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Meet your UofGH professor: How to thrive under PR pressure

James MacDonald in three different poses

James MacDonald did not originally set out to become an expert in crisis communications, but after his company was the subject of a very public scandal, he learned a lifetime of lessons in public relations, dealing with pressure, and finding the right way to respond to a negative news story.

MacDonald, who has taught in the Media Studies program at the University of Guelph-Humber since 2013, became a media relations officer at Ornge in 2010. Less than two years later, the not-for-profit patient transportation organization went through a financial scandal that led to widespread news headlines and the departure of several senior executives.

The media wanted answers, and suddenly MacDonald was thrust into the position of being a prominent spokesperson for a company in crisis.

“All of a sudden, here I was, having to respond to media requests and questions on many, many different topics,” MacDonald recalled. “Sometimes I’d have five different inquiries from different reporters – all on completely different issues.

“We were certainly under the microscope and under a lot of scrutiny, so there was a real pressure to demonstrate openness and transparency, to do things right, and to do them quickly.

“That’s the frame of reference I try to bring to my students.”

A world of experience

MacDonald, who is now director of communications and public affairs with Ornge, did not begin his career in public relations.

After he completed his master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario, MacDonald took his first job as an associate producer with CBC before moving on to work for years with CTV as a news reporter, producer and anchor in his hometown of Sudbury and later Kitchener, Ont.

From there, he began an exciting post as a features reporter/producer with CNN International in Hong Kong, an opportunity that allowed MacDonald to travel all around Asia producing interesting feature content on whatever topics interested him.

Upon eventually returning home to Canada, MacDonald spent more time in television journalism with CP24 and CHCH before moving into communications. He would not have made that career transition unless he found a field or company that interested him, and Ornge – which provides a range of paramedical services by air and land, with a fleet of airplanes, helicopters and land ambulances – certainly fit the bill.

“You have helicopters and airplane and life-saving treatment – it all sounded really interesting,” he said. “I still marvel at the work that Ornge crews do. I’ve been there eight years. I’ve had the opportunity to travel to some of our bases around Ontario.

“Watching the aircraft take off and recognizing that at the end of the trip, there is someone who needs our help – it can bring a lump to my throat. It’s remarkable.”

Bringing a career to the classroom

MacDonald is passionate about passing on the lessons he has drawn from his career – and that means being quite frank with students about the difficulties he has dealt with.

“I’m actually very open about the challenges we face at Ornge,” said MacDonald, who also likes to bring stories fresh from the news into class discussions. “I want my students to understand that there are real-world situations that come up, even for me, and whenever possible I explain how I deal with those situations. I think they really relate to that.

“I can put a Toronto Star article that I’m quoted in up on the screen and I can solicit their feedback. There’s a lot to learn from both the successes and the mistakes that you made.”

MacDonald, who also helps students plan and execute the annual Emerge project, takes special pride when he knows that sharing his career experience has helped a student find their path.

“There really is nothing quite like hearing from a student that you helped set the course of their professional life,” he said. “I’ve had students tell me that they didn’t really know much about what public relations was before I explained it to them in first year, and now it’s their career.

“I find it mind-blowing that I helped set people in the direction that they will spend their professional life following.”

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