Ten questions with Elizabeth Shilts

Elizabeth Shilts has spent half her career in journalism, the other half in communications – but telling interesting and important stories about science has been a constant thread.

In this member profile, Elizabeth (Director of Communications at the Canada Foundation for Innovation) offers a glimpse into her career, her organization, and of course, how she’s navigating COVID-19.

1. Firstly, what is the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI)?

The CFI was created in the late 1990s to help curb the “brain drain” of scientists leaving Canada. We fund research infrastructure in universities, colleges, and hospitals across the country, so we support researchers with the labs and equipment they need to advance their work. If you look at what’s going on with COVID-19 right now, a lot of the research that’s being done in Canada is possible because of the 20+ years of investments the CFI has made in campuses across the country. Situations like this bring our more ‘behind the scenes’ work to the fore.

2. What is your role at the CFI?

I lead a team of 14 very talented communicators in the External Relations and Communications group, which includes creative services and multimedia, writers and editors, and specialists in media relations, events, social media, and analytics. I view my role as an “enabler” – I oversee priorities, direction and messaging to guide the team, and help bring their talents to bear on the work we do. Together we come up with creative products, develop interesting events and activities, and ensure we’re engaging our audiences in effective ways.

3. Who are the CFI’s key audiences and stakeholders?

We talk about two primary audiences: we need to be accountable to the people who fund us (Government of Canada through Innovation, Science and Economic Development; MPs and Senators), and we need to ensure the people we fund (universities, colleges, and research hospitals) understand our funding programs and how to access them. We are closely tied to the three federal granting agencies, and we collaborate with post-secondary advocacy organizations like Universities Canada, U15 and Colleges and Institutes Canada, along with many other organizations in the national and global research ecosystem.

Two audiences we’re trying to grow are business and the private sector, and students. The former: because part of our mandate is to foster innovation, and we’ve built a Research Facilities Navigator database that includes more than 700 publicly funded labs that are open to working with business. The latter: because we want to engage the next generation of researchers to ensure they know the value of the CFI in the work they do.

4. In your nearly 12 years at CFI, how has the communications strategy evolved? What new challenges or opportunities are on your radar?

Research infrastructure takes a long time to establish (think approvals, funding, building). And the research itself can take years. We’re now at the point where we’ve gone from being an organization focused on awareness – talking about the promise of research – to communicating the outcomes and impacts of that research.

As for challenges and opportunities, like most organizations our communications are increasingly digital. Last year we created a new position on our team for a dedicated analytics person so we can delve into how our digital communications are being received by audiences and measure and adjust accordingly. Being able to better analyze what we do offers us a huge opportunity to communicate more effectively.

5. How has your background in journalism (13 years at Canadian Geographic) informed the way you approach communications that is perhaps different from your peers? What was the transition from journalism to communications like?

I think most communicators are obsessed with good storytelling, so I’m not sure my approach is all that different. But at the CFI, we approach our storytelling in a journalistic way – we plan editorial, research extensively, conduct in-depth interviews, and fact-check everything. Journalism gave me a strong sense of what makes for a good story. And as a former magazine editor, I have a good idea of what ‘the other side’ is looking for in a pitch, which also helps. Meanwhile, my science degree gave me a good foundation for understanding the research landscape and research methodology, which is also very valuable at the CFI.

At the beginning, my transition from journalism to communications was challenging, because my professional identity was as a journalist, and communications was a quite a shift from what I was used to doing. But at the end of the day, you’re still storytelling. The fit with the CFI was key – I believed (and continue to believe) fully in the CFI’s mandate and am passionate about sharing the good news stories we have to tell.

6. You mentioned COVID-19 and the critical role that the CFI played in laying the foundation for research and innovation in Canada. How has the pandemic affected your day-to-day business operations and communications?

We have learned a lot. Our funding competitions have had to shift. For example, our merit review process typically involves experts travelling from around world to judge proposals in-person – those are now video conferences. Our priority has been communicating clearly and regularly with staff as they transitioned to working from home, and with the people we fund so they know how our funding programs are being adjusted. We’re also adjusting our general communications to highlight how research coming out of CFI-funded labs is supporting the COVID-19 response, and we are promoting the labs in the Research Facilities Navigator database since many are well-positioned to help.

7. What has your pandemic experience been like, personally and professionally?

Working remotely has taken some adjustment. At first it was challenging to draw a line between home and work, especially since we were so busy with internal and external communications related to COVID-19. My advice: find a designated spot where you can work comfortably and leave at end of the day.

Outside work, a new hobby that’s filling time while we are all confined at home is growing seeds from local organic suppliers that I actually received for Christmas. I started a tray of plants inside, and the next project will be building the actual garden.

8. What’s your favourite thing about living and working in Ottawa?

I consider Ottawa my hometown, and lots of my family and friends are here. I have always loved the access to green space and bike paths, but it’s been great seeing the city turn into a more cosmopolitan place over the years – now there’s a balance between outdoorsy things to do and lots of good restaurants!

9. How long have you been an IABC Ottawa member and why?

I attended the IABC World Conference in San Diego a year after joining the CFI, at encouragement of my VP at the time and became a member shortly after that. Coming from journalism I had never heard of IABC. I have since enjoyed a number of the conferences since it gives me an opportunity to meet a lot of people in the private sector I don’t usually interact with and insights into how I might adjust more corporate communications in my non-profit world.

10. Finish this sentence: My most fulfilling days at work are the ones when I get to…

See my team create something we’re all really proud of — when projects that involve a lot of parts, people and planning come to fruition. And as a journalist at heart, my most fulfilling days usually involve a good dose of creative thinking, and wordsmithing.

Are you interested in Elizabeth’s career journey? Do you work in a similar organization or sector? Consider connecting with her on LinkedIn or Twitter!