Caroline Grech on Seneca College’s Vaccine Policy
Seneca College was the first post-secondary institution in Canada to announce a mandatory vaccine policy for on-campus return. However, this wasn’t an easy decision to make, nor was it simple to implement.
With a background in media relations, Caroline Grech, the associate director of external relations and public affairs at Seneca College, weighs in on the process from the policy’s inception to how the college managed the media response.
In this episode, Caroline discusses what went into the decision-making process and all the steps taken before the policy was implemented. Through all of it, Caroline was clear that “Paramount for us was the safety of our students and employees, and that has guided everything we’ve done during COVID.”
We touch on the importance of David Agnew’s excellent leadership that fostered the confidence of the Seneca Community, as well as how communication and trust were crucial in the policy’s success.
You can learn more about the vaccine policy here.
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Have you ever wondered what it’s like behind the scenes when a large institution, like a college makes a big change, like introducing a vaccine policy before any other post-secondary institution in the country has done so? We’re about to find out.
Caroline Grech is the associate director of external relations and public affairs at Seneca College. Her job encompasses matters within public relations, government relations and stakeholder relations.
So as part of her role, Caroline has contributed to the communications Seneca has released throughout the pandemic, and especially with the recent vaccination policy.
From the outside, it sounds like it could be a daunting and stressful job, but for Caroline it’s all in a day’s work.
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Thank you for joining us on the show today, Caroline.
It’s a pleasure to be here, thank you for having me.
So to start off, we kind of want to get into a little bit of your history and what your role is at Seneca, what your day-to-day work looks.
I’ve been at Seneca for five years and I’ve done a few different roles but right now my role is Associate Director of External Relations and Public Affairs. And that covers a few different areas, including media relations, government relations and stakeholder relations.
So my days are always different. But what happens is I typically monitor the issues in the media, across the media landscape, and that’s not only post secondary issues, but news issues as well. Keep an eye on the government as well for policies that impact Seneca and ensuring that we are aware of any of the issues that are important to the Seneca Community and impact us.
And it also involves making sure Seneca is well represented in the media by having our faculty experts quoted in stories and on TV. You know, in a number of stories, not just post secondary stories, but on stories that they are experts in. And the stakeholder relations part ties into both government relations and media relations.
But it’s also sort of anything community related that may come. Maybe an issue that arises that impacts our campus externally, I would be dealing with that as well. So it covers a whole group of different issues, but it’s great.
It’s never the same day twice. And that’s what keeps it interesting and keeps me on my toes.
Yeah, and I think probably especially the case now, the past couple of years actually with COVID, where things were constantly changing. The news cycle was constantly in flux, and given that such a big part of your role it must have impacted how your days looked, with the new information and new guidelines constantly coming from the government.
So how did your role evolve during this time specifically?
I think it was a challenge for every institution. Every business we were sort of all in it together because it was all of us trying to figure out solutions to this new situation in real time. So it was it was something I feel like given my role and that media is very immediate and government is very quick too, it was faster, but it was typical of what we did already, but it added a huge workload.
The main priority when new policies or new issues arose with COVID was making sure that the Seneca community was in the loop. So constant communication and the health and safety of everyone, so making sure that when we made a decision.
So for example, in March 2020 when we decided to close our campuses and then move online, keeping the community informed on why, how, we were moving forward. All those types of things so that there were no questions and one of the things that we did at the outset was set up a website, and an email firstname.lastname@example.org where people could ask questions and that was brand new. But it was a vehicle that people could communicate through and get answers to the so many different scenarios that they needed. Depending on, you know for students, depending on what year of study they were in.
Some students were almost finished and about to graduate. Some students were, you know, in their first year. You know our international students. We had so many different scenarios and everybody was impacted differently.
So communication was a very important piece of I think how relatively smoothly, I really commend everyone at Seneca, whether that be faculty, administrators, a lot of people worked really hard to make it seamless for everyone and do the best that they could. And we were up and running online really quickly and in some cases where people had never done that before, and the faculty was amazing in just moving really quickly which, whereas for me it’s something normal to move quickly.
There’s a lot more planning on the academic side, because there has to be. So everybody really adjusted really, really quickly but it was an increase in workload, obviously because you still have the regular institutional business. But then you had this COVID situation that was moving really quickly, and when you look at it now versus when we first started, there were so many unknowns when we first started.
There still are, but at the beginning nobody even knew what COVID was really. So you know, it was a pretty scary time for everyone.
Definitely, I mean, looking back now, it’s hard to properly appreciate how much happened in such a short amount of time back in March and even early April. But even from our side as like employees and also employees who communicate messages to students a lot too, the consistent communication that was clear and having the site and everything was easy to find and it was being updated regularly.
All of that made it feel, at least from like our end, I don’t know about behind the scenes, but it made it feel like things were going smoothly. You felt like things were going to be OK, at least from the standpoint of within the institution, because things felt like you had a handle on where we were now, even if we didn’t know where we were going, you know as much as we could.
That’s so good to hear, I think so much of the stress that happened was the unknown. So if you can eliminate some of that unknown for people, at least chart a little bit of a path, even if it’s only three months ahead, it gives people a little bit kind of what you’re talking about. A little bit of security at a time when it wasn’t really you know it was a scary time. That’s good to hear.
Definitely yeah, and you mentioned too, especially in the beginning and now as well that not only is it figuring out policies within Seneca, but it’s also sometimes communicating with the other institutions and what we saw with the vaccine policy in particular is that Seneca was kind of a pioneer with their vaccine policy.
We’re wondering like what was it like behind the scenes of that, and the intuition behind announcing it long before anyone else announced theirs.
Well, paramount for us is the safety of our students and employees, and that’s always what’s guided everything we’ve done during COVID. And President Agnew really felt strongly about this issue. And it was a difficult thing because we weren’t seeing everyone on the same page on this. And there were so many unknowns and there were so many differing opinions. Legal opinions.
In some cases, we waited for a framework from government. We thought maybe they would announce something for fall and we kind of stayed our course. We kept our semester mostly offline, there are more students coming in September than there have been since COVID started.
We are expecting more students, but we are still very much a less, we are very much still not full population for the fall, so we kept that going just because it was felt that COVID’s not gone yet and I think when President Agnew did many of his media interviews he stressed that quite a bit.
I think there was a little bit of relaxation amongst the general population. As you know, people start to get vaccinated and it felt like things were returning to normal. But if you look at the global landscape and what was happening elsewhere.
And that’s something we’ve been doing since the beginning. You look at Europe, you look at Australia. You look at the US, you look at all the different areas, corners of the globe, and see the trend came back up and the cases started to come back up and so it was felt that the right thing to do to protect the safety was to announce the policy and yes, we were the only ones
I think at the time we announced on June 18th, not even healthcare professionals were being asked to have double vaccination to come to work so it really was, we were really one of the first.
We were definitely the first postsecondary institution in Canada and institutionally across different sectors we were definitely one of the first as well.
Yeah, and like on our end as employees, like you said for us, it was all the messaging was coming through President Agnew and like we were really dependent on how he put it across and how like how he put it across essentially is how it was received by everyone.
So just to like give our like PR and GR, our students who are taught media relations, who are taught how to do this stuff, what kind of preparation went into the whole press and media training with President Agnew, and like what messaging that he would have to put out there?
This one’s a little unique and that’s something I can offer students in GR and PR, every institution, in every place you work at will be different and at Seneca we are blessed with President Agnew has a background in media and government relations.
A real understanding of messaging clarity, the importance of the use of words, words carry value and the wrong word in a sentence connote something different and can give a mixed message, so part of the preparation we had and part of my job is always to think of scenarios.
What will be the negative impact of an announcement like this? And that was thought about well before the policy was announced publicly.
It involves discussions across Seneca with all the different service areas with all the different academic areas. To ensure that we’ve thought of everything in every possible impact.
In terms of media, it’s knowing the landscape, knowing the dialogue and that’s something that doesn’t happen, just as you’re announcing a policy. That’s something that’s part of your job every day is knowing where that discussion is on vaccines, vaccination.
You know, trying to assess where the conversation is going. When the media requests came in, and we approached it a little bit differently.
We didn’t announce it via press release. We didn’t do that because our first consideration was our students and employees. That was our number one concern was to get the message to them and it wasn’t really a plan to put it out via media release.
When the media requests started coming in because we were the first, we became a very interesting story because we were the only one and I think part of what we did in terms of preparation was as I said, knowing that discussion. He knows the policy inside out. He knows the issues inside out. He felt very strongly and drove the policy.
In terms of preparing him with key messages that he felt very strongly and knew his messaging. But what we do on the back end and the team does on the back end is prep him with reporter’s bios, past stories they’ve done in different areas and that would happen across any institution.
You want to give your leader as much information as you can so that they are prepared or have a sense of who they’re speaking with. Or what types of stories have been written to date? The coverage that’s happened to date. And so there’s a lot of background and preparing sort of messaging in the background for those potentially negative situations that could arise.
Yeah, and that training or that preparation that you do with him behind the scenes really does translate to the way he speaks about the issues. When you hear him in a radio interview or read some of the articles that he has been interviewed for, it’s very clear that he is fluent on the policy and what is going on across the province across the world.
Yeah, and that is him.
Honestly, I can say that honestly and you’ll get different whatever your experience is in any corporation or institution you work at, there will be different levels of that within your leadership team, and so sometimes you need to be that lead person prepping that person.
I know in our situation because he is so well versed and has been president for such a long time and has that background he really is well versed without the assistance on those issues.
Our preparation is in terms of the outlets and the different because the media landscape is so fragmented now there’s a number of publications that weren’t even around 5 or 10 years ago and so part of that is doing the research into what is this publication? What’s their reach? Should we do an interview with them? Should we not? That type of thing.
Yeah, with the spread of information across the Internet and across social media these days that becomes such a bigger chunk of a job than it was before. It’s actually kind of wild to think about how many outlets you’d have to research or think about their reach beyond.
Or just control, right? So much messaging all over the place, especially social media. How many places are you going to be at once?
Yeah. And I think that’s one of the key things.
I obviously know this, but you saw it in real time. How quickly social can carry that message as soon as you’re out there doing an interview, it goes onto social and then it’s reaching across countries.
And while we were obviously we’re aware of that. You saw it in real time with this. On July 13th was when we got the most media coverage and the requests are coming in every few minutes and you saw how quickly one outlet carried something and then the others wanted it and it was actually a lot of fun. From my perspective, I think.
I don’t know if other people would think it was fun, but I I loved it. I like deadlines and I like the excitement of it, so I thought it was a lot of fun and it was positive.
I should note that as well that it was largely positive, so that made it a lot more fun, than if a message, got misconstrued somewhere down the line.
Yeah, and like you mentioned how July 13th, it kind of all of a sudden picked up a lot of traction, like that’s where a lot of the activity was. And we saw it on our end too because like you said, we received the information in June and then it felt like it was really quiet like no one was talking about it beyond Seneca. And then it came out in the media more.
And so what kind of, you talked a little bit about, but what were the things that really surprised you? About the reactions or about like what happened after the announcement went more public?
I think the first surprise was we did put it out on social media so it wasn’t like it was a secret.
You know it wasn’t just for our internal community, it was social, so I know I was a little surprised at how long that lag was between our announcement and it being picked up. That surprised me a little bit.
Another piece that surprised me, pleasantly, was the positivity. When you’re the first person going, the first institution going out with something, there’s always that thought, OK, we’re first. Will people negatively receive this? And you always have to think about that with an announcement like this on a controversial issue.
And what became clear as the coverage continued across so many mediums was that there was a quiet or who had been quiet prior to all this media, part of the population that was really supportive and agreed with our decision and seemed like they were just waiting for one person or one institution to come out and say that they were doing it.
What I found really impressive was editorials being written by major outlets. Opinion pieces being written supportive of the stance Seneca had taken, and President Agnew in particular, for being a leader on this issue.
That surprised me a little, only because everybody had been a little bit quiet prior, so you just didn’t really know how something was going to land. We were sure we were doing the right thing, but you never know if that’s how the community will receive it.
So that was really positive and to see the support from different communities, you know faculty at other academic institutions, editorial boards. There was a lot of support that came through after we took that step.
Yeah, and I think after Seneca announced it like getting a couple of, maybe like a month later, most academic institutions started announcing the same thing, so it was kind of like a chain reaction that Seneca essentially started, which is amazing I think.
But like you mentioned, when you were actually implementing or when you were planning to implement it, like there was no one else was doing it.
And like there was no sort of information to guide you, so during this time, like what kind of research did you do? Was there any precedent? Anything that you know really helped you push through? How does that work?
Well, I think there was precedent in the US. You saw a number of schools and in those first original stories, I think the original first story that we did was National Post. And a reporter had called us to ask about it. And she’d been covering COVID over the course of the year.
And at that time it was a lot of US universities. Harvard, Berkeley, very well-known US universities, that were implementing the policy. It for some reason was slower here.
There was also consultation with health professionals and legal professionals as well, so it was really well thought out. It wasn’t like it was done, you know, haphazardly or anything like that. There was a lot of research done and consultation done to ensure that we were on the right side of it.
I think the view was that if huge institutions of reputable institutions across the border could implement a policy, we could too.
Yeah, and like so many things throughout the last two years or year and a half, there’s certain reference points or reference points from other places across the world that you learn from, but a lot of it is kind of learning on the go and learning as things progress or change, and it makes it for such a unique experience to go through.
But do you think there was other things in your career leading up to this that maybe prepared you for something of this magnitude?
I think having been previously a reporter. I think that gives me an advantage in a lot of ways about trying to understand what angles are being sought and what reporters and media personalities need, why they’re seeking you out? We provide that legitimacy to a story that they’re writing or broadcasting, and so we’re the experts, so to speak, on these stories.
I think just being in government relations before I was at Seneca and being a former reporter, all of that. All the skills I utilized, whether it be my research skills, whether it be my instincts, understanding media and government.
All of that helped help me during this time and helped, you know, frame approaches and different analysis on different areas. I feel sometimes people are scared of media and I understand because sometimes a positive story can not be so positive, depending on the angle taken or the messaging.
And I don’t feel that same hesitancy with the media because I understand that they’re trying to do a job and they’re trying to tell the truth in a lot of cases, and I think sometimes they get a bit of a bad reputation and people forget that they’re trying to tell a story. A true story about an issue.
If you approach it from an honest and a transparent perspective, you will get the positive coverage. I know on this one they helped us get our message out that we were doing our part to help stop the spread of COVID, right? We felt very strongly about that, so they were actually a vehicle.
But I think career wise everything I’ve done to date sort of helped me for expecting the unexpected is sort of been my mantra, and that’s always what my jobs have entailed.
Yeah, and I think like you said, like being a reporter would definitely be helpful, because like you said, it does help you sort of prepare for the unexpected.
For our students, what would you advise is like an important skill or mindset to have when you’re in a position like this, especially something that’s so uncertain and so dynamic as time goes by?
I think always just be well versed in what’s happening around you. So know the landscape, know what the discussions are. If you’re in PR or GR, be well read on the issues and from different perspectives, not just you know one or two sources. Make sure that you see all the different perspectives and then that way you’re prepared for anything that comes your way.
I think any experience you can get even volunteer experience is a massive advantage because you get to see things in real time and you get to see how things work.
And I think being versatile is something, it’s really important. Just because throughout your career, you’re likely not going to start in one place and end in that same place with PR and GR there are certain things that stay the same.
But every institution and corporation does things their own way. There will be times you have to adjust depending on where you’re working or what the expectation is of that place. And learning those expectations and being able to meet those expectations is huge. And sometimes that requires versatility. It may be different in one place then in another place, so being versatile and you know, ready to learn and take on anything.
I think being sort of a Swiss army knife in a lot of ways. Being able to adapt to a lot of different skill sets. It will be helpful in your work, no matter where you go and what industry you’re in.
That versatility feels very true across so many different industries, but I think especially in something like PR or GR or communications just because of how quickly it can change or things can pop up and you talk about how you kind of like that side of the job and that’s almost a fun experience. Where some people might feel just stressed or overwhelmed thinking about it. I’m not talking about myself here, but you know, maybe some people might think that’s a little bit overwhelming.
But can you speak to maybe if, was that the most rewarding part of the experience, or was something else? Or anything you might do differently looking back?
The most rewarding piece was seeing Seneca as a leader. It felt really good to be part of a team that was blazing a trail. It helps when it’s well received, of course, but I really think that was what I felt was most rewarding and kind of a reminder that trust your instincts, in a lot of ways.
The landscape was very different the day when we announced our policy to today. When you’re on your own and it took a while for others to sort of follow suit. It can be tricky, but I think the most rewarding piece was seeing Seneca and President Agnew as the leaders on this issue. It really showed the impact you can have if you step forward. It sort of exposed that support for this type of policy by going out there and being forced to do it.
So I feel like that was probably most rewarding to see Seneca in such a positive light, and obviously it’s different than advertising. You’re not paying for the media to tell your story in a way. It’s kind of a different type of branding and a different type of leadership that you can show through the media. It’s almost like a little bit more credible in a lot of ways because it’s other people and their opinion and their stories versus us telling our story through an ad for example. So I think that would be the most rewarding part of the experience.
Yeah, and I know as like employees we felt that pride sort of coming through with us as well. We did something in terms of having a leadership position in this because it is important. We care about our students. We care about our staff.
When I would tell my family or friends that Seneca has this vaccination policy were the first to do it, there was that sense of pride with us as well. I think that translated to a lot of people that I spoke to in the staff.
It was really nice to have that feeling. From what you’ve said, like you’ve drawn from past experiences. President Agnew has drawn from past experiences. But I’m wondering like is there something new that you learned during this experience that you’ll sort of like a takeaway going forward for any, hopefully it never happens again.
Yeah, hopefully the whole COVID thing, I know.
The biggest thing I learned is how important cooperation is, and that’s speaking not just about my role but across faculties. That collaboration piece is huge and so many moving parts on, you know, getting a policy like this in place. So many moving parts on, even dealing with COVID in general, and that collaboration piece was really strong. I think we all know that that piece, but to see it unfold, you really realize how important collaboration is.
Yeah, I would say that and just how important it is to develop those relationships. In the institution, and you know, with external stakeholders as well. Those relationships are really important, because when things like this happen, you know, you rely on each other to help each other through them.
So I think that was a huge learning to see that in action, and I think in a few of my stakeholder relations COVID has brought people closer and actually improved processes for communication. Just because we had to, and that’s something that will go forward when we are in our post COVID era as well.
Definitely true to say that cooperation and collaboration are so key when the entire population has to work together to get through something of this scale.
And like not even in person, a lot of it was done digitally, right? So like that was another hurdle that you had to step over.
Yeah, I mean and when you think about where we are today and where we were then, it’s night and day. A lot of people hadn’t worked from home and used Webex and teams and Zoom and that soon became our way of doing business and I think it kind of also highlighted some lifestyle changes and you know changes in approach to the work day because it was demonstrated that you could work from home and be productive.
In fact, you worked more from home than you did in your office. You know, because you didn’t have so many distractions, in some cases. But I think, yeah, there have been learnings that way and just that option for students as well that they are able to learn online.
If perhaps you are a young professional and you want to go back to school, but you didn’t think it was possible because you had to physically be somewhere. Now the world is open to you because so many offerings are happening online.
So I think it fits into a lot of different people lifestyles a lot better.
Definitely it opens up a lot of opportunities for people like you said, that might not have thought they’d be able to because of various circumstances. And I think too, going back to just the student experience, and maybe speaking specifically to our PR, our GR, even our journalism or our marketing students.
Do you have any advice for students going into any of those industries right now? Or going through school for them and looking to start their careers?
I think the biggest piece is trying to make connections and I’m sure it’s that’s not something you haven’t heard already. Making connections is critical, and whether that be by volunteering, going to events, networking.
Trying to make those connections because when jobs become available you want somebody to be thinking of you or have a little bit of a working knowledge of your abilities. It’s always a little bit easier.
But I also think volunteering is a big piece as well, spending some time and getting that sort of experience. I know you have Co-ops as well, but I think trying to get out there and meet as many people as you can because the world in these areas is small and people all know each other and so if they know that there’s a smart, ambitious student who’s looking to start their career, they may think of you when they’re looking to fill an opening.
Yeah, I love that note to end on and it is something we hear a lot about, networking or volunteering. Just kind of getting your foot in the door in some way. And we know those opportunities look a little different now than they did before COVID. And so you just might have to approach them in different ways than before.
But keeping in mind that everyone is going through that different approach, it’s not just students that have to network differently, it’s all professionals now.
Yeah, and I think that’s the challenge.
I think the world has changed quite a bit and the approach to things has changed quite a bit, but there’s always opportunity. And out of something like this comes huge opportunities, but you’re right, it is a little bit different than it used to be before, but we will go back. I would imagine to the way things closer to the way things were before COVID at some point.
It’s something to note to how PR and communications and journalism and GR has changed since COVID, because that’s also changed all the industries as well.
Yeah, and I think the students who are graduating now are in a unique position to sort of have that experience of like that switch that they had to make or just like adapting. So I think that’s valuable, in and of itself.
Yes, yes, definitely it makes you stronger.
You know, having to go through what you went through. Having to finish your studies in this. That in itself taught you resilience, taught students resilience and how to get through it and study differently. You know so many of you have to study in a different way and learn in a different way. That already prepares you for what you’re going out to see in the workforce now.
Take note of that and have confidence in that because you do have the skills and you’ve been through a lot and you can apply that in your in your work world.
Definitely, I think that’s a really good place to end on, and thank you so much for taking the time to speak to us and give us a little peek behind the scenes of what goes on with all the communication we’ve been seeing in the past year because it really it has helped us.
And I think it’s even built up that Seneca proud feeling moving forward.
Well, thanks for having me.
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Whether you’re an aspiring communications professional or just curious what it’s like behind the scenes during these notoriously unprecedented times, we hope you enjoyed hearing about the work Caroline has been doing at Seneca.
Every day is different, and every challenge can bring opportunities.
You can find more information about Seneca’s policies in the show notes. If you want to learn more about what’s happening at Seneca, specifically in the Faculty of Communication, Art and Design, follow us on social at Seneca Media and check out our blog at senecamedia.ca.
Thanks for listening.