Five Faves from FRANK Change Communicators

My grandmother used to express her confusion about the work that I do. “Honey,” she’d say, “I don’t understand why you’re trying to prevent kids from smoking. I thought that you were saving manatees and protecting water.”

Most of us who work in public interest communications have had similar conversations over Thanksgiving dinner and drinks with friends. And the challenge was even bigger than that: when talking with other communicators–colleagues in traditional marketing, advertising and public relations roles–I’d hear people say, “Oh, yeah. I work on creating awareness, too. I just do it for products or services.” Not quite.

Enter the first Frank: Frank Karel. Frank built a successful career in public interest communications and mentored many of the people working in the field today. He and his wife, Betsy, recognized the need to further build the curriculum, research and professional practices that would, together, better package public-interest communications as a stand-alone field (instead of the feel-good portion of a traditional communications group). They established the first-ever chair in public interest communications, and this chair spearheads classes on the field, manages the Frank Karel Fellows and directs the prizes for research to support the work.

Ann Christiano

Frank Karel Chair in Public Interest Communications Ann Christiano talks about the two franks

Enter the second frank: frank the gathering. The first-ever event for public interest communicators, this event brought practitioners, researchers and students into the same space to challenge each other, learn from each other and identify what works. Nearly two weeks later, I’m still buzzing from everything I learned and experienced at this event. The smarts, energy and focus that people brought to this event are the same that they devote to doing this work every day.

And their work is about oh-so-much more than creating awareness. It’s about creating change.

Here are my five faves from frank:

1. Smarts: As communicators, we counsel organizations to combine the intellectual (statistics, data, facts) with the emotional (a connection for caring enough to prioritize action). frank delivered on the smarts with insights from people like NPR correspondent Shankar Vendatam, who drew connections between trust and accountability. The New York Times’ David Bornstein demonstrated ways that journalists can report on constructive responses to the social problems that we face. And our own David Fenton reminded the group, “If we don’t act quickly on climate change, we won’t have the opportunity to solve the other issues we care about.” (Read a related piece here.)

2. Community: People in this group were hungry for connections. From students seeking answers about how they could actually build and sustain careers in this space to professionals seeking insights for reaching challenging audiences, frank participants showed that they’re eager to build community and learn from each other. The event offered open time to huddle at coffee shops outside the main event venue, so conversations were natural, were unlike forced interactions in hotel breakout rooms and sparked thinking that’s continuing in follow-up calls and emails.

3. Laughter: Participants at frank expressed joy! It’s often difficult to work on challenging issues that can fatigue and dismay the most optimistic among us. frank participants welcomed new ideas and discussion, had animated chats with speakers (nearly all of whom participated in the entire event) in the frank lounge and proudly decorated themselves with buttons that recognize the issues that they care about most. And MC and The Daily Show creator Lizz Winstead made sure that we didn’t take ourselves too seriously.

4. Details: As a communicator, I recognize that events can be effective communications tools. And so do all of my colleagues, which means that we had to get the details right for frank. Thanks to many people from the University of Florida, the Hippodrome Theatre that served as home base for frank and a terrific steering committee, we nailed the details that enabled everything else to work so well. Rainy day? A frank umbrella was in place. Only a few minutes for lunch? A prepaid ticket for a tasty meal was attached to your nametag. Bored by traditional Q&A sessions? Pop by the frank lounge for quality discussion with a speaker instead.

5. Gators: So it’s pretty clear at this point that I loved frank. I would have welcomed the opportunity to be a part of this event anywhere in the world, and I received a real bonus with this one: like Frank Karel, I’m a Gator. About 30 years ago, I sought out the University of Florida for its journalism program and thought that would send me down a career path toward changing the world. That path has taken turns that I didn’t anticipate, and it’s also curved back to a spot that I’ve called home. To my fellow Gators, this is one more reason that we have to be proud of UF. And to others, we welcome you to UF and to frank. We’ve already started planning for next year, so check out the site and make plans to join us next February.

Fenton team member and Gator Kristen King talks about her journey from the Swamp to the Big City.