CLASS researcher examines how activists’ strategic communication affects social change

Dr. Ciszek

Social activism has been in the news quite a bit in recent weeks. From professional athletes to grassroots organizers – individuals and groups of activists have a goal of creating change.

Dr. Erica Ciszek, assistant professor at the Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, recently completed a study about how strategic communication relates to social change. Her findings were published in the Journal of Communication, and she has been invited to give a presentation on her research at the University of Florida early next year.

According to Dr. Ciszek, public relations is increasingly being utilized as a tool to influence public opinion and policy. Therefore, it is playing an active role in shaping society and culture; and as such, it can offer insights for scholars and practitioners engaged in public interest communication.

“This research really started when I was in graduate school, and over the past seven years it has become a passion point for me as I worked closely with activists around the world. So, it’s not just a research study for me… this work helps validate their initiatives and efforts,” she says.

Dr. Ciszek’s research explores how lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) activists around the globe engage in public relations, operating as cultural intermediaries to make, remake, subvert, communicate, and circulate cultural identities, representations, and imaginations by way of strategic communication for social change.

“I did in-depth interviews with 40 activists in 15 different countries over four years, looking at activism as a strategic form of communication,” she says. “I looked at the stories that are being told about LGBTQ individuals and LGBTQ issues internationally.”

She did this by partnering with the organization, It Gets Better. This is a non-profit organization that was founded in 2010 in the U.S. and has grown internationally in subsequent years. It Gets Better's mission is to communicate to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth around the world that it gets better, and to create and inspire the changes needed to make life better for them.

The research sheds light on activism as a form of cultural intermediation, positioning activists as strategic agents for global social change.

“Strategic communication is about creating a unified message – a unified story,” says Dr. Ciszek. “My research indicates that that’s great, but it’s also important not to lose sight of cultural and local contexts that make these initiatives and efforts different.”

Dr. Ciszek names Switzerland as an example of a country that is progressive – the country provides legal rights for LGBTQ individuals and has offered gay marriage and domestic partner benefits for many years. However, in a country like Maldova, there is very little LGBTQ representation, and LGBTQ individuals there are still dealing with being “invisible.” The activists’ message must work within each individual country’s culture, language, and political system.

She says that through symbolic work, activists, like public relations practitioners, have the potential to challenge and redefine cultural discourses, employing strategic communication for social change. These efforts work to influence public opinion and policy about issues impacting the lives of sexual and gender minorities around the world.

“I studied It Gets Better and looked at their over-arching theme of optimism, and I also looked at the role the activists play as cultural intermediaries,” says Dr. Ciszek. “They utilize new technology and social media. They can determine how successful they are by looking at comments or ‘likes’ on social media.”

The larger barometer of success is cultural change, which can be hard to measure.

“They try to conceptualize change based on the role their movement played in changing legislation, or a queer character appearing on a telenovela,” says Dr. Ciszek. “It can be hard to quantify their success because there are so many things you can point to. “

In February 2018, Dr. Ciszek has been invited to discuss her research at the University of Florida.