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Erica Ciszek headshot.

February 13, 2018

At frank 2018, Dr. Erica Ciszek, assistant professor in integrated strategic communication, was recognized for her research on how activists use strategic communication. Dr. Ciszek was among finalists in cognitive psychology and sociology. She was awarded $1,500 prize for securing a place in the finals.

frank coins itself as “a community of movement builders and changemakers who use strategic communications to drive positive social, institutional and behavioral change.” Its research awards are highly sought-after by scholars representing some of the top universities in the country.

Dr. Ciszek’s interest in how activists leverage communication strategies to support their mission was sparked in 2010. During this period, there were four suicides by young gay teens that garnered national attention. The resulting outcry - sparked by sex columnist and LGBT activist Dan Savage’s viral video - ushered in a movement to prevent suicide among LGBT youth.

“This made me really interested in how social movements become organized and actualized in social change,” says Dr. Ciszek, who was a graduate student in Boston at the time. “It showed that even though activists may not have formal training in strategic communications, they are employing the skills and tactics that we would commonly associate with public relations to create a social change.”

Dr. Ciszek was invited to speak at frank because of her research paper “Activist Strategic Communication for Social Change: A Transnational Case Study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Activism.”

One of the findings of this research was that modern activists are functioning as strategic communicators.

“They’re building content that has universal appeal and creating creative messaging that is global but with very local specificity. For example, in Ecuador, activists who are part of this LGBT movement got participants in a reality show to talk about the movement after recognizing the power of reality television and entertainment there,” remarked Dr. Ciszek.

Her research also commented on the role that organizations play in shaping social change.

“Organizations are functioning as social change agents riding on the movement that social activists have created,” says Dr. Ciszek.

For example, in the United States, Frito Lay partnered with the internet-based non-profit, It Gets Better (which was created by Dan Savage), to develop a new Doritos Rainbows chip. All of the proceeds went to the non-profit. Within 24 hours, all bags were sold out.

Dr. Ciszek’s goals are to give voice to the LGBT movement through her work and to help communicators understand the applications that scholarly research can have on the practice.

“It’s validating to be selected for this honor and to be making space for research related to the LGBTQ movement in ways that aren’t just asking how we can commodify the movement,” remarked Dr. Ciszek. “I appreciate the support that the University of Houston and the Valenti School have shown me and my research in the past four years since becoming a faculty member.”