Q&A with Morag MacLachlan, communications director at Division of Infectious Diseases at UNC-Chapel Hill

Morag MacLachlan is communications director at the Institute for Global Health & Infectious Diseases at UNC-Chapel Hill. She previously worked at two Boston hospitals and as a reporter at a newspaper and TV station in New England. In this interview, conducted by email, MacLachlan discusses her job at UNC, the news media’s coverage of infectious diseases and her transition from news to public relations.

Q. Describe your job. What is your typical day like?

A. I am the communications director for UNC’s Division of Infectious Diseases and its Institute for Global Health & Infectious Diseases. We have clinicians and researchers in Chapel Hill as well as our sites in Malawi, China, Zambia, Nicaragua and the Galapagos tackling global health questions. For example, at our UNC Project-China site, staff are leveraging crowdsourcing to promote condom use, HIV testing and other important sexual health messages.

It’s fascinating for me to learn how people in Chapel Hill are making a worldwide difference, and it is always humbling to learn that a disease we do not normally worry about in the U.S. can pose a deadly threat abroad. Malaria is not a disease that most Americans think about, but it is a major problem in many parts of Africa and Southeast Asia.

There really is no typical day. I try to begin with my list of things I want to accomplish – posting to our Facebook and Twitter accounts, writing an article for our website, editing a video for our YouTube channel, etc… – but something always pops up.

For example, the day Charlie Sheen went on NBC’s “Today” show and disclosed that he was living with HIV, I had to drop the plans for the day and begin fielding media requests to speak with our infectious diseases clinicians who primarily treat people living with HIV.

It’s never a dull moment and no two days are alike, and that is far more exciting to me than doing the same tasks day in and day out. It does mean long hours sometimes, but I think getting the word out about the important public and global health advances UNC is making is rewarding.

Q. On occasion, infectious diseases such as Ebola or SARS are big news. How can the news media better cover that topic?

A. We have a different speaker each Friday morning during the academic year come present about an infectious diseases topic. And this fall, we had a lawyer from the University of Louisville talk about how public health professionals really failed, in his opinion, when it came to keeping the public informed during the Ebola outbreak last year.

During the comments period, many of our ID clinicians and researchers who had responded immediately to West Africa and had even helped create Ebola response guides for the CDC voiced their frustration with how hard they are treated during an emerging infection. The public and the media want answers immediately, and these doctors and nurses are working around the clock to try and prevent mass casualties while simultaneously trying to figure out the rules of the infection in order to discover prevention, treatment, and ultimately, cure techniques.

In this age of 24-hour news cycles and endless Twitter updates, the pressure on these front line workers to have answers right away is tremendous, but also unrealistic. No response is interpreted as a failure. Yet sometimes there is no response because the infection is in its infancy and they do not want to speculate on the source of a disease.

I know the news media are also under pressure to rush to be first and hold the largest share of their respective market. But at some point, especially when the news story deals with public health, accuracy should be the goal, not just reporting speculation for the sake of reporting something.

Q. You previously worked at a TV station and for a newspaper in New England. What was it like to make the transition from news to public relations?

A. Honestly, if you had told me when I started out as a reporter that I would eventually be working in PR, I would not have believed you!

I hated getting cold calls from PR professionals as a reporter. I was of the school of thought that as a journalist, I would immerse myself in the community I was reporting on and find news stories that way. I didn’t need a PR professional trying to pitch to me.

But journalism is a very tough field to make a living in, and I can’t imagine how difficult it would be now. I was working as a full time television reporter in 2003, but also needing to work three nights a week teaching aerobics classes and two nights a week teaching business communications at the local community college just to make $19,000 a year.

This was just as having an online component to complement your news broadcast or newspaper was beginning to take off. There was no social media. There was no citizen with an iPhone on the scene who submitted footage to you and received the title of iReporter in return.

Newsroom budgets are shrinking, and fewer reporters are charged with more and more beats. Gone are the days where you could specialize in health reporting or feature writing. You really have to be able to cover multiple beats at a moments notice for poor pay. You have to be in journalism because you love it, not because you are going to have normal work hours and a big paycheck.

I was able to do it for about four years full time, and then I won an award for health reporting from the New England Press Association. The awards ceremony was on the last day of NEPA’s journalism conference. I sat in on one workshop where a features editor from the Portsmouth Press Herald in New Hampshire was talking about how he made the switch from that job to the communications department of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

In that moment, I realized I could continue to use my storytelling skills by working in the communications departments of hospitals. What appealed to me about this form of PR is that even though I am talking about the same client every day – the hospital – you can do that in a variety of ways. You can feature a grateful patient or a new piece of technology or a staff member who became a healthcare professional because they lost a loved one to a specific disease. You can find these tremendously touching stories to tell.

To me, healthcare communications seems less like I’m selling you a story and more like I am telling you a story that I hope convinces you to get your care here, or enroll in a research study here, or train here, or make a donation. I eventually got hired at BIDMC.

Then four years later I left to work at their competition – Brigham & Women’s Hospital. And two and a half years after that, I was recruited by the Division of Infectious Diseases at UNC. It’s been an unexpected professional path, but I wouldn’t change it. I love my job.

Q. What advice do you have for journalism students interested in jobs like yours?

Write, write and write some more! Being a good storyteller is the foundation for a successful career.

I wrote my broadcast packages when I was a TV reporter, editing the soundbites and voiceover tracks together. Then as a newspaper reporter, I wrote for a print audience. Making the switch to healthcare communications also boils down to being able to tell a compelling story.

But unlike journalism where the reporter tells both sides of a story and is doing the public an informational service, PR is trying to influence the public’s behavior. So my storytelling now really has to have a call to action – getting people with a certain disease to want to be in our clinical trials, getting future infectious diseases professionals to want to train at UNC and getting the public to come to our ID Clinic for their care.

I would say students interested in a career in PR need to do an internship or two to figure out if what they are learning in the classroom is really a life they can lead once they graduate. I interned with the director of public relations at my alma mater when I was a student, and I found I didn’t like academic PR. I really enjoyed health reporting as a journalist and found that I also like healthcare PR/communications.

So it is important for students to find that niche that excites them and would make them want to come to work each day. I think Dr. Charlie Tuggle’s Media Hub class at UNC is also a great way to expose students to careers in journalism because they are creating content as you would in a newsroom, but the students also have access to professionals in the field for guidance. An internship in addition to this class would be ideal.

Finally, you need to have a thick skin and be able to roll with the punches. You will pitch stories to reporters and never receive a call back. Or a reporter will reach out to you with a last-minute request, and then some other major news event will happen and your hours of coordinating the reporter and doctor’s schedules will go out the window.

Al Jazeera America approached us in November to comment on the outrageous price hike of a drug called Daraprim. I scrambled to get the UNC TV studio booked and the doctor ready to run over to make the interview with the team in L.A. that would be cutting the package and then the San Bernardino office shooting took place. Al Jazeera bumped the story with us and we had to start over again a few days later with the logistics.

But that’s the world of news, and you can’t get frustrated. You will also be the spokesperson during bad news sometimes, and you have to be strategic about when to advise people to comment and when to tell them to refuse to respond. That’s a tough call, but it gets easier with practice.

Again, I think doing an internship can expose students to this. It’s an exciting field and one I think will remain in demand.

Student guest post: Twitter, the non-social media

Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, right, answers questions at a recent talk at High Point University.
Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, right, answers questions at a talk at High Point University.

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the first of those posts. Sarah Kaylan Butler is a senior majoring in journalism. She is from Fayetteville, North Carolina. She is a digital journalist dedicated to cultivating community. A portion of her community journalism pursuit includes serving as the editor-at-large for the Durham VOICE and the Carrboro Commons.

It’s 2016, and we have access to so many social media platforms that it’s absurd. Do we know what each one is for and how to use their many functions?

I mean, Facebook was created to keep college students connected as they spanned across the nation. Instagram shares photos and videos (partially thanks to Vine), although once a post is made, it’s not easily sharable. Snapchat shares temporary photos and videos with individuals or a geographical location.  We’re getting more platforms by the day, like Periscope and WhatsApp.

There’s one platform that I don’t agree is social by nature. Twitter.

It doesn’t serve as a “social” medium. I realize that when you Google “Twitter” a the description says it’s a “social networking service.” My proposition is merely to scratch the term “social” and refer to it as a networking medium or news source.

High Point University recently hosted a conversation between Dr. Nido Qubein, HPU’s president, and Biz Stone, the co-founder of Twitter.

During their open chat, Stone talked about what Twitter was like in the beginning and how it has grown. He acknowledged that Facebook and Twitter aren’t the same.

“These are completely different services. They’re always lumped together, but they’re totally different,” Stone said.

If I tweet to a friend, “Hey, I’m about to break up with my boyfriend, but I can’t think of what to say. Can you come over?” I might annoy my followers or even gain a few enemies.

Of course, our parents taught us manners, and those lessons apply online.

So maybe it’s not such a good idea to hold ongoing casual conversation on Twitter, but what is it good for? Networking.

Networking isn’t always within your career field. As journalists, we can use it to build strong local communities.

Stone said, “Twitter isn’t about keeping up with your friends. It’s about … first to the world. It’s about finding out what’s happening right now. It’s about — if you have something to say, saying it right now.”

Tweeting, as a medium to share news, has become one of Twitter’s staples since its conception in 2006. It freely allows businesses, journalists, travelers and anyone else to network with other like-minded individuals or entities.

In fact, Stone said that he was surprised when celebrities began using Twitter because they already have a voice. 

Dr. Qubein even asked Stone, “Does it depress you that the people with the largest following are Katy Perry and Mr. Bieber?” Stone responded by saying, “You know, It’s funny. I thought celebrities would never use Twitter because they’re celebrities. The whole point of a celebrity is that you have limited access to them. You can watch them in movies, but that’s it.”

Now celebrities use Twitter to build and interact with fans, but it has many other uses.

During a snowstorm, users can be alerted of school closings. While walking around downtown, users can be alerted to great sales happening at their favorite local stores. While protesting users can be alerted to what’s happening at similar marches around the world.

Stone talked about his experience at a South By Southwest Interactive conference, when he was standing at the back of a room and noticed that Twitter was on every phone. He said that at one point, only 10 minutes into a session, “everyone just got up and left. It was like someone had announced something over the PA system.”

Later, he found out people were tweeting about something across the hall that they were more interested in and like birds, they flocked to it or followed it.

In everyday conversation, people use phrases like “Do you follow me?” to ask if someone understands. They ask their co-workers during their lunch break, “Hey, are you following this story?” That’s why Stone said he decided to allow users to “follow” each other, instead of become “friends.”

“All along I’ve always thought of Twitter — it’s not a social network. It’s not where you go to connect with your friends from high school. Twitter is, yes, it’s social media broadly because it’s media and it’s people, but Twitter fundamentally is the place where you go to hear news first.”

As people who consume many different kinds of social media, let’s be aware of the tools we have at our disposal and use them appropriately.

Q&A with Kristie Gonzales, promotion and digital brand manager at WABC-TV

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Kristie Gonzales, left, and other members of the WABC-TV staff.

Kristie Gonzales is promotion and digital brand manager at WABC-TV in New York City. She previously worked at stations in California and North Carolina. In this interview, conducted by email, Gonzales talks about her job, the relationship between news and promotions, and her advice for journalism students.

Q. Describe your job. What is your typical day like?

A. The first thing I do when I wake up is turn on “Eyewitness News This Morning” and “Good Morning America.” Before I arrive to work, I’ve posted on social media for abc7ny, and I have a good idea of what stories are trending that day.

Once I get to work, I attend our 9 a.m. news meeting to learn how we’re going to cover those stories. From there, I pow-wow with our promotion and digital producers to see how we can attract the most viewers to our various platforms. We are putting a lot of emphasis on expanding our social media video right now, on top of our regular on-air duties.

The rest of my time is spent working on image campaigns, various shoots and outside media spends. I take frequent social media breaks to listen to what our viewers are saying because they are the heartbeat of our operation.

It’s wonderful; I never get the chance to watch the clock in this job and no day is ever alike because you always have the possibility of breaking news.

Q. What is the relationship between news and promotions at TV stations like yours?

A. News and promotion are incredibly close and work hand-in-hand at WABC-TV. Our department attends news meetings and is expected to contribute story ideas and evaluate stories based on promotional appeal. I always tell our new interns that news tells the story, and we sell the story.

We try to be as educated as possible on what our viewers want from us, so there’s always a healthy discourse with our newsroom colleagues about how we craft our special reports. Plus, one of the more interesting aspects of promoting in social media is that it has virtually killed the tease. It’s forced us to be more like news because we are focusing on delivering solid content versus slick-sounding promises in our on-air pushes.

Q. Before going to New York in 2014, you worked at TV stations in Fresno, California, and Durham, North Carolina. How did those experiences in smaller markets help you in your current job?

A. I cannot overstate the importance of gaining experience if differently sized markets. Not only is it better to make your mistakes in front of half a million people instead of 20 million, but you will also learn different lessons in each market.

In Fresno, I learned you can do so much with so little. That prepared me to be a better steward of the larger budgets I encountered in top markets. If you can do your best with a crew of one or a crew of 30, you’re more prepared to handle whatever comes your way.

I’ve done almost every kind of production job in TV, and that’s made me a much better director and manager. You also don’t buy excuses because you know there are different ways of getting TV done.

Q. What advice do you have for student journalists?

A. I hope you don’t mind a list! These are the little nuggets I’ve been collecting and sharing over the years:

  • Just scrub your social media clean. Plain and simple. You would think everyone knows this by now.
  • Learn every possible media creation tool you can. I get hundreds of intern applications so I only look at candidates who can edit, write, shoot and have experience in social media.
  • Take any foot in the door that you can get. You never know where it will lead! Walk through that open door.
  • Don’t be afraid to move or take that first low-paying job. You’re smart – you‘ll figure out how to make it work!
  • Come prepared. Do your homework before you ever walk in the door. That includes knowing the day’s news, the competition and who the talent and executives are.
  • If you are looking for advice or a mentor, come with specific asks.
  • Aspire to leadership. Our business needs more diversity behind the cameras in management.
  • Follow me on social media and feel free to ask me anything, or shoot me an email!

UPDATE: In June 2016, Gonzales was named president and general manager of KVUE in Austin, Texas.

Your ideas are intriguing to me, and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter

In addition to my usual courses this semester, I am overseeing an independent study. Kelsey Weekman, a UNC-Chapel Hill senior majoring in journalism with a minor in screenwriting, will examine the rise of email newsletters.

Kelsey came to me with the idea near the end of the fall semester. She said that she was interested in studying the voice, design, length and illustrations in newsletters such as The Skimm and The Charlotte Agenda. Here’s what she said in her plan for the independent study:

I’m passionate about newsletter writing, and a class that delves into it just doesn’t exist yet at UNC. In this independent study, I want to learn how industry professionals write newsletters, both personally and through researching the writing itself.

So this semester, Kelsey will create a blog dedicated to this topic. Each week, she will post an analysis of an email newsletter. She also plans to interview editors who put together such newsletters.

By the end of the semester, Kelsey will write a paper to provide an overview of her findings and create the prototype for a newsletter. I’ve invited her to talk with my Advanced Editing class about her findings.

I’m excited to get to work with Kelsey on this project, and I invite you to follow along on her blog. Let us know if you have any suggestions about newsletters that have intrigued you.

What I am teaching this semester

The spring semester at UNC-Chapel Hill starts on Monday, Jan. 11. Here are the syllabuses* for what I am teaching:

You can see syllabuses for all courses at the journalism school on this page at the Park Library website. Best wishes to faculty and students on a successful semester.

* I follow AP style and Language Log on the plural of this word. But if you say “syllabi,” I’ll know what you mean.

Q&A with Eric Garcia, reporter at Roll Call

Eric Garcia is a staff writer at Roll Call in Washington, D.C. He previously worked at National Journal. In this interview, conducted by email, Garcia discusses his job, journalism education and his recent article about living and working with autism.

Q. Describe your job at Roll Call. What is your typical day like?

A. I am on the political team, which is to say I cover campaigns on the presidential, Senate and House level.

That usually means just scrolling around for story ideas either through social media, reading other media outlets, going through FEC docs or talking to sources (which is something I am getting better at doing). If I come up with an idea or my editor does, then I usually jump on that idea and start reporting.

Q. How do story editing and headline writing work at Roll Call?

A. Typically once you finish a story, you file it to your editor, and they make any changes or ask you about anything you are unclear about.

What’s interesting about Roll Call is we typically write a normal headline and an SEO-friendly one, so that has definitely made me more conscious of how to write headlines for online. I always try to make sure to include search-friendly words or a candidate’s name in a headline so it’s better for people to search, especially if it’s a story about someone like Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump, both of whom guaranteed to be more viral online. When I was at National Journal, I wrote mostly for online, so SEO-headlines were also extremely important.

Q. You recently shared about your experiences with autism. What inspired you to write about that article, and what was the reaction to it?

A. I kind of fell into writing the magazine story by a series of coincidental events. I was at a party and made an offhand comment about being on the spectrum, and a friend said something to the effect of I should write a story about being a journalist on the spectrum. I thought that’d be a cool story but felt I’d file it away until I got better as a journalist.

Then, when National Journal announced it was shutting down its print edition magazine at the end of last year, I tossed the idea around with the magazine editor, Richard Just, and he said he wanted it for the print edition.

I honestly did not expect the reaction I got, which was largely positive. I heard a lot from families of people with someone on the spectrum or even people I knew who said they had a loved one on the spectrum.

I have also met and spoken with a few people on the spectrum or with other disabilities who live and work in D.C. or elsewhere who are trying to live fulfilling lives, and that has been extremely satisfying. I love talking with people about their own individual experiences, but at the same time, I have noticed there are so many common strains among people on the spectrum.

Q. You graduated from the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2014. What skills and concepts did you learn there that you use in your job now? What have you learned since then?

A. Honestly, I still use a lot of the skills I learned both at the j-school and when I was at The Daily Tar Heel, which might as well have been a class in and of itself.

I took Paul O’Connor’s reporting class the semester that students reported on the N.C. General Assembly, and I really cut my teeth as a reporter that way. I learned how to talk to legislators, lobbyists and other people who influence policy. That came in handy when it came to reporting on members of Congress or candidates on the national level.

Ferrel Guillory taught me a lot about how to come up with story ideas or look at the news critically. I could not have written the magazine story on autism had it not been for taking Paul Cuadros‘ feature writing class. I learned the mechanics and rudiments of journalism like writing succinctly, ethics and editing skills, not to mention AP style. I think those values are pretty much the same anywhere you go.

Since graduating, I think I’ve learned a lot more about building source relationships, how to be tougher in my questioning when I am reporting and how to build stronger news judgment. What I think might be a good story may not be what readers want, and I am working on thinking like a reader.