t underestimate the importance of engaging consumers on issues important to agriculture and eliciting their support. 

If they’re against you, the game changes dramatically.

The challenge is finding a positioning strategy and message platform that resonates and fuels support from consumers.

Citrus industry enlists homeowners in pest fightAnecdotally, we found that grandmother’s lemon tree is not just a tree, but is also a part of what makes California California, particularly in Southern California with its citrus heritage.

To dig deeper, we conducted qualitative consumer research to identify emotional drivers likely to resonate and fuel supportive behavior.

While we expected to find little or no awareness of the pest or disease at the time, consumers quickly grasped the danger to their own citrus trees and seemed willing (with guidance) to inspect or have their trees inspected by others.

Prevention was also important to them.

After identifying the emotional drivers, a positioning and messaging strategy was developed, which centered around the notion that the psyllid and the disease is a potential “death sentence” for California citrus — one that could be stopped with help from homeowners.

The positioning and messaging was rooted firmly in the research, and became the driver of all communication strategies and tactics.

We are in our third year of public outreach with a focus on homeowners and public officials in infested areas, retail nurseries and big-box outlets, master gardeners, and traditional and social media.

Through a combination of broad-reaching tactics and hyperlocal activities in the communities in which the psyllid has been found, the message is making its way to homeowners.

Recent media tours where we sat down with journalists across the state reached an audience of more than 1.3 million. A public service announcement reached 31 million, and radio and traffic spots are being aired throughout the Southern California region, reaching another 8.4 million.

All these efforts are also being supported via social media, including Facebook and Twitter, where campaigns are reaching the right people with the right message.

Right now, the war against the Asian citrus psyllid is being fought in backyards — not commercial groves — and these homeowners are putting up a good fight.

Our public relations plan is designed to create a sense of urgency for targeted audiences to inspect citrus and ornamental trees.

It’s a plan to support the Citrus Pest and Disease Prevention Program and California Department of Food and Agriculture programs in Southern California, mainly in the Los Angeles area. 

It also is designed to help prevent the movement of psyllids into the San Joaquin Valley and points north.

Despite quarantines and vigilant efforts to control the pest, the Asian citrus psyllid is not afraid to cross county, state or international boundaries, and it can spread quickly.

One of the key findings from Florida is the idea that to stop HLB, we must control the pest. 

The takeaway: Just like the psyllid, we need to be ready to move quickly — and we are.

Some of what we’ve learned so far:


  • You shouldn’t operate off personal assumptions about what motivates audiences. Consumer research can help you identify the emotional drivers most likely to facilitate action.
  • Keep messages simple and tied to driving specific behaviors (e.g., check your citrus trees).
  • Design communication to drive people to a website to tell your story.
  • Engage public officials early on for their support and extending your message to their constituencies.
  • Identify forums for one-to-one discussion.
  • Stay flexible to situational changes.


We are in for a very long battle with this pest in California, and the more cooperation we can get from the public, the more successful the detection and treatment programs will be in the urban areas.

Ted Batkin is president of the Citrus Research Board, Visalia, Calif. Kerry Tucker is chief executive officer of San Diego-based Nuffer, Smith, Tucker Inc., the public relations firm managing the Asian citrus psyllid campaign.

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