Chilean and Emerson students work to change national image

by Christina Bartson / Beacon Staff • October 24, 2013

A Chilean flag and pumpkin carved with the words “change agent” sat at the center of a conference table on the sixth floor of the Walker Building. A Chilean student asked a group of Emerson students what they associate most with Chile: football, food, or the rugged, beautiful terrain. “Soccer,” they said in near unison, and laughed.

This focus group about American perceptions of Chile, held on Wednesday, Oct. 16, was conducted by 10 Catholic University of Chile students with 12 Emerson communication studies students. It was part of the Chilean students’ 10-day visit to Boston organized by Greg Payne, an associate professor of communication studies at Emerson, and Macarena Urenda, the director of public relations at the Catholic University of Chile’s Departamento Universitario Obrero Campesino, commonly referred to as DUOC, said Payne. The visiting students, who are studying public relations and marketing, came to work on an in-class rebranding campaign of Chile, a project they took on independently of the Chilean government, said Payne. 

Payne led the public diplomacy workshop with Valerie Rubinsky, an Emerson communications management graduate student. Rubinsky coordinated the events at Emerson and directed the group of Emerson students.

“Public diplomacy is fostering relations through communication, said Mehroz Sajjad, a communications management graduate student at Emerson, who participated in the workshop. “We’re building a relationship.” 

The idea for the partnership began in August 2011, when Payne met Urenda at DUOC’s campus in Viña del Mar, Chile. Payne said he and Urenda wanted to connect students studying public relations at their respective institutions. 

This year, they arranged for a group of students and professors from DUOC to travel to Emerson for a public diplomacy workshop. One professor came from each of the Catholic University of Chile campuses in Viña del Mar, Concepción, and Santiago. The group arrived in Boston on Oct. 13 and departed on Oct. 24.

The Chilean students attended lectures at Emerson and participated in conversations with professors working in public relations, political communication, and public affairs, said Payne. Emerson students were able to offer insights about how they think the world sees Chile, said Rubinsky.

At the end of the 10 days, the Chilean students presented their rebranding campaign to a panel of public affairs experts from Emerson and the city of Boston, said Payne. The group also created a Facebook page and built a website for the project. 

The group will move onto New York City for a five-day workshop at New York University before they leave the country. Once they return to Chile, they will continue to collaborate with the Emerson students on a video about the image of their country that the Chileans want to present. The video will be posted on the project’s website and on YouTube, and will be shown at conferences and meetings in the U.S., Europe, and South America.

Payne said that open discussions are critical to public diplomacy, a notion obvious during the Oct. 16 focus group. The Emerson students sat in a conference room, separated from the Chileans in the next room by a one-way glass partition, through which the Chileans could see the Emerson students. The Chileans asked Emerson students what they thought of Chile. Although there was only one Spanish-speaking Emerson student who could translate, the conversation flowed, hitting on American sightseeing, studying abroad, and Chilean food, and then veered toward the popularity of extreme sports in Chile. There was a lot of laughing, but the conversation served its purpose — discovering that Emerson students’ perception of Chile came from the commercial aspects of the country.

“We want to show the world the Chile that we know,” said Francisca Gomez, a senior studying public relations at the Catholic University of Chile, while listening to the focus group’s conversation. Gomez said she wants people to see the cultural side of Chile, not just the tourism.

Sajjad said the Chilean students know how to get their message across in different mediums.

“The people of Chile are their focus in the presentation,” she said, “and they’re trying to use an emotional appeal to present the people of Chile.”

Payne said the group plans to present its rebranding campaign next year at the International Academy of Business Disciplines, an international conference in Santiago, Chile, and at the European Public Relations Association’s annual meeting held in London.

“It’s crucial for universities—especially Emerson, because Emerson’s mission is communication—to not only reach out to the local community and form relationships, but also to have global civic engagement initiatives like we’re doing in Chile,” said Payne. 

“What public diplomacy really epitomizes are people at the local and global level as change agents,” Payne added.

This project allows Emerson students to use the political communication skills they have learned in class and build meaningful relationships with their peers from another country. A group of Emerson students and professors plan to travel to Chile in 2014 to continue the project, according to Payne.

“For Emerson,” he said, “it’s another step forward in terms of civic engagement and reaching the goal that President Pelton has: to have more opportunities for students and professors to study and be involved around the globe.”