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Doug Sweet has been an ink-stained wretch for 30 years — and judging by the way he talks about his last three decades' experience, he's loved every second of it. The new Director, Media Relations Office, came to McGill via the Montreal Gazette, where he cut his journalistic teeth first as a copy editor and, most recently as the National Editor in charge of the paper's political coverage. Recently, the McGill Reporter turned the tables on Sweet, harassing him Mike Wallace-style to give us the lowdown on media, McGill and the important life lesson he learned at his very first job.
What is the mandate of the Media Relations Office (MRO)?
We take the important work being done at McGill and put it in a form that newspaper readers and television viewers can digest — most of them don't have PhDs or postgraduate degrees so they have to be able to grasp it at a fairly basic level. We're translators; we translate an awful lot of very complicated material into a form that is understandable by the public at large.
In simple terms, our job is to deliver the university's message to the media in a coherent, professional and timely fashion. We are the conduit through which tons of important information pass each day and we serve two groups of clients; the McGill community and the media.
Why is it important to get the McGill message out there?
Obviously, Campaign McGill is essential for the university. The more people know about the important work being done here, the more likely the campaign will achieve its goals. But positive media exposure also helps the university attract top students and professors from around the world as well as catching the eye of funding agencies.
And we can't lose sight of the fact that McGill is a part of the larger Montreal community. We want people to know what we do to help improve the lives of people in our city and the world at large.
You've been here less than a month. What is your short-term priority?
I want the MRO to reach out to all faculty, to let professors and researchers know we are here to tell their stories. But it isn't easy to get those stories to the media. It can't be haphazard, you have to be coordinated and you have to make sure the message is delivered over many different platforms at the same time so it's fair to all journalists.
What would you say to researchers who throw up their hands and say "I'm not one of McGill's superstars, why would anyone care about my work?"
Yes, there are people who, by virtue of the research they are doing and their relative comfort with the media, have been featured more prominently in the media. This happens at every university. But you don't have to be a "superstar" to have an interesting story. Even though McGill is in the news on a regular basis, the majority of our researchers haven't had much exposure.
I want to encourage all faculty members to come to us and say "I'm doing this research, do you think there's a story here?" Most of the time we'll say yes. It's really important for people to feel comfortable about telling us about their work or about contacting us about something they've heard in the news that they would like to weigh in on. We're always looking for McGill experts to put before the microphones and cameras who can talk in intelligent ways about the timely issues that affect people.
What about McGill experts who haven't had much experience with the media?
We can talk to them about the kinds of questions they should expect and try to make them feel more comfortable. But I don't think all faculty need to go through high-level media training. [Laughing] It's not rocket science and it's a lot less painful than going to the dentist.
Of course it does take some getting used to — as I'm finding during this interview because I've always been the one asking the questions. But if you know your stuff and you've thought about what you want to say, it's not that difficult.
What's the best way for a researcher to start the media ball rolling?
The first thing they should do is get to know the Communications Officer assigned to their particular branch of study. [See sidebar list of com officers.] That should be their first point of contact, but they should feel comfortable with contacting me or someone from the MRO if need be. I've only been here a few weeks, but I've been very impressed with the commitment and level of professionalism shown by the MRO's com officers. It's a great team.
What about timing in terms of news stories?
If someone from McGill wants to comment on something going on in the news, they've got to do it fast because today's news cycle moves very quickly. Commenting next week about something that happened this week just doesn't fly. You need to get in and out quickly.
The media travels at a very fast pace these days and the Internet has sped things up remarkably. A story used to sit around for a day or two and people would pick at it and come back with second- and third-day stories. But that doesn't happen nearly as much any more So, if you are an expert wanting to comment on the news of the day, consider the news cycle to be right now.
If you've got research coming out, you should let us know in advance so we're prepared. We'll keep the secret but it takes several days to write a press release on a complex scientific subject. We need to get the information, figure it out, write an intelligent release and get it back to the researcher for approval to make sure we've got it right. Then it's got to go to translation. It's a process that can't be done in a couple of hours.
Why did you become a journalist?
[Laughing] Because my marks weren't good enough to get me into law. I was trying to figure out what to do with a BA in history and politics from Trent and my parents actually spoke to the head of Ryerson and he suggested journalism. I resisted at first but eventually came around and haven't looked back. It's been a really good fit for me.
What is it about journalism that makes it such a good fit?
I love knowing things and I love telling people what I know. Most journalists are like that. We're all gossips. I really like being the first to find out about something and being the first to tell other people about it, whether it is science or politics or the arts.
What makes a good story?
It's got to be important to people and it has to affect some aspect of their lives. It also has to make people say "Oh, wow, I didn't know that." The kind of story that people talk about at cocktail parties or at the water cooler. People have to care about it and want to talk about it, otherwise it's just grist for the mill.
So, are there good stories at McGill?
That goes without saying — the work being done here is so important to Montreal, to Canada, to the world. In the few weeks I've been here, we've put out some really interesting stuff in medicine and business and we've had experts quoted all over the place. People care about what McGill does and what McGill thinks.
It sounds like a good start to the job.
It's been an interesting few weeks not only in what we've put out but in the way we've handled the media. I was given a baptism by fire during my first week with the Post-Graduate Students' Society's Love/Sex Week — which was a nice eye-opener, thank you very much. [Laughing]