Ann Christiano: Championing the public interest through strategic communications

ann-christianoI came here with three goals. The first was to establish a curriculum in public interest communications.  The second was to connect all of the people who are already doing this work, but didn’t know what to call it. And the third was to assimilate and nurture new scholarship that would help us understand what makes public interest communications more effective or at least define it.

As an undergraduate journalism major at the University of Maryland, Ann Christiano first began to recognize within herself a certain restlessness at the idea of having to wait for other people to do things so she could write about them.  She switched her major to public relations, but as she observed her classmates jumping at opportunities to work for major PR agencies, she realized that path was not going to satisfy either.

Upon graduation, she found solace working for a nonprofit agency in Washington, DC, devoted to improving children’s mental health services and realized she had begun to discover her calling.  Her work in nonprofits led her to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, where she was hired by the foundation’s vice president for communications, Frank Karel, who became her mentor.  Like Christiano, Karel had started his career in journalism, but didn’t feel like he could foster enough social change as a journalist.  He, too, had decided to make the switch to nonprofits and went on to devote his 30-year career to using communication for social change.

Upon retirement and as he struggled with cancer, Frank and his wife, Betsy, sought to preserve his legacy in communications and social change through the establishment of a chair at the University of Florida, Karel’s alma mater.  While the search was underway, Karel passed away, and it was as she spoke at his memorial service that Christiano recognized her next calling.

“I remember feeling like I did when I saw my husband for the first time.  And I thought, ‘Oh, I’m going to apply for the job at Florida,’” she recalled.

Christiano joined UF in 2010 as the Frank Karel Chair in Public Interest Communications, where she has developed the nation’s first public interest communication program, dedicated to using strategic communications to drive change.  This spring, in partnership with UF Training and Organizational Development, Christiano and a team of communications professionals will launch a new Strategic Communications Academy designed for UF leaders and scholars.

We sat down with Christiano to learn more about her unique path, her groundbreaking work in the field of public interest communications and the new academy she has helped launch.


It sounds like your time working with Frank Karel and at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation was transformative for your career.  Can you tell us more about the work you were doing there?

I started off just doing basic media relations—answering the press line, capturing the clips, all of those kinds of things.  And then I ended up running the training programs the foundation had to support its grantees—the communications training we were giving all of our grantees.  I was running that in partnership with the agencies that we were working with who were doing the hands-on training for them.

The foundation recognized that we had a big problem on Capitol Hill. There were lots of members of Congress that were deeply concerned about the level of influence that foundations had.  So they asked me to launch a government relations program to help members of Congress understand the importance of what we were funding in our states and communities.  I then worked to develop that into a robust training program for grantees so that they were ready to go up to Capitol Hill and build effective relationships with their members of Congress and could do so with a lot of confidence that they weren’t going to run afoul of lobbying regulations.

I moved from that into becoming a senior communications officer, where my role was to work with a specific team to create communications strategies to help our programs succeed.  One of the programs that I got to work on was called Playworks, which was bringing recess back to playgrounds all over America and helping kids acquire the skills of playground play.  Another program I worked on was called CeaseFire, which was working to reduce gun violence in the world’s most violent communities. I also worked on the Greenhouse Project, which was a radical reinvention of nursing homes that’s much more focused on the residents’ experience.

I did a lot of work on helping policymakers understand what makes people healthy or unhealthy and the fact that much of what predicts our health happens outside of the medical system—it has more to do with your zip code and your level of education and the kind of neighborhood you live in than anything that happens between you and your doctor.

I loved all of that work.  I loved it so much.

UF has the first chair in public interest communications.  Do we also have the first academic program in public interest communications in the country?

There are a few universities that are beginning to develop programs in social change communications, but most of them are focused on the graduate level.  We’re teaching it at the undergraduate level, so that’s a little bit different. One of the things that I teach our students—and the thing the group of people who now work on this focus on—is the fact that public interest communications transcends the interest of any single organization or individual.  And so, for a single organization to be part of public interest communications, they have to be working on an issue that’s so much bigger than they are.

Public interest communications would be taking on a social justice issue, or a racial justice issue, or an environmental issue.  When I first came here, people were saying, “Oh, you’re the new nonprofit communications teacher,” and I would say, “No, I’m not.” Because nonprofits don’t always participate in public interest communications.

That’s an important distinction.  So how do you define public interest communications?

Public interest communications is the development of science-based, strategic campaigns focused on action and lasting behavior change on an issue that transcends the interest of any single organization or individual. This is a definition that I worked on in partnership with a graduate student, Jasper Fessmann.

For example, if you were taking on youth substance abuse—take, for example the DARE program—you would want to do a couple of things.  You would want to understand everything you could about how communicating about substance use could affect young people.  The other thing that you would want to do is to make sure you knew as much as you could about whether the program you were advocating for actually worked.  So you need to know about young people’s brains and how they acquire information, what makes them likely to take risks.  You also need to know that DARE is a program that is actually effective over time and making sure that it’s going to have the result of having people not to use drugs or alcohol.

But as it turns out, DARE, in its first incarnations, may have actually made substance abuse worse rather than better. And the reason is that they used a fear-based model.  As we learn more about brain development and teenagers and risk, we’re beginning to understand that we have to be really careful about using fear-based messages to communicate with teens.

So now we know much more and the program has been recreated to focus much more on healthy decision-making and in the context of decision making rather than using fear and activating that risk network within the brain.

So the “science” aspect seems crucial to crafting an effective strategy.

Yes, so science means two things: number one that we know the solution is going to work, but also we’ve looked at the social science of communicating on that issue and figured out what will be most effective.  So we’ve looked at research on identity, we’ve looked at research on message framing, we’ve looked at all of the psychology research.

The strategic piece is using everything you’ve learned to create a more effective campaign.  How do you use that research to identify your audience and your message and your call to action and make sure that your call to action is one that people really accept.  And obviously evaluating to make sure you achieved your objective.  But the other issue is really that it has to be a lasting change—whether that is a specific action like the Supreme Court deciding in favor of marriage equality or people making sure that their kids are in the right car seat for their age.  It has to be a change that has a lasting impact and it has to be on an issue that really matters to us as a public.

You’ve also launched an annual national conference hosted here in Gainesville. 

I came here with three goals. The first was to establish a curriculum in public interest communications.  The second was to connect all of the people who are already doing this work, but didn’t know what to call it. And the third was to assimilate and nurture new scholarship that would help us understand what makes public interest communications more effective or at least define it.

So in the spirit of connecting the field, a group of us decided in 2012 that there should be some sort of gathering that brought everybody in the field together. And we didn’t want it to feel like a conference.  We wanted it to really feel like something people would want to come to, but no white tablecloths, no panel discussions, no nametags.  It had to feel like this really special coming together of the brightest minds in the field where people would share the best of what they knew.

And you called it “frank”?

Yes, it’s an homage to Frank Karel, but it also speaks to the truth and candor of the field—the frankness.  We held the first actual frank in 2014, and the idea is to bring together people who are working on the front lines of social change along with funders and strategists and scholars.  Frank is by-invitation, and the reason for that is we really want to get a balance of people from these different sectors and sort of curate this group.

Frank (scholar) brings together academics for interdisciplinary collaboration.

We’re now organizing our fourth frank.  Last year, we started to feel like there were some pieces missing, so we started to talk about having a specific conference just for scholars.  So we started “frank (scholar).”  Last year, we had 25 scholars from all over the world come, and we’re repeating that this year and it will be a little bit bigger and will happen right before frank so people can attend both and we’ll have that cross-fertilization.

There was also a conversation about the cultural aspects of social change and how culture can accelerate social change and make things seem normal more quickly.  So we started talking about having a film and music festival.  There was an agency in New York that was really wanting us to do a film festival, which expanded out from film to VR to comedy to music.  They offered to name it for us and came up with the name “Changeville.”

So we now call it “Super Week.” This year, frank (scholar) will be Feb. 28, frank is March 1-3 and Changeville is March 2 and 3—all at the Hippodrome.

And as if that weren’t enough, you’re launching a new Strategic Communications Academy for UF leaders and academics.  What was the impetus for creating the academy?

Not long after I got here, I connected with Joe Kays, who is the head of communications in the Office of Research.  He was successful in attracting the Association of Science Writers here to Gainesville.  One of the things we wanted to do was to have our scientists give Ted-level talks.  So in the interest of helping people become better presenters, one of the things Joe and I decided to develop was a strategic communications training program for our scientists who might be participating in this to get them to be better communicators.

Following that, there were just more and more requests for strategic communications training.  There’s been an increasing recognition here at the University of Florida that being able to communicate effectively on issues that matter is going to be really critical to the university’s prominence and preeminence and that our role as thought leaders is really predicated on our ability to describe what we do really, really well in a way that can get other people as excited about it as we are.

Scott Blades in UF Training and Organizational Development and Ellen Nodine in our College of Journalism and Communications have brought their backgrounds in educational design and training to create something robust and lively that uses the best of what we know about how people learn.

What will the academy look like?

We’ll start with some of the foundational aspects of communication—like the five things that every communicator has to do—really simple tools for communications planning that will keep people focused on who their audience is and what their goals are.  We’ll do a lot of work on writing and message development; we’ll do a lot of work on how to work with influentials like members of the news media and policy makers.  We’ll work on presenting and we’ll do work on storytelling.  We’ll also talk about how to incorporate social science and how to acquire social science knowledge to make you a more effective communicator.

One of the things that I love about being in the university environment is that there’s so much knowledge, but so often that knowledge isn’t translated into action.  And the gulf that we’re seeing on the public communications side exists in every discipline—where there’s this incredible insight coming from our programs and our scholars, and it’s critical that we translate that into practice, but it’s also true that with effective communications ability, we can help these faculty and leaders be more successful in their grant applications, do more successful academic presentations, become better collaborators, discover new partners—all of these things.

This is a moment here at the University of Florida where people are embracing the value of communications for achieving their goals and recognizing how far it can take us, and I’m really excited to be here and to get to see that.  I think there’s a real willingness to take risks and not to do them because other universities are doing them, but because they’re not.


The Strategic Communications Academy for UF Leaders and Academics runs April through December of 2017.  Interested UF faculty and staff may apply through Dec. 7.  For more information, please visit the academy’s website.