Kara Gavin, MS
Lead Public Relations Representative
Michigan Medicine – University of Michigan
We caught up with Kara Gavin to discover more about her, what she’s up to, and what we can learn from her.
Briefly describe your current role.
I find and tell stories about health services research, health policy, mental health, and primary care; handle media relations for these topics; and create social media content for multiple channels. I’m part of the Michigan Medicine Department of Communications, on the Public Relations team, and I’m also part of the communications team for the Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation, which brings together more than 670 health services researchers from across all three U-M campuses.
Briefly describe your career journey and what led you to institutional advancement in academic medicine.
I knew in high school that I loved both science and writing, and I chose to attend Lehigh University specifically because it offered a science writing major—one of very few at the time. There, I helped found the science section of the student paper and had access to internships to gain real-world experience. I was fortunate to be accepted to the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism to hone my journalistic skills, but due to a lack of journalism jobs in the pre-World Wide Web early 1990s recession era, I went on to an internship at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory. There, I got my first taste of medical writing, as well as covering physics and more, and landed a job writing about research and, as it turned out, handling crisis communications. I also met and married my husband, a physicist, whose academic career took him to Michigan—so I looked for opportunities there too. In 1999, I joined the office I still work for and began the adventure I’m still on. I spent a few years as Director of Public Relations, which meant more crisis communications, as well as learning to manage a team. But my heart is in writing and translating research into plain English; connecting faculty to the “outside world” through our institution’s communications channels, as well as media interactions and their own social media; and teaching faculty and those in training for academic careers the importance of communications.
What achievement in your current job are you proud of?
Elevating the visibility of research on health care delivery, safety, quality, affordability, and policy through my role with the Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation, and helping its members by leading training on everything from how to tweet to writing opinion pieces. It’s been extraordinary to be part of the creation and growth of this high-impact research community.
What success have you achieved with limited resources?
Since we are a public university, everything is done with limited resources! But I am especially proud of the campaign I developed and carried out in late 2019 and all of 2020 to spotlight the history of our institution, on the 150th anniversary of the opening of the first university-owned hospital on our campus. Because of COVID and its economic impact on our institution, we couldn’t have any celebratory events or giveaways—but I could still find and share historic images and tell stories about milestones in our past and how our history relates to what we do today.
What is a challenge that you/your unit/your institution is facing and how are you addressing it?
For two years, starting in January 2020, we’ve worked hard to create COVID-related content that people can use in their everyday lives. Although it is outside of my regular role in promoting research, I am proud to play a part in this effort. I’ve written several “public service” stories that have turned out to be some of our most-read content, including about caring for someone with COVID who lives with you, about vaccine-related myths, and about navigating the ever-changing quarantine and isolation guidance. This has helped us fulfill our role as a “source of truth” for people in our state and beyond, given our role as a flagship public university’s medical center.
What was a mistake you made and how did you learn from it?
In my many years of working in academic communications, some of my biggest blunders have come when I neglected to loop a fellow communicator in on the plan for a communication launch, when I had the lead but it related even tangentially to their area of focus or responsibility. At best, it can just result in a message not traveling as far as it could have because someone was surprised. At worst, it can mean a real breakdown of communications or a lasting impact on professional relationships. As a result, I do my best to think ahead about which colleagues I need to connect with and make sure they at least have a heads-up, if not a chance to share workload, or to review and offer feedback on materials I create.
What innovation or trend in the field inspires or motivates you?
I have been so impressed with how academic medical centers are creating sites where their own staff-created content can shine and reach audiences far beyond reporters and patients. Investing in a team that includes writers, photographers, videographers, designers, web developers, and search engine optimization/analytics experts gives our institutions the power to reach people directly about strategically important topics, but also anticipate what they want to read, see, and hear and build trust in our institutions while increasing the impact of our faculty members’ expertise.
What is the best career advice you were given and how have you used it?
I keep a quote from a long-ago New York Times book review pinned to the top of my Twitter feed and to my office wall. It says, “The major talent for popular science writing is, paradoxically, not so much the writer’s insight into the science to be explained, but rather the writer’s insight into what it is to be ignorant of that science.” Of course, the use of “ignorant” is meant as “not knowing or having been introduced to” but the bottom line is this: Even as you seek to truly understand the technical information you need to communicate about—whether it’s a piece of research or a treatment for a rare disease or an educational innovation—you need to always put your audience first in what you create. Stand strong if a leader or faculty member wants you to re-complexify it.
What advice do you have for other institutional advancement professionals in academic medicine?
No matter whether you’re in public relations, marketing, development, government relations, or internal communications, we all need to row together to make sure the public, press, policymakers, potential donors and funders, and other audiences understand the critical role our institutions play in society, and how they can access and use the expertise we contain and the new knowledge we generate. At the same time, we must not take for granted their trust and support and must work to fight the impacts of misinformation.
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