Alfonso Méndiz loves to talk. It is with good reason that he has been the dean of the Faculty of Communication Sciences at our university for the past two and a half years. We chat – a conversation between disciple and master – about his time at the helm of the Faculty. We chat about the day-to-day running of the Faculty and his efforts to improve teaching and promote internationalisation, to produce research and create networks with other faculties. We chat about the communicator today, open to the world, and about the ethics which must be upheld if we want a better world. At least, that is what we who have decided to learn this profession strive towards. And we also talk about stories as this was how the dean started out. We talk about topics ranging from cinema to advertising – he is a full professor in this field – starting, although it might seem strange, with Language and Literature.
Why did you decide to study Language and Literature?
Yes, that’s how it went… I have always liked reading and writing. By the time I was 17 I had already written a number of stories and a theatre play. I loved telling stories and I felt that studying Language and Literature was the way to learn how to tell them. However, over time I discovered that the place that you truly learned how to tell them was in communications. I had it clear in my mind and I decided to steer my future in this direction.
From Navarre, to Malaga, and then back to your home town but stopping off in Los Angeles…
Yes, to be specific, at the University of California, UCLA. I wanted to study a postgraduate related to cinema and I thought that the best place to study it was near Hollywood, don’t you think? I did a diploma in screenwriting and cinema production there, but the best thing was that I was able to intern in Jerry Ziesmer’s production company, who was the production assistant to Francis Ford Coppola. I learned how to make a film from start to finish.
Do you like modern-day cinema?
I like cinema that tells a story, both modern-day and classic. Classic cinema has the advantage of having filtered out films and only being left with the ones which tell us something, regardless of the fact that the stage design and the special effects were still in their infancy. What is important is the stories these films tell and the how the characters evolve over the course of each of them. But you also find this in current-day cinema, whether that be in innovative films like Dunkirk or The Greatest Showman, or films with a classic twist such as the musical La La Land or the silent film which was a roaring success at the Oscars, The Artist.
Since you have touched on all areas of communication, – cinema, journalism and advertising – what do you think links them?
I think that what brings them together is the desire to communicate something relevant through a story. A communicator is someone who tells interesting and human stories: the huge news story of what is happening today in Syria or the small one on the life of the chestnut seller in Olot who everyone comes to with their problems; the story of a fictional series far back in time, but which talks about very familiar topics (family, friends, pain, solidarity); or the story of a brand which pulls us in and promises a major change in our life. All of these are communication.
Stories which are sometimes not true: I am of course referring to fake news, the buzzword of the year… Is communication in crisis?
I think that communication which does not hold its audience in high regard is certainly in crisis. News which concocts acidity and the negative version of things is no longer of interest. People do not look to the media to fill themselves up with bitterness. People expect objective information and personal fulfilment from the media. I read to find out, to awaken new ideas, to find optimism, basically to be a better person. Why is fake news such a popular subject? Because many people have not fully grasped the truth and they concoct scepticism, irony, disillusionment. Journalism should give us back our illusion and mission to serve.
You said in your speech at the last graduation that “This is not a profession for cynics”…
That’s right. I wanted to remind students finishing their studies last year of that. It is the title of the most famous book by Kapuscinski. He said it after gaining vast experience travelling through diverse places and which were at times inhospitable (he was also a war correspondent). Without a doubt, Kapuscinski has been one of the greatest journalists of the twentieth century and at the end of his days he held criticism and irony in disdain. He believed in illusion and considered a communicator should provide a service to his fellow citizens. This is a great profession which can change the world, fill it with hope, make it better… Fake news? The problem is perhaps that there is an excessive amount of vanity, of over-confidence in one’s own judgement (which may or may not cross-check sources) and is lacking in rigour and ethical values.
Why are there concerns about ethical and legal issues in communication?
Because our profession faces many ethical dilemmas every day in all areas. It’s clear that all professions have some degree of influence, but our profession affects the 7.5 billion people living on the planet. All of us communicate with many different people every day: we send messages on social media, we receive and give ideas on the internet, we read news stories in the press and we watch films and television series, etc. The professionals behind each of these media can communicate optimism or disillusionment, hope or disappointment, solidarity or selfishness. For this reason, I have always thought that learning and training of future communicators has to be approached considering ethical responsibility, which is far more important than technical expertise. What a communicator should have clear in their mind is that their attitude and view of people will have a powerful influence on the audience and that the world will be better or worse off depending on how they are as a person and as a communicator.
This is a challenge for communication students, isn’t it?
Yes, of course. In order to overcome it, they need to be well-trained, carve out their own criteria based on convictions and by learning reflectively. But they should not base their ideas on trends or what is politically correct. They should always search for the truth, respect people above their own freedom of expression and view the task of communication as a service to their peers and as being far beyond their own professional success.
Is communication in general going in that direction?
That would be the desirable outcome. In reality, communication is ever more technological and scrutinised. Search engines and social media know everything about us and they tailor their communications to us, with commercial offerings adapted to our profile. It is precisely for this reason that communication needs to be more human. Because if it does not serve to make us better people, more humanitarian and open to others, it will not be communication but rather non-communication.
In reality, we are talking about challenges which go far beyond the limits of our faculty. After so many years teaching, what is your impression of university students?
Of course, they are challenges for everyone! In this respect, I would say that university students – whatever they study – in addition to forming their own criteria, should have a desire to learn. Firstly, by being eager to reach a deep understanding of their own specialism and then to open their minds to converse with lecturers and students from other areas. And this should all take place in an environment promoting harmony and service to society. This desire to serve is compatible with that of wanting to stand out, to leave your mark on others. Because the scientific knowledge that one acquires only truly makes sense when it is used to create and consolidate a better world. In the end, I see it in the same way as someone who makes an effort to understand, live in harmony and to serve.
What do you see as a challenge for a dean and, specifically, a dean of Communication?
I would say that, for my part, the challenge is three-fold: first of all, putting each person – from teaching staff, to students and administration and services staff – in the place where they can be most useful and happiest (and for this reason it is important to listen), secondly, you have to be able to anticipate the academic and professional changes in order to keep the training the students require up to date; and thirdly, you should push for constant improvement in teaching and research. This means that we have to understand how imperative teaching is, that it looks to the present and brings in new students. But the future is in research: this is what allows us to increase our knowledge and which positions universities in rankings. Yet, both are important and go hand in hand. A dean should drive both areas and must ensure that neither area falls behind.
You were at the University of Malaga for over twenty years, you were about to become a full professor and you had a well-consolidated research group and a good team of PhD students. Why then did you accept the position of dean of Communication at UIC Barcelona?
To tell you the truth, I was drawn by the idea of pushing forward the project of the faculty which is at a key stage, on the point of break-through. I thought that my experience and the contacts I have with deans and professors in Communication could be useful (some of which have already joined us). I also wanted to make the Faculty more international by creating agreements with prestigious foreign universities and promoting student mobility. And, finally, I wanted to drive forward research by creating a solid PhD programme with well-defined research areas, and help the teaching staff to become accredited and achieve their six-year terms. We are currently working on that.