Royal Roads grad gets to the heart of the message in pandemic
Chris Shewchuk was living his own version of the film Groundhog Day. Up before six a.m. each morning, the day began by looking at the media reports from the day before. The news conference with the numbers happened every day at 3:00 p.m., six days a week. And that was just the “middle” part of the day.
Until just a few weeks ago, Shewchuk was the Communications Manager at the Ministry of Health, leading a team that works closely with Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry throughout the pandemic. He has been at the heart of the action, statistics and reports that come in from close to home and around the world.
The Ministry of Health is always a busy portfolio, but Shewchuk says the pandemic cranked the level of activity up to maximum.
“I kept a little sticky note on my desk to remind me of how far we’ve come. Our first public statement was January the 21st. We performed our first test, first COVID swab on January 23rd, so we were just watching test results coming in, and counting down until we had our first case. A couple days later we had our first case, which was the 28th of January. So that’s when we first started to have the first, real stress inklings, but Dr. Henry and some internal teams here, they started preparing even a couple weeks before that.”
Working with pandemic spokespeople Dr. Henry and Minister of Health Adrian Dix daily became routine for Shewchuk. He was there when Dr. Henry’s trademark catchphrase came into being.
“We were asking her what she really wanted people to know, and she said: ‘I think I just want people to feel calm, and I just want people to be kind to each other and be safe out there.’ And I said ‘Bonnie, that should be our message today.’ And she said OK. And she said: ‘Be kind, be calm, be safe’ and it went crazy.”
Shewchuk was well-prepared for crisis communications by his time at Royal Roads. Prof. David Black taught a course studying the power of simple, clear, repetitive messaging (known as heuristic cues) as a communications tool.
Dr. Henry and Minister Dix’s messages, rooted in positivity and calm, and repeated at every daily news conference, were understood and adopted by the public through the power of repetition. Shewchuk says he is proud to see heuristic cues applied for the common good.
What everyone was unprepared for was the groundswell and outpouring of love, trust and public adoration of Dr. Henry.
“It’s tricky because everyone loves her. Social media, the media, the public love her. And so do I – she’s just absolutely the best person to work with and work for and collaborate and be in the trenches with. When media requests or, as I call them, ‘appearances’ come up, it’s so hard to juggle all of that.”
Typical of Dr. Henry’s unflappable manner, she would often say “yes” to what she could, and has sent memorable video messages to Girl Guides, the graduating class from her own medical school, and on one occasion, a personalized message for her father over the airwaves.
“We set up an interview with the CBC on Prince Edward Island so that Bonnie could send a message to her father to stay home,” says Shewchuk.
As the province prepares for the next wave of the pandemic, Shewchuk has transitioned to the Interior Health Authority in Kelowna as Director of Public Affairs and is still supporting the Ministry of Health every day, focusing what he learned at Royal Roads on the front lines of health care communications. Shewchuk says he is tremendously grateful for his time at Royal Roads and had been composing a “thank you” letter to the university in his head throughout the long days of work.
“Sometimes I reflect on what I learned at Royal Roads that I leveraged into my successful work here in this role, and it wasn’t until I was in the moment, making decisions, and almost thinking to myself ‘how did you know that, Chris, how did you know to do that?’ and I remembered: I learned this at Royal Roads.”