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Communicating about Communications with Sarah McGowan

'Trying to get ahead of the game or figuring out what direction people are trying to go in when they request an interview or want to cover a story. You need to know the angle they are going for and it keeps your mind running
Sarah McGowan title picture
Photo provided by Sarah McGowan

Talk about trial by fire, Sarah McGowan became the Director of Communications for Nipissing University Student Union one week before the faculty strike in 2015.    

“It was very interesting, the first thing I ever did in this job was a media release and I was definitely learning as I went,” says McGowan.   

“I tell this to a lot of students that you can do more than just teach with an English degree, which is what I had. I think that people think that’s the only avenue and I was headed that route too, but I took a step back before going to teachers college and really evaluated everything.”   

McGowan took a class on media and it explored the quickly developing world of social media.    

“I’m from the My Space generation that led into Facebook. It’s completely changed as to what it is now and that course really opened my eyes to what was changing within that media landscape. I graduated and got a job with NUSU as an Office Assistant, and I just started filling up the social media accounts with content when everyone else was too busy and I gradually took over that aspect of the day-to-day communications, and a year later I became the Director of Communications”  

McGowan says it takes a lot of foresight to be a Communications Director. She says, “Trying to get ahead of the game or figuring out what direction people are trying to go in when they request an interview or want to cover a story. You need to know the angle they are going for and it keeps your mind running.”   

Plus, she says, you have to be conscious of what’s on your social media accounts and what you are planning to post, and the timeliness of everything.   

“We’re in that era of the keyboard warriors so you have to be aware of how you answer certain questions and what your tone looks like and it can be a lot sometimes and I think its hard to switch it off sometimes and take a break. If I didn’t have to be on social media for my job, I don’t know if I would have a personal social media account.”     

McGowan says although she does have personal social media accounts, she says they are a blend of her personal and professional life while trying to stay aware of the fact that anything she says personally could have an effect on her profession.   

“I make sure I’m still professional and very conscious about what I put on my own page and I think that is just common sense now because I think we have seen so many negative things come out of previous posts and incidents from people even when they were much younger and so I think its just a good habit to keep everything as professional as you can,” she says. 
“You can see how quickly people can be put into a weird situation as a communications person, especially for a position like mine as a student union organization where I do have a lot of post-secondary students on my page. But it’s because you build those relationships with them and sometimes, they could go on to be your peers either as co-workers or people you need to do business with in the community, but the first time you see them is through offering campus tours or they participate in Frosh Week and so there’s a lot of those ‘full circle’ moments that happen. Being in communications, you have to have those connections and be the one that’s looking to set people up for success and help them build their story, but doing it all from the background.”   

While NUSU and Nipissing University are separate in how they operate, McGowan says it’s been great to watch and work at an institution that has continued to evolve over the years.   

“I’ve seen how far the university has come. I think of people like Trina Prince who was head of student life when they were a student and was very outspoken about sexual violence and safety and to see the way the university engaged in that dialogue and where we’ve come on that issue as an institution. It’s really nice to see the work that has gone into it, although there is still a lot of work that needs to be done, but it is really great to see that there are all these opportunities for students now and there’s more information out there and I tell students now to go and snatch up those opportunities,” she says.   

Originally from Northern Ireland, McGowan and her family immigrated to Canada when she was 11 and they landed in Elliot Lake. She says that background helps her in her role now because she understands the difficulties that many international students go through when attending post-secondary in a new country.  

McGowan says, “I read to myself out loud every night for six months straight when I arrived in Canada to try and lose my accent because I was uncomfortable with the attention it received. When I started school kids would ask me to say words, and I’d say them with my accent and the kids would laugh and so I thought to myself that I’ve got to change that.”   

“I’m a white, English-speaking person and it was still difficult, and there was a culture shock. While I knew Canadians to be very open and accepting, my dad has a very thick Scottish accent and there were times when people didn’t even try to understand him. So I can’t imagine how difficult it might be for people who come over here and don’t have English as their first or second language and trying to adapt.”     

Having learned life lessons and having a lot of different skills is certainly an asset for anyone who wants to get into a communications role says McGowan.   

“It’s important to understand that you’re never going to have the same day twice. You have to be a good multi-tasker and you have to be able to make connections. Not necessarily for you but for the organization or the students,” she says.   

McGowan says like many other people she has had to adapt over the last year, as she has not been in her office since the COVID-19 pandemic arose. The restrictions mean she wasn’t allowed to be in her work building and therefore has had to run communications from home which she says can be a struggle at times.   

“I think everyone gets zoom fatigue because you are constantly online,” says McGowan.   

“I’m in virtual meetings, I’m checking BayToday and the Nugget twice a day to make sure I’m on top of things to make sure I’m not missing out on any information that could be vital to the university or the students. So just finding ways to maintain that level of production can be challenging. People might have this perception that communications people just write media releases and send emails, but there’s a whole strategy behind everything you do and trying to stay on top of the biggest trends and knowing the correct terms for certain situations and continually learning.”  

McGowan says it is not an occupation where blind luck can push you far. 
“You need to be aware of the world around you. You can’t just go in and not know what’s going on. You have to know your audience and know whom you’re talking to. Like the Bernie Sanders meme, we shared Bernie Sanders sitting outside the library to promote library services. But it was something we had to jump on fast because the next day it could be old, it could be over and there might be some new trend that you have to gauge with your audience.”  

McGowan says, “It’s really important to support your manager and your coworkers to the best of your abilities because they depend on you to filter all of that out for them.” 

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Matt Sookram

About the Author: Matt Sookram

Matthew Sookram is a Canadore College graduate. He has lived and worked in North Bay since 2009 covering different beats; everything from City Council to North Bay Battalion.
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