Associate Vice Chancellor/Associate Dean
Office of Medical Public Affairs
Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis
We caught up with 2020 GIA Distinguished Service Award recipient Joni Westerhouse to discover more about her, what she’s up to, and what we can learn from her.
Briefly describe your current role.
As Associate Vice Chancellor and Associate Dean for Medical Public Affairs at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, I lead an office responsible for news communications and media relations, marketing and branding, and web design. Because the School of Medicine is a research powerhouse, we communicate daily about important research findings and how they benefit the world. We are storytellers who share our stories through the written word, video, podcast, photography, illustration, and animation. We also have expertise in crisis communications.
Briefly describe your career journey and what led you to institutional advancement in academic medicine.
Growing up, I had a mom who was incredibly inquisitive. She was always taking college classes and learning new things. She also volunteered at a marine museum by a beach in California, giving educational tours of the tide pools to the public. She would bring home show-and-tell-type things like fish eggs that could be hatched by slightly agitating the water, and her enthusiasm for biology and nature led to my fascination with it, too. Heading to college, I considered a career in the biological sciences until I took a few uninspiring biology classes and learned of all the required math courses. To me, at the time, studying living things and math did not equate. I opted for journalism instead. Following graduation and an internship in corporate communications at Anheuser-Busch, I landed my first job at a community hospital in Southern Illinois, as a Communications Specialist. There, I was editor, writer, designer, and photographer for the bi-weekly employee newsletter and assistant editor of the quarterly magazine. I also served as a hospital spokesperson and handled media relations and some advertising. Four years later, I learned of a dream job at Washington University School of Medicine, where I could combine my love of science and communications in the Office of Medical Public Affairs. I’ve been with Washington University for over 30 years and a member of the GIA almost as long.
What achievement in your current job are you proud of?
When the pandemic hit, we felt a real need to communicate internally. Our school was ramping down most of its research labs and clinical care to have ample resources to care for COVID patients. Thousands of employees were working remotely. We had to get new information to them daily, while also giving people a sense of connection and a morale boost. We started a COVID newsletter for faculty, staff, and students that initially came out five days a week. The first edition was emailed to 16,000 people in March and had an open rate of 81%. Six months later (September), the open rate is nearly 70%. The newsletter continues to resonate, and we have created a separate distribution list to handle all the requests from people outside the medical school who want to receive it. Editions of the newsletter can be found here. As COVID hospitalizations have decreased and clinical care and lab research ramp back up, newsletter distribution has been adjusted to once a week or as needed. As for cost, there were no additional costs to produce the newsletter. It was produced by existing staff.
What innovation or trend in the field inspires or motivates you?
This pandemic has shown us that we have the technology to effectively and efficiently work remotely. I remember the first days of COVID (and even before the pandemic), when Zoom calls could be such a struggle. Now they are old hat. Working remotely is here to stay for many industries. It will be interesting to see how academic medicine will continue with telecommuting, virtual learning, and virtual care post-pandemic.
What is the best career advice you were given and how have you used it?
Never tell a lie to a reporter. It will come back to haunt you. I take that advice even further. It’s best to be honest with everyone. Dishonesty of any kind will get you in trouble and will reflect poorly on your institution and your leadership.
What advice do you have for other institutional advancement professionals in academic medicine?
Take advantage of the GIA’s networking opportunities. I have met so many people by attending annual meetings and serving in various capacities. I can’t count how many times I have reached out to colleagues at other institutions when I have faced challenges. And vice versa. I’ve become close with group members who alert each other when there are PR crises brewing inside and outside of academic medicine. We brainstorm on how best to handle situations. It keeps us sharp. Hearing other people’s perspectives is such a learning experience.
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