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.