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Teaching Tomorrow’s Practitioners How to Communicate for the Public’s Good

There’s no substitute for on the job training, but there’s also much to be said for getting a formal education for the kind of work foundation and other kinds of communicators do who are in the business of social change. Yet, up until now, those contemplating these kinds of careers have found few opportunities for such an education at the college or university level, short of courses sandwiched into a more typical degree program for public relations.

The good news is that’s changing. 

Thanks to a 2008 gift from his widow, Betsey Karel, there’s now The Frank Karel Chair in Public Interest Communications at the University of Florida.  Named for Karel, who died in September and who previously oversaw communications at both the Robert Wood Johnson and Rockefeller Foundations, the chair’s focus is on public interest communications, with the goal of teaching students how to create and deploy strategies to advance  organizations’ missions and goals in the nonprofit and public sectors.

Ann E. Christiano, who had been in the communications department at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, since she was hired in 1995 by Karel himself, was recently named the first holder of the chair.  She began her new role earlier this month.

Christiano, who had been responsible for developing the overarching communication strategy for the foundation’s Vulnerable Populations Portfolio, says she sees her job as readying students for careers in public interest communications.  To her, that means teaching future practitioners how to use communications in ways “that advances the public good.”

More specifically, she says it’s a process of understanding public will, and using the principles of strategic communications to address problems and promote solutions. “My job,” she adds, “will be to help students understand the components of social change, and how you accomplish that working with policymakers, the news media and researchers.”

While she says there are lots of great examples of effective public interest communications practices, the field still lacks a common set of standards or a useful and applicable body of knowledge, which she also sees the development of as key element of her work over the coming years.

Christiano says that one of the most important lessons she is taking to her new post, and which she learned from Karel, with whom she worked with for seven years, is knowing that just because a cause is “good” or “just,” and that passionate people are engaged in it, doesn’t translate
into successful outcomes.  She adds that you have to keep in mind that while you’re fighting for what you believe in, there are people on the other side “doing the same thing” and often in opposition to you.  She also said that Karel used to say that “being too excited about something gets in the way of good sense” about what you need to do.

Among her many aspirations, Christiano  wants to use her new job to bridge the world of academia and day-to-day practice. While she says she brings her own knowledge of what it takes to succeed as a public interest communicator, she is eager to hear from others about the kinds of skills and knowledge tomorrow’s practitioners will need. In other words, heads up, she might be calling to pick your brains one of these days.

–Bruce Trachtenberg


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