IABC London report
Make no mistake, even though it seemed a natural move from journalism to communications, it was a steep learning curve for Kathy Mueller when she joined the Canadian Red Cross in 2008. It was a move that would see her relinquish her full-time TV job, where she was the main face of the six o’clock evening news in London, Ontario, for a nine-month contract far from home.
But first, we must go back to 2006. Mueller convinced her news director to send her to Sudan with the local non-profit, Canadian Aid for Southern Sudan (CASS). She reported on the group’s efforts to support the South Sudanese who had begun returning from the north following a long and drawn out civil war.
It was a trip that would forever change the course of Mueller’s life. “There was something about seeing first-hand that people were living without access to the basics of health care, clean water, education, and food, that lit a passion I didn’t know was there,” said Mueller.
It was also the realization that after 18 years in the news business, she had reached the stage in her professional career where to grow in her career she would have to relocate to a larger market, which she was reluctant to do.
Fast forward to 2008. Mueller had since returned twice to Sudan, again with CASS, reconfirming her feeling that non-profit work was what she next wanted to explore. She got the opportunity in September 2008, during a nine-month contract with the Canadian Red Cross in Indonesia. The nine months turned into 18, and then eight years with Mueller accepting contractual work in countries including Pakistan and Japan, and many African nations ranging from Ethiopia to Rwanda and Sierra Leone. Exhausted following the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, Mueller decided to move back to London in 2016, and continues to accept overseas contracts with the Red Cross, on a short-term basis.
As a communications aid worker, her role is to help raise awareness about: natural disasters and epidemics, how the local population has been impacted, how the Red Cross is assisting, and how people can donate.
Journalism skills help
“I use a lot of the skills that I used in journalism,” said Mueller at London’s Red Cross office. “I am going out to the small villages that have been affected by a tsunami, for example. I am talking to the people who have been impacted; I am telling their stories; I am shooting b-roll; I am editing video. I am writing press releases and talking points. To a large degree I am doing work that has some commonalities with my former role as a TV journalist.”
Her experience as a broadcast journalist also helps when facilitating media requests on the ground. “I understand exactly what kind of visuals a television news crew is going to need, the kind of people they are going to want to speak with, and am able to provide that for them.”
Despite having the journalism skill set, Mueller agrees the transition to the world of humanitarian aid communications was “very challenging to start with.”
Her work takes her to places where a disaster has occurred, to developing countries which do not generally have the kind of infrastructure that is in place in developed countries. In addition, there is the challenge of being away from family and friends. Everything familiar is so starkly different — “different climate, different food, different culture, customs and language.”
Joining the Red Cross, Mueller had to quickly educate herself about the organization; how the different branches work as part of the international Red Cross Red Crescent Movement, and the differences and similarities between communicating as a journalist and communicating as a humanitarian aid worker.
“There was a lot of on the job learning,” said Mueller, adding that her journalism training helped her to keep her personal views out of her materials. “In journalism, we are taught to be neutral and not give our own opinion. Neutrality is also one of the Red Cross’ seven Fundamental Principles. It means we don’t take sides which helps get us access to areas affected by conflict, for example.”
In the 11 years she has been with the Red Cross, the focus of her work has, not unexpectedly, shifted, moving away from writing web stories and focusing more on social media content.
“I’m still gathering content,” she said. “It’s just used in a different way, as technology advances.”
And that material, whether written or audio-visual, is shared with all members of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement. “It’s important to make sure that globally, we are all saying the same thing. Consistency is key,” Mueller added.
Being able to communicate in the immediate aftermath of a disaster brings its own challenges as mobile networks and the internet go down. Access to communities can also be difficult. “There is usually a lot of debris following a disaster, making roads impassable. Or, if it’s the rainy season, unpaved roads become pools of mud. We’re always trying to reach the most vulnerable which means those in the most remote of villages. I’ve seen canoes, motorcycles, bicycles, rafts, and sometimes a person’s own two feet – all used to get to these small communities.”
Coming into the new job, Mueller acknowledges her lack of strategic planning skills: coming up with a one-year or multi-year plan, something she never had to do as a journalist. Mueller feels a good starting point is to get a briefing from the person who had the job beforehand and for that, she credits the Red Cross for providing a collegial environment. She requested and received pre-existing plans which she was able to adapt, participated in workshops, and researched various articles on strategy in non-profit communications. “I don’t regret leaving the TV station,” said Mueller. “Going to West Africa or Pakistan or Indonesia was never on my radar. But I wouldn’t change it for the world. It has challenged me and some of my beliefs and has made me a more rounded person, a better person. And I like to hope that in some small way, I too am helping survivors of disaster recover, through a smile, a touch on the shoulder, or by sharing their story.”
Kathy Mueller’s tips on how to make the shift from journalism to communications
- Start volunteering: If you wish to work for a non-profit organization, start volunteering with them. There are many small, grassroots non-profits in cities across Canada doing great work overseas. Volunteering with them may help secure overseas experience which is vital for eventually landing a job.
- Do your homework: If you are narrowing it down to, for example, healthcare communications or university communications, start looking at the job postings. See what kind of skills they are looking for. If there’s a skillset that’s common across several job postings and you don’t have it, take a course to add it to your resume.
- Give yourself time: Be patient. It’s not going to happen tomorrow.
- Give yourself a deadline: If your deadline comes and you have not secured a job, reevaluate, reassess and look at what could possibly be hindering you from getting hired.
- Network: Start networking, get involved in various networking events in the city, get to know the people who could potentially hire you.
- Stay current: It’s challenging with the ever-changing world of social media but staying on top of current trends is important and something employers look for.
- Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know.
- Do it. Don’t let fear hold you back. If you are offered a position go for it. Things work out how they are supposed to. Even if you are only in your new position for one year, it will be worth it. Challenge yourself. Step out of your comfort zone. If the door opens, go through it.