The office is buzzing with a flurry of activity. Phones reverberate. Chins wag. The room swells with the sound of clacking keyboards as reports are written and e-mails are drafted, triple-checked, and sent. Maybe it’s due to a terror attack in Europe or an earthquake in Asia or the results from election day, but whatever happened: news just broke. As information pours in, it has to be analyzed and experts must be found and interviews scheduled. It’s during these time-sensitive moments that Christine Mota’s media team shows its mettle, informs the community, and shares the stories that need to be told.
While this scene could be ripped straight from the walls of The Globe and Mail or the CBC—here, it depicts a different type of organization entirely, Montréal’s Concordia University. And while the public university is not a media company, it understands the power and importance of the media.
“We function like a newsroom here,” says Mota, the university’s director of media relations and its spokesperson. And Mota should know—she spent fifteen years in radio and television broadcasting, acting in all sorts of roles from researcher and producer to newscaster and talk show host. (“It’s a rush!” adds Mota.)
At Concordia, Mota and her media team jump into action the minute news breaks. “I like the fast pace,” admits Mota. “I don’t want to sit and wait for things to happen.”
Since news never sleeps, Mota remains on call all day, every day. “I get calls from media sources at five o’clock in the morning when they’re working on their morning shows,” Mota says. “It’s all-consuming.”
DID YOU KNOW?
“Concordia” is Latin for “harmony” or—more literally—“with one heart.” The university’s name was actually taken from the City of Montréal’s motto Concordia salus, which means “salvation through harmony.”
Not that she minds the workload. Mota’s dedication is rooted in a love of Concordia that spans almost forty years; she graduated from the university in 1977 and has been working for her alma mater for more than twenty-three years. “I really enjoy my work—why else would I do this 24/7?”
Founded in 1974, Concordia is one of Canada’s largest universities with approximately forty-seven thousand students. It’s also located in an area that seems focused on higher education as, next to Boston, Montréal is the largest university city in North America. The university has a mission to contribute to the world’s wealth of knowledge, bridge communities, and make it possible for individuals to grow. “Concordia is an incredibly diverse community,” says Mota. “Our student body, faculty, and staff reflect that. Montréal is an incredibly diverse mix of communities and we actively work with those communities.”
Where Mota and the media relations team come in is by opening the walls of the university to the community at large. “Long gone are the days when universities were ivory towers,” says Mota. “Universities are making great efforts to bring people into our buildings, so Concordia hosts events where the community can come and interact with us. From a communications perspective, our goal is to make sure that those stories are told.”
With a five-person team, media relations has a mandate “to protect and enhance the university’s reputation.” It accomplishes that by finding great stories and sharing Concordia’s research, teaching, and community achievements with the media at large. The team follows the news cycle so when news breaks, they can hunt down an expert and shop them around to different media outlets. Having an in-house TV studio also allows them to showcase Concordia’s experts to TV outlets worldwide.
Mota and her team also offer media training, acting as advisors and coaches to Concordia’s subject matter experts. This ranges from training faculty on speaking to the media as well as workshops on how to write an Op-Ed. “Every one of our senior administrators goes through media training with us,” says Mota. “That shows me that we embrace a culture of communication.” That communication culture was reinforced four years ago when Concordia launched an event—its President’s Media Outreach Awards. Here, the university president addresses all of its newsmakers of the week and those who have received recognition and coverage on worldwide issues.
But this emphasis on communication didn’t always exist. “When I started working at Concordia, people weren’t looking at promoting themselves,” says Mota. “But it’s a very competitive world out there now. Everyone is scrambling for the best students, the best faculty. Everybody is trying to put their best foot forward. Now quality media communication is a necessity. Over the years, communications moved from being an afterthought to being part of the university’s strategic thinking.”
Part of that strategy surfaced in 2010, when the position of chief communications officer was created at the vice president level. Emphasis on the quality of communication’s practices came even earlier when, in 2006, the university took inspiration from corporate communications and created a university spokesperson, the position Mota holds.
“More universities should have a dedicated spokesperson,” she says. Most don’t, which is a critical oversight according to Mota. “I’m the only one that speaks for the university. Whether it’s a question about finances or decisions made by the university—all calls come to me. It allows one individual to have all the information at their fingertips and that has served the university well.”
A Case for Celebration
In 2015, CASE District I, the regional chapter of the Council for the Advance and Support of Education (an organization that represents the northeastern United States and eastern Canada) agreed that Mota’s work had value. With a mission to provide education professionals in communications and related areas a networking platform, CASE District I awarded Mota its Eleanor Collier award, which recognizes a communications individual’s contributions to their organization.
Although Concordia has made great strides to create a one-of-a-kind media relations team, Mota and her team are always looking for new ways to share stories and interact with the community. In 2015, they launched the Comprehensive Research Promotion Strategy or “Spotlight on Research,” which puts a weeklong push on a specific area of research throughout the year. “We don’t just talk to the media, we reach out to industries that are involved,” says Mota. This resulted in Concordia stories being told in the corporate newsletters of those particular industries and pushed out on their social media channels. “We went beyond media relations.” In a similar vein, Mota and her team are thinking ahead and looking at the university’s research priorities and identifying which communities could benefit and not just corporations.
Going beyond media relations also means advocating for fellow media sources, namely: student media. While student media tends to be unpopular on university campuses because its tendency to prod, poke, and question the institution, Mota takes a different approach.“I have made it my mission to champion student media,” says Mota. “I encourage the students to question the university. That’s their job. But do it properly, professionally, get your facts right, and don’t bypass the university.”
Over the years, Mota says she’s worked hard to convince leadership that student media is important. “They are our biggest audience and our clientele,” she says. Concordia’s president Alan Shepard agrees. Shepard—who only joined Concordia in 2012—requested biweekly meetings with the student media for a briefing. “That shows a level of respect that is important,” Mota notes. “That, to me, is one of my sources of pride.”
These initiatives create a stark contrast to what Concordia communications was like when Mota began her career. “It used to be ‘Oops, we made a mess, you guys fix it,’” Mota says. Now, the university has embraced the role of media and how it can benefit the community. “When I do the morning press review, the numbers of our people that step up to the plate is amazing. The faculty do not have to do this—it’s not one of their job requirements to do media—but they do, because they care. That’s something all universities need to do.”