University of Florida launches nation’s first center for public interest communications

February 6, 2018
College of Journalism and Communications
College of Journalism and Communications

Emerging field focuses on applying science of strategic communication to drive social change

The University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications has announced the launch of the Center for Public Interest Communications, the first center in the U.S. dedicated to developing, translating and applying the science of strategic communication to drive social change. The Center will work with philanthropic, governmental, academic and business organizations on their efforts to have sustainable impact on social issues.

Public interest communications combines truthful and compelling storytelling with strategic communication grounded in primary research and social science. It has been defined as a “science-based approach to planned and lasting change on an issue that transcends the objectives of any single individual or organization.” This approach requires organizations to move past communication efforts that simply “raise awareness” of an issue and instead focus more narrowly on connecting with the group of individuals whose belief or behavior change will result in a lasting difference on pressing issues.

“Educating students who want to make a difference in their world is a cornerstone of our College,” said Diane McFarlin, the College’s dean. “The Center is the culmination of many years of curriculum development and community building in this nascent discipline.”

The Center will be led by Ann Christiano, the Frank Karel Endowed Chair in Public Interest Communications, the only PIC endowed chair in the country. Frank Karel, B.S. Journalism 1961, endowed the chair in 2009 after a 30-year career as vice president for communications for the Robert Wood Johnson and Rockefeller Foundations, where he pioneered using science-based communication for social change.

The Center for Public Interest Communications will work toward these goals:

1.     Build and test both undergraduate and graduate curricula for adoption by other Universities.

2.     Nurture, generate and promote scholarship that can advance the practice of public interest communications.

3.     Build and support a vibrant community among those who practice, fund or study public interest communications.

“Increasingly, causes and organizations are seeing the value of taking a public interest communications approach to their work, just as students are increasingly looking for careers that create opportunities to work on causes that matter to them,” Christiano said. “The Center gives us an opportunity to support and connect the field, while also providing immersive opportunities for our students.”

This week also marks the opening of the fourth annual frank event, the largest gathering of social change communicators from around the world.  The event includes speakers from the media and entertainment world, non-profits, academia and industry.  To view a live stream of speakers, go to frank.jou.ufl.edu.

In anticipating the development of a center, the College has already made considerable progress toward its goals. In addition to the frank event, the College recently launched the Journal for Public Interest Communications, the first-ever, open-access academic journal in this emerging discipline.  Hundreds of undergraduates have completed PIC course work that is not available at any other university. Many of those students are working in the field at places like Campaign for Tobacco Free Florida and public interest communications agencies such as Burness and Spitfire Strategies.

The Center will continue to work as a partner to organizations who are adopting a public interest communications approach, and to hold workshops to help social change leaders and scientists develop communication strategies rooted in sound research. The College’s PIC program has previously worked with organizations such as the Gates Foundation, Department of State, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Innovation Service, National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Metropolitan Group, among others.

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