Mike Spear: Evolving from journalism to PR

PR Motion: Mike Spear moved from his role as a public broadcasting journalist to in-house Genome Alberta’s corporate communications lead

Mike Spear
Mike Spear, Director of Corporate Communications for Genome Alberta

Currently the director of corporate communication for Genome Alberta, in his earlier career incarnation Mike Spear was a producer and executive producer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, focusing on news and current affairs. His last role with the CBC was program manager for news, current affairs and the arts, which included overall responsibility for its regional communication efforts.

Over his 18 or so years — he took some breaks to pursue other interests — with the CBC, he produced election specials, real-time, wall-to-wall Olympic coverage, a couple of drama specials and some live music. This often meant shifting to Toronto (from his native Calgary) to produce Canadian coverage of 9/11 and the Iraq war. During those breaks from the Corp he worked for the U.S. National Democratic Institute with emerging democracies, such as Croatia, to help new political parties and the media understand each other. Along the way Mike Spear won a CBC President’s award and a Farm Writers award, and his newsrooms won Radio Television News Directors Association awards and CBC Peer awards.

Mike first got involved with social media as a systems operator with CompuServe in the early 1990s and built a digital studio at Old Agriculture College, back when the college still didn’t have a website.

Describe your role at Genome Alberta, including what motivated the career change to the PR side of the equation

Genome Alberta is a massive organization of seven people, plus a few contract project managers. My communication department bulges with a staff of one — me. We are a research-funding organization, meaning we have no labs to show off, no mad scientists to send on outreach missions, no ground-breaking discoveries to tell the world. Just an office of people working very hard at managing the financial side of science research, tracking project timelines and science milestones, looking ahead to what areas will need funding in the future and constantly searching for funding support from government, academia and industry.

My position focuses on promoting the importance of the work Genome Alberta funds, its role in funding that research and explaining the very notion of funding science research.

My typical week involves:

managing our website (to which I try to add fresh content every few days)
maintaining our GenOmics news application
reading up on science news
keeping track of politics that will have an effect on which direction the funding winds will be blowing this month

It’s a job with amazing challenges, which can be incredibly interesting for the science geek inside me. Many people ask why I gave up the daily rush of news and current affairs journalism, but when I left the industry in 2005 it was simply time to try something new. I had done a variety of jobs at the Corp, spent time in many CBC locations and served as program manager in two major market locations. Moving to work at the “Network” headquarters was not on my radar because I have a nice ranch in the Foothills of Alberta. Plus downtown Toronto doesn’t have a lot of nature to it and no place to keep a horse.

Besides, I’ve take breaks from journalism before…and gone back…so who knows what’s down the road!

Where is the crossover between journalism and in-house public relations and communication management? Were there any areas you needed to get up to speed on?

As a good journalist you learn how to tell a story. If, as an in-house staff member, you are going to promote an organization to the public, stakeholders or media, you also need to be able to tell your story.

Moving through different roles in the CBC as a producer, manager and administrator, I learned how to:

• manage budgets
• make short- and long-term strategic plans
• play to various editorial calendars
• understand in very real (and sometimes harsh) terms what audiences want and do not want
• determine what sticks in the head of an audience
• establish how politicians, corporations and non-profits reach out to the world

Journalists try to produce objective material. In my PR role, when trying to get across a point of view, my earlier training in objectivity helps me to do it fairly and honestly — a key feature of a successful PR strategy. Deluged with media releases day in and day out as a journalist gave me a pretty good glimpse into the PR world of fundraising, boring corporate funding announcements, organizations promoting a cause or politicians trying to get out their message.

Producing at local, regional and national levels, working at events such as the Olympics alongside international colleagues, and doing media training in places like Croatia, also reassured me that wherever and whomever the audience is, many of the same techniques work.

What I needed to learn quickly were many of the nitty gritty, tactical things, like producing annual reports (we do ours mostly in-house), trade show material, brochures and the day-to-day tools and skills most PR practitioners probably honed while doing a summer internship.

PR practitioners are often criticized by journalists. In your view, what are the best and worst things they do when dealing with broadcast newsrooms?

A really good PR person tells the story of his or her organization. He or she makes it come alive. Be relevant. Interesting. A practitioner that makes me say, “I didn’t know that.”

The worst public relations efforts were, and still are, those with the “corporate line.” I don’t care whether it’s in a media release, social media efforts, an interview or a speech to the local chamber, of commerce: if you’re, “Proud to lead a world-class organization in the perfect economic storm we are facing in the global marketplace today,” then you have lost the media, the general public, your shareholders and likely even the more astute politicians. No matter how many warning flags pop-up, that kind of clichéd and meaningless language just won’t go away. I’ve been backed into a corner occasionally where I’ve been forced to write something like that, but on the rare occasion that happens, I know which inexperienced reporters will bite and which influential journalists must not receive the media release.

Do you feel you have a leg-up on most PR practitioners because of knowing the ropes on both sides when it comes to media?

I don’t know if it is a leg-up on an experienced or well- trained PR person, but knowing the ropes from both sides helped flatten out my learning curve.

It’s also meant the Genome Alberta has been able to extend its outreach beyond our budget restraints of what is essentially a small funding and administrative organization.

I have benefited from seeing what works in the public eye and what turned the media switches on and off. CBC Alberta’s promotional efforts ranged from Calgary Stampede breakfasts, to Foodbank drives, to on-air specials with public forums. All taught me how draw crowds, hold their attention and leave them wanting more.

I get asked to speak at a lot of conferences and workshops. As a former journalist, I’m probably more at ease in that role than some PR practitioners.

Being able to see the PR and communication role from both sides doesn’t always mean I’m better at it, just that I:

• can be a little more creative
• take a few more risks
• am more comfortable with the whole process, knowing that I’ve observed how the messages are received from a broader perspective

Is “science communication and PR” (versus science journalism) a fairly specialized area of practice? How easy would it be for other PR practitioners to undertake a similar role, without a relevant background?

My real advantage in stepping into a science organization without having a science background (to help me get up to speed) goes back to my earlier reference about telling a story.

For years as a journalist I had to take complex subjects, ask a lot of questions to get some background and context, pick out the best bits and then write a story that appealed to an audience. Kind of like sitting in a room full of geneticists and asking them what the heck they are talking about.

That kind of background isn’t limited to the journalistic profession, but it’s definitely a day in and day out part of my current job. For the most part, someone in another corporate PR role hasn’t been through that enough to be really good at it.

Journalists often put a bit of themselves on the line when letting on what they don’t know, making a cold call just to get some background, or simply listening while someone tells their story. Generally, that’s not what basic PR training is about. The top PR people seem to figure this out eventually, but it isn’t easy to do.

Science communication might not be any more specialized than energy communication or financial communication, but what makes it unique is probably its obscurity. People want to know about the economy, why the prices of gas is rising and, of course, when the earth will stop rupturing oil into the water; however, they aren’t grabbing the newspaper or jumping online to find out which is the latest organism is to have its genome sequenced.

Michael Adams’ award-winning book, Fire and Ice: The United States, Canada and the Myth of Converging Values, named Alberta as Canada’s “most conservative” province. Working in an organization that focuses on genetic research (requiring private and government funding), is it a tougher “sell” in your home province than other areas of Canada or more socially liberal countries?

Oddly, the idea of research around genetics isn’t an issue. In fact, the Genome Centres across the country just got a look at an EKOS survey on Canadians’ perception of genomics: there was no real evidence of a backlash against genetics. The flip side was that Canadians are woefully unaware of genetics and of our organizations!

The bigger issue for my work in Alberta is the incredibly conservative view towards communication and the emphasis on commercialization. If you always expect a commercial return, science research doesn’t leap out as a good place to spend public or private money. If you are fixated on short term pay-offs, long-term research slips off the radar. Alberta likes to think of itself as the “Wild West” full of risk-takers, but that’s simply no longer the case.

On the communications and PR side of things, this isn’t exactly a hotbed of innovation. Web 2.0 (a term just about done to death, thanks) remains something organizations here are “considering.” Social media workshops still seem to start with, “How many of you are on Facebook?” Plus, in a province where government’s success is measured in how many decades it remain in power, Gov 2.0 is a dream for many of us. On the other hand, some specific projects like Inspiring Education (our Education Minister also does his own tweets) or initiatives the cities of Calgary and Edmonton are taking, stand out. Overall though a conservative approach to science and to research make it a challenge to make genomics “pop.”

An area where you’ve had direct impact and influence is Genome Alberta’s use of social media, correct?

Ah, our favourite initiative!

Genome Alberta and Social Media

Check out GenOmics (sorry for the shameless plug) and you’ll see a site that you won’t even recognize as Facebook — but it is!

I was on a panel recently at the huge BIO International Conference in Chicago and the moderator called it a “work of art.” Thanks to a virtual team of developers — mostly from the U.S., I’m sad to say — I hope it is functional art, as well. Because we don’t have our own research to show off, I decided from the outset that if I was going to tell the story of science, I would have to use other people’s work.

The GenOmics site is really a 24-hour science newsroom, which collects stories from all over the world and lays them out like a digital magazine. Anyone can browse the site, read the stories and watch the videos. Registered users can add their own stories or videos, make comments or ask questions. The latest version went live a few weeks ago and looks great. It is set-up to go bilingual [French] when we’re ready, is easier to navigate and on the iPad it gives you the chance to simply lean back with a coffee and catch up on the latest science news.

You can also give away virtual genes to your friends — to date, roughly 15,000 have been exchanged. It’s all fully integrated with Twitter, the blogs on our website, our biweekly newsletter and just about everything else we do. It pulls in feeds from international sources and pushes it back out.

Working with our developer, Jeff Reifman of Newscloud and his media partners, and funded by a grant from the Knight Foundation (alas, no equivalent Canadian support), the underlying code is Open Source. We’re starting to see it being used by newspapers like the Charlotte Observer and some NPR stations. Soon one of the major alternative journalism sites in the U.S. will take it live.

We have lots of readers, but so far the interaction is pretty limited and that’s a bit of a disappointment. The new code will hopefully make interaction easier. And, because it’s incredibly easy to customize, I’ll be experimenting over the next few weeks with different layouts to see what works best.

Mike Spear and Social Media

Another initiative, which must rank in there as the ultimate PR moment, is that I’ve had my own genome sequenced by three different commercial companies. You can download roughly 600,000 lines of my genetic code to see what makes me tick.

Mike Spear's 4D brain
Mike Spear's 4D brain

I use it as an outreach tool when speaking to lay audiences about genomics. I’ve also had the chance to use that experience at science conferences where I can talk to researchers about the impact their work behind closed lab doors actually has on the general public.

As part of that work, I was a contributing author to a Nature Biotech paper on science communication and a co-author of a paper for the American Medical Association’s Virtual Mentor.

It’s been a tremendous experience. Without a journalistic background, I’m not sure either the GenOmics site or the sharing of my personal genome would have happened. In fairness, neither would any of this have happened without my PR and communication role coming into play.

In reality, you work two jobs. Tell us about your off-hours role and life, including whether there is any crossover in these Two Solitudes

When I stepped out the door this morning to take the dogs for a morning look around, my mare was stretched out beside the donkey having a snooze. The sun was just starting to put some colour on the slope to the West, and enjoying that first bit of light were two elk. The deer were at the livestock salt lick and the birds were chirping away.

Life on a small ranch in the Foothills of Alberta is about as far removed from urban PR and science as you can get. We can get completely snowed in for days out there, high-speed Internet is only a dream, and when the farrier comes to visit or the fences need fixing, those things gets your full attention. The BlackBerry is off (not that it gets data reception out there, anyway) and even with a satellite Internet connection iTunes and streaming video are not high on the list.

Apart from offering a complete break from office work when I need it, I’ve also been able to use that other solitude when speaking at conferences. There is a digital divide in Canada you can drive a logging truck through. Some of my neighbours are still using dial-up connection and you can forget any involvement with social media. The main news source tends to be from either over-the-air media or the weekly and (highly) local newspaper. PR efforts tend to forget the rural part of Canada unless they are marketing a strictly rural produce. But people outside the city still use government services, are concerned about the environment and send their kids off to school. They need to be more connected.

I love working and living out on my small ranch and I’m not ready to move back to the city — but I’d also like to be able to raise the game up a notch for rural Canada.

Finally, any words of advice for other PR practitioners on having a successful and fulfilling career?

1. Keep it honest and tell your story well.
2. Dial up the BS meter to high and ask yourself, “Why do I care?”
3. If you aren’t passionate about what your role is, stop and re-think what you’re doing or where you’re doing it.

Link: Catching Up on Many PR Conversations (Mike Spear on his genomealberta blog)

Check out Genome Alberta’s website and social media sites related to Mike Spear’s work. Genome Alberta is also on YouTube and Mike’s presentations can be found on Slideshare. Read his blog or follow Mike Spear (“mikesgene”) on Twitter. Feel free to hook up with Mike on LinkedIn. Or contact him by e-mail.

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5 Replies to “Mike Spear: Evolving from journalism to PR

  1. Thanks again for the opportunity to do the profile.

    Facebook is just a platform and it is up to the user, or in our case the developer, to make what you want of it.

    For instance when the application was just the ‘give-a-gene’ tab and not a newsite we decided that when you gave a gene to a friend, the application would not push that information out to your profile. At the time the FB default was the other way around – we chose to override the setting. The latest version turns off all sharing settings or options so if the user wants to push information out, that is their choice. Even as an adminstrator I can’t see what the registered user doesn’t want to share. Facebook itself can’t collect any additional information because registered users are not asked for any additional information beyond what Facebook already has. And of course you can read any story or view any video on the site without registering or having a Facebook account at all.

    The source code for the platform is an Open Source project we’re involved in with Jeff Reifman of Newscloud, so none of that part of the site is proprietary. (and thanks for noting it as innovative – we believe that non-profits can really make good use of this tool).

    Our approach has been that Facebook is a social media site and we want to share everything we have with as many as we can and not lock anything away.


  2. Mike, thank you for agreeing to do this PR Motion profile. Even though I had a decent understanding of your journalism background (we “met” because of a shared journalist friend) and some of the work you’ve done since joining Genome Alberta, I learned a lot about your role and initiatives, too.

    Speaking of initiatives, your work in social media is really quite imrpessive, especially considering you are a full-time staff and department of one! I do have one query, though:

    A huge part of Genome Alberta’s “investment” in social media is through the third-party Facebook platform. Does it concern you, at all, to have innovative and proprietary information on a site (and with a company) not always known to respect knowledge and information ownership? Or privacy?

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