Frankly Awesome: A Chat with Ann Christiano

Ann Christiano is the woman behind the Frank Gathering, a mom of three and a communicator using her voice to drive positive social change. Her position at UF was endowed by Frank Karel, a UF Alumnus and pioneer of introducing Public Interest Communications to UF. Although she never intended to become a professor, she admits that having the opportunity to work with her students motivates her to get out of bed every morning. In the eyes of Her Campus UFL, she’s frankly awesome.

Her Campus: What makes public interest communications so important?

Ann Christiano: “It’s THE most important thing. It’s interesting, I was listening to an interview on NPR the other day and the speaker was a hydrologist who was reflecting on Houston and what is happening with flooding due to Hurricane Harvey. He was saying ‘We knew that the ground would be unable to sustain the weight of these buildings. We knew that we needed there to be open plain for the ground to be able to absorb water and have it flush out into the ocean. But we kept building. And it was our failure to restrict all of that building, ultimately was caused by a failure of communication. If we had been able to figure out what the message would be, and who should hear that message, this wouldn’t have happened the way that it did.’ So, Public Interest Communications is critical whenever the public’s interest is at stake. Yet, so often we communicate really badly on the things that matter most. And mostly in a way that defies people to care about it.”

HC: Are you the creator of the frank gathering?

AC: “I don’t know, I mean if you plant a seed and something grows, did you create that plant? I don’t think I could say that I created it. I think Frank is this extraordinary thing that lives in no one’s job description and yet emerges every year as this beautiful thing. It happens because so many people contribute to making it a success and it really takes hundreds and hundreds of people working in the field. Our students are a critical aspect, they plan it, they execute it, they volunteer, they pull all-nighters. If we didn’t have that mix of community making it happen every year, it wouldn’t exist. So, I don’t think you could say that anybody created it, nobody created it, but we all own it. It belongs to all of us. And it’s pretty extraordinary to be able to be a part of making it happen, but I am no more a part of it than a dozen other people.”

HC: What makes you so passionate about it?

AC: “What makes me so passionate about it is that so much of what we need to do our work better lives in the brains of the people who are already doing the work. So, we have to connect all of that knowledge for people to be virtuosos in this way. We have to get everybody to start sharing the best of what they know, because you know a little bit, and I know a little bit, but when we bring those insights together we have this far greater community. Because the people in the public interest communications community are so determined to be successful because every issue matters so much- I’m not selling deodorant, right? - I’m trying to make sure that people who love each other can get married, and protect the environment. And because people are so passionate about their causes they are so willing to share the best of what they know, and that makes it really powerful. It is also true that Frank meant a lot to me, and a lot of it is the privilege of being in a position that he created, and not wanting to let that down.”

HC: How do you want people to feel when they leave the frank gathering?

AC: “I want them to be changed. I want them to leave as different people. I remember Richard Neimand, a strategist in this field for a very long time and someone that I admire very much said, “For God’s sake, don’t inspire me!”, but it was great advice because it was really about how we can do this work better. Nobody in this field needs to be inspired. Everybody in this field is deeply inspired already. But, every single person needs to know how to do their work better, and needs to be able to think about it in new ways, so that’s what I want. I want them to think about their work differently. To have a new tool, to have new resources. Or, also, to have new connections that are going to make that possible. If people are rooting what they do- my colleague Annie Neimand, is super passionate about who happens to be related to Rich Neimand, which is why we get to work together- is incredibly passionate about people using social science at the bottom of their campaigns because a lot of times we aren’t using the best of what we know from psychology or anthropology to try to drive social change. So, I want people to be able to have those insights so that they can do more of that kind of work, and do it better because we never have enough money or time to take on the things that matter most, so we have to use every single tool that is available to us.”

HC: What is one piece of advice you would give to a student wanting to change the world?

AC: “Well the first thing I would say is you don’t really need to change the world, you just need to tweak it because it’s already kind of awesome. I’m not really a fan of changing the world necessarily because if we all change the world then I don’t think it would be something that we wanted anymore. I would say, work really hard, read constantly, learn to be a really brilliant communicator, and find the thing that you have to offer that’s going to bring value to other people, and then once you find that, the rest will get much easier.”

Photo credit: Ann Christiano