How'd you get that job? Samara talks to a Senate Communications Officer

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How'd You Get That Job? Wednesday, May 21, 2014 View Count = 2058

How'd you get that job? Samara talks to a Senate Communications Officer

Today we talk to Ceri  Au,  a Communications Officer at the Senate of Canada. Among her many tasks, she is the custodian of the Senate Twitter account (@SenateCA). After nearly seven years on the Hill, she still enjoys it when tourists ask her to take their photo at Parliament’s Centennial Flame. 

What inspired you to get involved in politics?

I was raised by political junkies. My parents came to Canada a couple years before I was born, and immersed themselves in learning about their new country through CBC news and getting involved in their community. By the time I was ten, I could name all the federal ministers and their cabinet portfolios the way other kids could name hockey players and game stats. Civic engagement—being informed and actively participating —was always a central value in my family. Still, despite my personal interest in politics, I never had the inclination to join a political party. It never appealed to me, although many of my friends are active partisans for political parties of all stripes. 

How exactly did you end up in this job?

Like most things in my life, I didn’t have a master plan which I followed to the letter. Instead, I just followed my passions.

In undergrad, I studied political science and modern history. I spent a year on exchange in France, traveled a lot and realized how much I enjoyed meeting people and experiencing “l’imprévu”–the unexpected. After graduating I worked at a research institute and discovered how much writing meant to me. When I applied to a Master’s of Journalism program, I started off with ambitions of documentary film-making, but soon realized I preferred media theory and learning about how political news is constructed. 

During grad school, I did lots of freelance work, dabbled in fashion and lifestyle writing and subjected myself to regular sleep-deprivation by writing early morning media analysis. I gained experience at various publications in print and online divisions, which culminated with a stint at a major news magazine in NYC. As much as it seemed to others that I had found my calling, I didn’t feel that the world of journalism was truly my niche.

I returned to Ottawa for the non-partisan Parliamentary Internship Program where I worked in both Government and Opposition MP offices, visited legislatures in Canada and abroad, and traveled to a fly-in First Nations community in Northern Manitoba.  The experiences were transformative. Parliament was a place where I was constantly learning, feeling challenged, and it provided me with the personal and professional satisfaction I had been seeking. 

During the internship, I saw a job-posting online for a Communications Officer position at the Senate. I applied, wrote exams, did interviews and was eventually hired. That was almost six years ago and I don’t have any regrets.

What does a Senate Communications Officer actually do? What does a day-in-the-life of a Senate Communications Officer look like?

My current position is “Communications Officer–Lead, Digital Engagement” at the Senate of Canada. The “Digital Engagement” part of my job did not exist when I first joined the Senate, so my job has changed to reflect an emerging strategic communications need.

As a communications officer, I have a portfolio of Senate Committees for which I provide strategic advice and hands-on support. That includes everything from writing news releases to speaking notes for press conferences, tweeting information about committee meetings, providing media relations for Senate studies in Ottawa and when Senate committees travel, taking photos and organizing outreach activities. I’ve written audio and video scripts, filmed and produced content, bilingually live-tweeted committee hearings, and shared communications best practices with visiting parliamentary delegations. 

As Lead, Digital Engagement, I am responsible for providing strategic communications advice for expanding digital engagement opportunities, developing content and overseeing operational and measurement activities for social media platforms and other digital projects. However, I am more often referred to as “the Senate Twitter person.” 

There is no such thing as an average or regular day at Parliament. There are sitting weeks and non-sitting weeks (when Parliament is in session or not in session) and I balance my time between short turnaround content—like news releases, or responding to questions on Twitter—and longer-term projects which require planning documents, legal reviews, technical advice and procedural guidance. 

What has been your favourite moment in this job?

With Senate committees, I have traveled coast, to coast, to coast and I am a better person for those experiences as a citizen, and as a communications professional at Parliament.

I’ve visited lighthouses and wind farms, toured fish processing plants, LNG engine facilities, sailed aboard an icebreaker in the Arctic and attended smudge ceremonies at Aboriginal-language immersion schools on the prairies. 

And during these Senate committee study travels, sometimes for public hearings, and sometimes for fact-finding activities, I am constantly learning about life in Canada through the eyes of other Canadians. It is for all those Canadians who said to me they felt they had been ‘heard’, that they felt they mattered as citizens, and that their issues mattered, because Senators called on them for their experiences and advice while conducting a Senate study, that I take pride and satisfaction in my job.

Launching the Senate Twitter feeds was a career highlight for me and is in no small part a by-product of hearing people tell me they wanted to know and understand more about the Senate, more than what they heard on the radio or read in the newspaper. I see my job as one of finding creative ideas to connect Canadians to the work of the Senate in an engaging and interesting way; demystifying the Senate and its role in the workings of Parliament; showing the Upper Chamber as a place where special, historic events may happen, but also as a place that belongs to all of us as Canadians. 
What skills or expertise are required for this job?

Adaptability – communications is generally a fast-paced environment, add the unpredictability of politics into the mix, and you need to be able to change course mid-stream, and often several times a day.

Patience – see previous.

Curiosity – Staying current on legislation, public policy, developments in the social media sphere and the news landscape can be exhausting if you are not an information-junkie.

Creativity – there isn’t a roadmap on what “digital engagement” means in a Parliamentary context. It can be challenging to find ways to communicate within the confines of official languages, institutional accessibility requirements, technical limitations, Parliamentary privilege, and non-partisanship while also keeping things relevant to a broad-range of citizens who live in 5 time zones and speak many languages. Not to mention, that we've also got to do everything in the most cost-effective way possible. It is challenging, but fun.  For example, we tweet out a link to the Order Paper and Notice Paper each sitting day to inform Canadians what is happening in the Chamber. To enhance the visual content of our tweets, I started using photos of what we had around the office—the clocks and watches of my coworkers—which was a cost-neutral and collaborative way for the entire office to get involved in creating Twitter content.

Fluency in both official languages. I believe it’s important both personally and professionally.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to have a job like yours? What is a good first step for them to take?

On a practical level - Visit the Senate Employment Portal and fill in a profile to be notified of jobs which fit your skill set. 

If you’re planning for a job like mine in the future, it’s important to remember that just as my job did not exist when I joined the Senate, the jobs in the Parliament of tomorrow may not be the same as the jobs in the Parliament of today. 

Digital engagement in the Parliamentary context is an emerging field and it’s exciting to imagine what the future holds. Get involved in activities such as blogging, following politicians, organizations and interest groups on multiple social platforms, and learn how the news media is adapting to the digital world. Become familiar with web design and digital content production. Many of the digital communications skills you can learn through volunteering with community groups, NGOs, or municipal politics are transferable to a larger institutional context. But above all, follow your passions. 

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