A Conversation With PRR’s Rita Brogan
January 28, 2015
To celebrate our Human-Powered Places practice, PRR hosted a PARK(ing) Day spot inspired by Candy Chang’s Before I Die wall. We wanted to use the space to learn more about the people walking by and challenge them to think about their aspirations.
Check out our thoughts on Human-Powered Place and our PARK(ing) Day adventure.
We also sat down with our founder, Rita Brogan, for a short conversation about why PRR is passionate about Human-Powered Places.
Tell me about your vision when you started PRR.
When I purchased PRR in 1989, one of the things that concerned me the most was that members of public weren’t getting all the information necessary to be able to provide meaningful input to major decisions. I founded PRR with the notion that I wanted to be able to use all the tools of communication –research, PR, advertising, facilitation, graphic design – and to use those for the greater good, to use those to give people information and tools so that they could better manage and control their futures, and also to give decision makers information and tools so that they could be more responsive to the community.
Can you set some context of that time? How was that a different way of thinking?
Well it really was a different way of thinking because, first of all, most of the communications firms were pretty much siloed by discipline. You had your PR firms, you had your ad agencies, and you had a bunch of people who said they did public involvement, which was primarily helping to set up hearings – making sure the room was reserved, making sure there were cookies for everybody, and that type of thing. We were also one of the early companies that engaged in social entrepreneurism. There were some before us, obviously, but we were one of the first communications agencies to be social entrepreneurs and to do what we do for the greater good.
What is a human-powered place?
I love the idea of human-powered places, because for places to be meaningful, they need to reflect the aspirations and values of the people that those places are intended to serve. A human-powered place can be a park, but a human-powered place can also be a school. A human-powered place can be a store. And places that are human-powered are the ones for which people feel a true sense of ownership and responsibility.
Why is civic engagement important?
Civic engagement is the way in which people can make sure that their futures reflect their values, and to make sure that the futures for their children and grandchildren also can be secure and reflect their values. If you do not have civic engagement it means that somebody else is making the decisions. If you do not have civic engagement it means that you have ceded power to other people. Some communities have higher levels of civic engagement than others and I think you will find that places with higher levels of civic engagement also have higher qualities of life and have people who feel a greater sense of belonging, not just to their community but to their families and to their futures.
What are some of the ways that PRR helps to facilitate civic engagement for clients?
There’s that old adage that if your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. What PRR does is really help define project from the viewpoint of the user or of the client and then apply whatever tools and strategies make sense for that particular situation. Some of the time people who need to be engaged don’t have language skills or speak a different language, or they may not be in proximity to the place where a decision needs to be made, so we try to use a variety of tools such as culturally appropriate communications, internet technology to help address whatever the barriers are to communication.
With many of the projects that we work on there are very highly technical components as well, so part of our challenge is to translate, not just into other languages but into lay English the information that we want to have people have and then to identify ways in which they can provide meaningful and important input into those decisions. Likewise, we translate the input of lay audiences into terms that are actionable for policy makers and for engineers and other technical people.
Where do you think the discussion of place is headed right now?
In urban areas, I think the conversation is headed toward discovering spaces that can be creatively readapted for public use. I think the PARK(ing) Day project is an excellent example of converting, even if it’s just for a day, a parking space into a park. We’re seeing more and more in cities around the country concepts like parklets being developed. They have the advantage of not requiring a lot of space and are relatively cost effective to develop, so in that instance there are ways in which people within communities can gather their own resources to be able to create these places, which I think is the point of human-powered places.
You called PARK(ing) Day a Human-Powered Places project – saying that, even if it’s only for a day, it’s a good example of turning a public space into something more engaged. Can you tell me more about that?
The PARK(ing) Day project is an excellent example of how one can creatively use small spaces within communities and adapt them to become human-powered places. That was what was so exciting for us at PRR when we started thinking about how we could best participate in the PARK(ing) Day project.
What excites you the most about Human-Powered Places?
What excites me the most about the notion of Human-Powered Places is that it places power in the hands of the people who live in that community. In that way, we can be better assured that those places will serve the community well, that it won’t be some architect who lives half way around the world’s idea of creating an homage to his own career or ego, but rather that it will be a place that will serve its community.
Through all of our projects, we’re reaching a very large number of people with an emphasis on connecting them to the spaces around them. How do we really affect the people who use these spaces through the work that we’re doing?
Everything that PRR does is about human-to-human connections, and so in our projects that are place-related, what we try to do is make that connection between those who will use the project, today and into the future, and how that space should be designed. If it’s a policy issue, the connection is, ‘how will these sorts of policies or rules affect the future of the community?’ If I live out in the countryside and there is a statewide issue of concern, we make the connection so that people have the ability to access the information and the tools so that they have the ability to influence those changes. And when we’re working on a campaign, we’re helping people make the connection among hundreds and thousands of people to collectively take action to make the environment cleaner, or the roads safer, or the landscape more responsibly used for the future.
Everything that we do at PRR is based on connection, whether it’s connecting people to their policy makers, whether it’s connecting people to the decisions that will impact their future, whether it’s connecting people across large geographic spaces, or whether it’s about connecting people to a sense of responsibility and stewardship for their own future.
Established in Seattle in 1981 to provide clients with creative communications solutions, PRR has steadily gained a reputation for consistent, award-winning work and exceptional customer service. Over the years, we expanded into a broad-based public affairs practice with a more integrated approach, adding research, public relations, and marketing to our service expertise. PRR has offices in Seattle, Washington D.C., Virginia, and Portland.
To learn more about Lynsey and her work at PRR, contact her at [email protected] or 425.765.6483.