By Lindsay Marcaccio 

Deep down, I think many of us expected things would return to “normal” once lockdowns were lifted. But it is clear many things are not returning to the way they were, including how we as communications and public relations professionals do our jobs. 

Johnston advises keeping a sense of humour and staying calm during these challenging times.

Kelly Johnston, senior communications specialist and media advisor at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine (CSM), has noted changes in how she handles her role since the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Johnston helps to bring the research CSM clinicians and scientists do, to public attention through national and local media. Although some changes are not ideal, there are those which have been positive. 

Room with a Zoom

In the past, Johnston would have been present at most interviews with a CSM faculty member. She would have spoken in-person to the journalist to expand on emails sent back and forth to set things up. She would have also been present to provide any additional background information that may not get covered during the interview. Johnston would have advised the researcher and coached them during the interview process, possibly even fielding a question or two during the interview. However, physical distancing requirements have put a stop to all of that. 

Johnston now finds herself coaching researchers on the finer points of Zoom etiquette – don’t use a background (they look fake), use sleek looking earphones to reduce distracting noises, and always test your microphone. 

Because interviews are no longer in-person, media now often receive researchers’ cell phone numbers, and they aren’t shy about reaching out directly to them for another story. This can prevent Johnston from being able to asses the story, provide necessary details and prepare the researcher. She tries hard to instil the message for the researchers to include her in any interactions with media. 

Fewer journalists and reporters 

Even before COVID-19, journalists were faced with massive cutbacks. For many, it’s meant adding additional tasks to their already crammed workday. Instead of two or three person crews (shooter/editor) the reporter is now juggling interviewing, recording/filming, editing and having to file multiple stories for multiple programs. Their deadlines are tighter than ever. Sometimes, shooters are sent out solo, with little guidance. 

Unfortunately, in this time-constrained stressful environment, Johnston has experienced reporters piece milling a story together.  Often combining interviews, and video gathered by others, sometimes in different cities and creating one news story. The problem is, the pieces don’t always fit. The reporter may not have provided the right context for the interview with the researcher. As a result, she feels it is even more crucial for us as communications professionals to provide all of the necessary details to media in a timely fashion.

In her experience, it goes a long way in building rapport by showing a bit of understanding of their workload, deadlines and pressure.  Perhaps the pandemic has reinforced the importance of relationship building with the media. 

Keeping it COVID-19 related

Given the global pandemic, reporters want to talk to an expert or file a story that is related to COVID-19. Working in a medical school, that’s not hard to do, but Johnston has noted that media isn’t that interested in research stories which aren’t related to the virus even if they are important in the medical world. 

As a result, she had to alter her story priority list and communications strategy to reflect the current news demand. If you are going to push a non-pandemic related story, “your pitches better have a WOW factor because competition is fierce,” states Johnston. 

Lessons learned

Although Johnston can’t be present at an interview, she knows she has to keep the dialogue open between herself and the media. “Ask what the story angle is, what their sources are, and really employ those best practices as they are critical at this time,” advises Johnston. 

She advises being very clear with the facts you provide to the media, not only in medicine and science but in any industry. Especially when interviews can be taken out of context.  

Throughout the everchanging environment caused by the pandemic, and increased media calls day and night, Johnston has kept her sense of humour and done her best to stay calm. None of us know how our roles as communications professionals will be permanently affected by COVID-19, but we can choose to see the changes we face as opportunities to revisit and amplify best practices as Johnston has. 


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