Faculty & Staff News

Q&A: Communications professor sees storytelling as path for social change

Erica Ciszek’s life has led her to constantly push boundaries and defy the expectations others have placed on her. Now as a communications researcher and proud member of the LGBT community, she studies trends related to identity and activism, and wants the next generation to be outspoken storytellers. | Thom Dwyer/The Cougar

The annual frank conference represents a gathering of the country’s leading researchers in public interest communications in the areas of activism, philanthropy and art. Each year, the conference awards researchers for their work in a chosen field, and this year, a professor from UH was named a finalist.

Erica Ciszek, an assistant professor of public relations and strategic communications, was chosen for her paper “Activist Strategic Communication for Social Change: A Transnational Case Study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Activism.”

Ciszek lives at Cougar Village II as a faculty-in-residence: she “eats, sleeps and breathes UH.” When she’s not with freshmen at the residence hall, she studies the intersections of identity, technology and communication.

The Cougar spoke to Ciszek about her life, what lead her to academia and the University and how this generation is shaping the role of activism and communication through the internet, social media and storytelling.

The Cougar: One of the most notable social movements happening right now is in Parkland, Florida with the activists who are pushing for gun reform. What do you think has made them so effective in a policy arena in which some have given up hoping for meaningful change?

Ciszek: What’s going on with Parkland is interesting. How these young people are able to capture the attention and energy and propel it forward has to do with their relationship to media and their understanding of communication. It’s very apparent that they know the various channels and are able to tell their stories really well. They’re articulate speakers, and it shouldn’t come as any surprise that some of these students identify as minorities in some aspects of their lives. The people who represent them are able to use their platforms as well to lead people in calls to action.

It has a lot to do with strategic communication and harnessing their stories while being able to tell them in compelling, energy-generating ways. When it comes to issues like gun control and regulation, every time there’s a mass shooting of some sort, there’s an energy and also what psychologists call compassion fatigue. People feel like they’re powerless and have spent their emotional energy which leads to a lack of caring. So, what’s happening is these young people are capitalizing on their knowledge of social, digital and traditional media while also being very good in front of cameras. Emma González; that’s powerful. David Hogg; that’s powerful.

The Cougar: Whether it’s the Arab Spring, the Black Lives Matter movement, the Women’s March or #MeToo, what do you think it is about the nature of social media that allows it to be such an effective tool at undercutting the old-school channels of TV or radio?

Ciszek: I don’t want to over-glorify social media because it’s a tool, and we run the risk of thinking it can solve all of our problems. What social media allows us to do is organize in ways in which we were previously unable to across time and space. You’ve got people upset in New York City, Fargo, North Dakota and San Francisco who are able to connect through digital channels. They can fundraise, tell stories, share and connect in ways that used to be impossible. Combined with traditional media, because TV is still the most effective way to reach a mass audience, there’s a critical mass happening.

The Cougar: When you speak about social change, what’s the future you envision?

Ciszek: We’re living the future. Right now, just the fact that we’re talking about the students in Parkland. I hope people become more media savvy, more outspoken and find connections and relationships that allow them to tell their stories. With the #MeToo movement, women are feeling empowered to share their experiences with sexual assault in ways they hadn’t felt supported before. It feels like that’s the continued trajectory.

The Cougar: What have you learned while being a part of the UH community?

Ciszek: There are so many opportunities for research, collaboration, learning and knowledge exchange right here on campus and in the city of Houston itself. Every day I learn from my students, colleagues, my residence and the people in the community.

The Cougar: What drives you?

Ciszek: Ben and Jerry’s has this tagline: “If it’s not fun, why do it?” I’ve been accused of working all the time, but it never feels like work if you enjoy what you’re doing and you find value and meaning in it. The things that drive me are the very things I see that need fixing in this world. A lot of my teachings and research are driven by social inequality. As someone who studies and teaches strategic communications, my questions are: How can we use those tools and the tools of public relations and advertising of storytelling to drive social change? That’s a lot of what keeps me up at night is figuring out social problems like poverty, racism, what’s happening in government and politics. How can we use communication tools and how can we mobilize people to bring about change?

The Cougar: When students take your classes, what do you hope they take away from them?

Ciszek: Regardless of the industry they go into — nonprofit, for-profit, government or advocacy work — the goal is for my students to be able to take the critical thinking, strategic and tactical skills they learn and turn that into an ability to tell stories in ways that shape social change. Whether it’s how the big oil and gas company does production in their field or how the city of Houston handles crisis communication after a natural disaster, I want them to challenge the status quo. Ultimately, who we produce within the school of communication are storytellers. I want my students to be more responsible, ethical and change agents as it relates to storytelling.

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