Ann Christiano - Frank Karel Chair in Public Interest Communications
When tackling some of the toughest challenges in our society, from healthcare disparities to climate change, you might not think of storytelling as a powerful tool for social change. Ann Christiano does.
Christiano worked alongside public-interest communications pioneer Frank Karel at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, where she gained an appreciation for the power of stories to change minds and lives. Rather than quoting facts to get a point across, Karel framed issues in human terms, sharing examples of people whose lives were touched by those issues.
“That belief in the power of storytelling to engage people, to win people’s hearts and attract their attention, was at the foundation of how he approached strategic communication,” Christiano says of her late mentor, a 1961 graduate of UF’s College of Journalism and Communications. “He recognized that we weren’t going to win on the big social issues unless we did a good job of telling stories.”
Public-interest communications traces its roots to efforts to end slavery in England, but UF is the first to create a dedicated undergraduate curriculum in the field. Establishing that curriculum is one of the goals set out for the Karel Chair, along with informing the field and creating a community among its practitioners.
When Karel and his wife, Betsy, created the nation’s first endowed chair in public-interest communications at UF, he made two rules: The occupant should be a practitioner, not only an academic, and would hold the chair for no more than 10 years, ensuring current experience in the field.
“There’s a sense of urgency,” says Christiano, who is nearly halfway through her term. “I only have these 10 years, and I want to use them well.”
So much so that when she’s driving to work, she has to stop herself from speeding.
“It matters that much to me,” she says.
Public-interest communications has been practiced for centuries, but never had its own curriculum or major — until now.
When she was really stuck on a problem, Ann Christiano would pop into Frank Karel’s office at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and ask her mentor for advice.
She often wishes that she still could. Karel died in 2009, and the great irony of Christiano occupying the endowed chair he created with his wife, Betsy, is that he didn’t live to see his protégé be the first to hold it.