Strategic Advisor, Anti-Racism Directorate, Ontario Public Service
Interview by Yara Kashlan (School of Journalism '16)
Melinda Maldonado, School of Journalism '13, is the Strategic Advisor, Anti-Racism Directorate at Ontario Public Service. This interview was conducted when she was the Senior Communications and Internal Newsroom Consultant at Ontario Treasury Board Secretariat
You graduated from the Master of Journalism (MJ) program here at the university, what did you do your undergrad in?
I did an Honours Bachelor of Arts in Spanish Studies at the University of Guelph. I also took a ton of sociology and women’s studies courses. I was a teaching assistant, and did a semester abroad in Ecuador, where I have citizenship. It was also a great opportunity to start writing for the campus paper The Ontarion. I wrote a column called Visible Voices on issues impacting racialized students. After spending a few years working in Guatemala and South Korea I decided to come back and get a journalism degree so I could open Al Jazeera’s first bureau in Ecuador.
What have you been up to since you graduated from the MJ program?
I was a reporting intern at the Toronto Star while I was wrapping up my Major Research Project. I was chairing a Pan Am volunteer committee, and through that network started to have informal chats with people working in communications.
I eventually landed a one-year contract as a digital editor at Maclean’s, and I loved my work. I was on the web team, and produced digital content and worked on stories ranging from missing and murdered Indigenous women to Mike Duffy’s Peruvian love child. After six months I quit to jump into communications, and have been working for the Ontario Public Service ever since.
How was it beneficial for you to go through the journalism program as opposed to a communication program?
Before I started the MJ program I was freelancing for print, but I realized I needed multimedia skills and professional connections to get an edge on the competition. At [university] I learned how to produce digital content for the web, and create audio and video reports. I still remember spending 40 hours one week learning Photoshop and Premiere Pro to turn around an audio slideshow, and it was tough, but we all made it.
The standards in journalism are pretty high because you have to produce quality work in a competitive field to survive, and the skills I picked up have been incredibly valuable to me in the workplace. As a journalist my bosses told me they liked my mix of skills, and it was an asset to be able to report on all platforms. And in communications, my journalism experience gives me an edge because hiring managers know the quality of your work if you were producing content for major media outlets, and they know you can deliver under pressure. You learn how to turn around high-quality, accurate content really fast, and to anticipate and understand public attitudes and reactions.
Was it an easy transition for you to go from a journalist to being in communications? How so?
No. In fact, the first time a friend suggested I meet a contact in communications I told him to screw off. I was a journalist and there was no way in hell I would cross over to the dark side.
When I got the job offer to join the OPS, I was really torn. I loved my work so much but I also saw the industry’s struggling business model.
The day that I quit I ran into the newsroom hallway and cried. And when I started my new job I was sure I had made a mistake. I was bored, and it seemed ridiculous that so many people were reviewing my work when I had been running a high-profile website with little supervision just weeks before.
Another adjustment was thinking about marketing and proactive strategic communication. Although you can be doing very similar work to journalism, you’re now putting out a message on behalf of an organization, so it’s less independent thought, and there is no room for a personal brand, which means no Twitter handle in your email signature.
How did you arrive at your current position?
I threw in an application to the Ontario Internship Program for the hell of it. It was the last day you could apply and I was sitting at my kitchen table having a couple glasses of wine. I heard that government likes keywords, so I mirrored their exact language to describe my work experience, like saying, “demonstrated oral communication skills through doing X”. After that first web application, the recruitment process involved a test and a gruelling in-person panel interview. After eight months I won a competition for a contract job and left the internship program. My pay and responsibilities went up, and the work was a much better fit. I left that job for my current role in April, which came about through a series of connections that ended up in a contract job offer.
Would you like to speak about the Ontario Internship Program?
It’s a really great way to get your foot in the door. When I read that the program has a roughly 80% retention rate I was convinced. The downside is that you might have to play the long game. The program accepts you, then decides where to place you. That means you might not love your first of two one-year contracts. But if you’re willing to stick it out you will soon have lots of options. It’s really hard to get in to the program – in my cohort 2 per cent of applicants get in. Other interns were from a range, from fresh out of undergrad to a 30-sonething with a PhD. I also found that people were literally throwing professional contacts my way. The organization wants to keep you, so your chances of finding a long-term job are excellent. Another perk is the emphasis on learning and development. That was a big reason I chose the program for my transition to communications – I knew it was entry level, and I could take courses and training to ease the transition.
Can you give us some examples of the projects you take on at your job that require some of the skills you learned here.
In my last job with the OPS, I was an editor running a website. I created publication schedules, editorial themes, assigned stories, and edited other writers’ work. The only difference is that I was writing for employees. With an organization of more than 60,000 people, your potential audience isn’t too bad.
I also “covered” events, and made videos of streeters or b-roll with a voice-over to report on events that management ran for staff.
In my current job the most obvious need for journalism skills is the area that government calls issues management and media relations. You see a ton of former journalists working in that area. Finding an emerging issue — essentially, potential negative public reaction — is exactly like hunting for stories to pitch. I was terrible with news judgement when I started out at [the university]. When I did my first internship all my pitches were failing. But the more I pitched, the better I got, and now I have a pretty good sense of what will turn into a good story. That has helped me flag a number of emerging contentious issues for the government that weren’t on anyone’s radar. What that looks like on a daily basis is scouring Twitter and reading news carefully to whip up reports to brief senior and political staff on what might crop up.
Media relations is also fun. If you’ve been a journalist, you can anticipate many media questions, and know exactly how to write responses in a way that will be useful to the media. There’s a huge need for that media-friendly lens. Usually you get materials from a subject matter or policy expert who might have a PhD and 30 years’ experience studying something, but who doesn’t necessarily know how to write in a clear way for regular folks. I remember one time getting a briefing note that said an animal had “experienced mortality.” I called up the expert and we ended up saying it in a more clear way — that the animal had died.
Anything else you would like to add?
Before you pick your job, you have to know what you want. I am so happy that I spent about five years as a journalist. I loved it. But when I had to move back into my dad’s basement at 30 because I couldn’t pay rent, I realized something had to change. I wanted more job security. And I realized I could be doing a lot of the same work that I loved — like digital storytelling — just under the banner of communications.