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From her days reporting on Capital Hill, North and South Carolina, communications professional Liz Wellinghorst witnessed the comms evolution first-hand.

In the latest episode of Cogcast, Liz shares her career journey with Account Director, Larissa Padden including the struggles she faced as an up and coming TV news reporter and the invaluable lessons from journalism she’s taken into her current role as the Director, Regional Integrated Marketing at the American Cancer Society.

From how to start a podcast, AI in journalism to the lack of objectivity when exploring topics, Keith offers his expertise in the latest episode of Cogcast.

Transcript for podcast

Larissa Padden 0:06 

Hello and welcome to Cogcast, Cognito's podcast where we talk to journalists and media pros on everything that's happening in the world of media and PR. I'm Larissa Padden, your host this episode and a former journalist turned PR professional. Today, we have a very interesting conversation with Liz Wellinghorst director, regional integrated marketing for the Northeast region at American Cancer Society. That's a mouthful, but Liz is also a former reporter turned PR professional with an incredibly interesting background and an incredibly admirable mission today at the American Cancer Society. I hope everyone enjoys listening to this conversation as much as I enjoyed having it. Hi, Liz, thanks for joining us today.

Liz Wellinghorst  00:57
Hi, Larissa. Happy Thursday!

Larissa Padden  01:00
Happy Thursday! I'm very excited to have you with us today. Because you and I met at an event at the American Cancer Society's Hope Lodge, and kind of bonded over being former journalists. But you had a very different path, which I think is very interesting. So I wanted to have you on here today. So you can tell us a little bit about your background, how long you were a reporter and what kind of journalism you did.

Liz Wellinghorst  01:24
Sure. So as you know, as a former reporter, if you ask them a question about themselves, they love to tell you about themselves. So I was a reporter for five years in North and South Carolina. I had worked on Capitol Hill for a number of years as a political press secretary. And every Wednesday, the organization that I worked for the National Republican Congressional Committee. And again, I'm an independent now and was when I was a reporter. But we would go over to the Capitol every Wednesday and do satellite feeds. So the members of Congress would come over and it could be you know, what they were deciding on the House floor, I would ask the question, the NRCC would send the satellite feed back to the districts of whom I interviewed. So you know, you're on the hill, you see all these reporters, I was, you know, got the news bug and I'm like, That's what I want to do. So I had no experience in reporting. I applied on a whim to Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, because the GREs were not required and I got in! So it was a one year program. Amazing, amazing program, not one book. Your laboratory is New York City, you're out covering stories in all over the boroughs and filing that day. So I got a master's in journalism. I focused in broadcast journalism. Back then, your resume reel was not digital it was on a three quarter inch deck. I loaded my car, put all the tapes in the back in my trunk drove up and down the East Coast, cold called news directors and said, "Hey, I'm going to be in Bangor, Maine. Hey, I'm going to be in Myrtle Beach, North Carolina." So my very last interview in the Florence Myrtle Beach, South Carolina Market called the next day, Liz, you got a job. You're going to cover two counties in southern North Carolina. I was in a bureau for $14,000 a year.

Larissa Padden  03:35
So you weren't attached to any, at least in the beginning? Any channel or news organization?

Liz Wellinghorst  03:41
Yes. So the first job was with an ABC affiliate. Okay. And I worked in that Bureau, and I was responsible for two counties. So every day I had to find my story. I had to drive to my story. Listen, these are like rural roads. I now can read a map like nobody's business.

Larissa Padden  04:02
Now that they're obsolete?

Liz Wellinghorst  04:04
My kids don't. I'm like, you still have to know how to read a map. Are you going north or south or whatever.

Larissa Padden  04:09
They'll learn at drivers ed. It's part of Driver's Ed, I hope.

Liz Wellinghorst  04:13
So once I got there, I had to report and then again, it's TV I had to shoot. And then you had to do your interviews. And then in television, you do your stand up where the reporter is in the story, I had to shoot that drive back to the station, write the story, and then I had to edit myself, sometimes set up my own live shot. So it was a labor of love. I literally worked 24/7, truly the best job I ever had. Because I learned so many things about myself and people and reporting. Just - listen. $14,000 does not go a long way. Even in Lumberton North Carolina, which were which I was there for about a year and I don't know four months.

Larissa Padden  04:58
That's one thing I think, I think it's widely known that reporters don't make a lot. And I'm happy to say I think they make more than $14,000 a year now. But you know, it's not you. It has to be a labor of love. Because it's not a lucrative for the majority of reporters. It's not a lucrative career.

Liz Wellinghorst  05:16
No, it certainly isn't. But yeah, I loved it. I just, I love uncovering stories, really unique, different stories. I love talking to people. I literally can talk to anybody anywhere, get a conversation going, and can uncover anything. And my kids are like, "Mom, please stop."

Larissa Padden  05:39
I think that's a prerequisite for the job. Because I tell people all the time, I'm not a reporter anymore. But I can talk to anyone, about anything, for any length of time. 

Liz Wellinghorst  05:49
Right? Right. Because you just start asking people about what do you do? And tell me about yourself. And most people like to talk about themselves, because their family doesn't want to hear it any longer.

Larissa Padden  06:02
I never thought about that. But you're right. Yeah. Well, I do want to hear about what you do at the American Cancer Society. But I wanted to take a step back and kind of talk about the technicals of being a reporter, especially the role that you are in. So when you were doing this job, how did you find your stories? You covered it a little bit kind of cold calling people? 

Liz Wellinghorst  06:21

Larissa Padden  06:21
How did you find stories and sources? Because I would imagine that process would be a little different for the type of broadcast you do than traditional print.

Liz Wellinghorst  06:28
So actually, no, just as a print reporter, you know, people are assigned beats, meaning maybe you cover the crime beat, maybe you cover government, maybe you cover health, maybe you cover feature. So a newsroom is broken down in the same way. Because I worked in a bureau covering two counties, I was general assignment. And so every day, I had to find that story. So you know, reporters cover beats, B-E-A-T. And so I would do beat checks. I mean, you would get on the phone, you would call the police department every day, what's up anything going on, you make contacts with the school's the hospitals, you can find a lot of stories and documents and records, you know, the transcript or the agenda of the school board meeting, the municipal town council agenda, or what happened after the meeting, press releases. Back in my day, I was a reporter in the mid 90s, they still had the day book, The Associated Press day book. Now you would just get online and, you know, find out calendar items to cover. But I always felt it was a really great day if I was out in the field. And I and I found another story to follow up on. So I just after doing it for five years. And again, I always, for the most part generated my own stories. So I got very good at it. And now I can tell you, that's an A- block story, you know, in the Nightly News, this is a front page story, or this is not a front page story. And it was a really good skill to learn. And, you know, it's embedded in in myself, because when I worked with clients, you know, when I had my own PR firm, or even my current job, I can say, this story is absolutely going to be the lead story on Good Morning America, or I'm not sure we're there yet. I don't think this is a solid story. You know, we still need to research this or this is just not going to work. So I can 100% honestly say that to clients and where I currently work.

Larissa Padden  08:42
Yeah, one, I absolutely agree. It's like gold mine, or gold mining. I'm not sure what I'm trying to say. But basically, there's nothing better than finding a story when you're already reporting on another story. That's such a stay ever. Yes. Just makes it so much easier. I do always want to ask people who have been reporters or are still reporters, how they view PR as a function in the ecosystem. Did you accept intro from PR professionals? Was that even a part of your life and doing what you did? You know, was it a blend of both? Kind of, how you worked with PR when you were a reporter? 

Liz Wellinghorst  09:18
I received calls and emails and packages from PR people all the time. And again, as a professional, you're always very polite. If it's a good story, I'm gonna run with it. If it's a bad story, you're going to pass and so in all types of communications, whether you are a reporter, or you are a PR professional. A good story always leads the day and I don't care where you are. I was in the middle of nowheres-ville, North Carolina, and had amazing stories that made it to you know, our local market, but also went on the national feed to ABC and then when I was at Fox, it went to CNN. So I had stories make the national feed, it all begins with a good story.

Larissa Padden  10:09
And how often did you file a story 

Liz Wellinghorst  10:11
Every day.

Larissa Padden  10:12
At least once a day.

Liz Wellinghorst  10:13
So you know, with news, you're "feeding the monster," as they say. So there's noon news, there's five o'clock, there's 5:30, there's six, there's 10, there's 11. So it would be the same story and perhaps there'd be updates to it, if it was alive, breaking story. In print, now you're filing your print story, and then you're doing stuff online, and you're doing stuff to social. So things really have changed since I was a reporter in the mid 90s.

Larissa Padden  10:40
Yeah, well, one thing that hasn't changed, though, and that I think a lot of people don't realize that once a day is the standard for journalists, you know, they're they're moving very quickly. And I always try to tell clients, the two things that they need are access in speed. They don't have the luxury of waiting on your timeline. 

Liz Wellinghorst  10:58
I know, you know, access to your clients is key.

Larissa Padden  11:03
So switching gears, can we discuss how and why you decided to pivot into comms and what your journey was to your current role at the American Cancer Society?

Liz Wellinghorst  11:13
Sure. So I was a reporter for five years, my last market was in Raleigh, Durham, North Carolina, and it was at a Fox station. So five years as a reporter, and I sort of liken it to minor league baseball, right? So you're in the farm teams, you're loving it, you're not making a lot of money. And what are the chances of me moving to a really big market like a New York City, I was burned out. I was deferring my school loans. I was in my early 30s. And I said, "Listen, do I still love it, to continue to try to get to a top market?" And what really, what I really thought about is the dynamics never change. I'm in TV, I'm still doing news, maybe at 10 o'clock at night, maybe it's six in the morning, the pace is never going to change. And it's it's a hard life, you know, and it's very competitive. And so I made a decision in my early 30s, after five years, that I felt it was time, it was time to, you know, have more of a balanced lifestyle. So I moved back to the Washington DC area, I grew up in Maryland. And I thought, listen, I'm a journalist, I can work in PR, I know what a story is. I can write, I can pitch. You know, having worked inside a newsroom, and feeling confident what is a really strong story. I felt that these were skills that I could switch over. And so I thought the transition was pretty easy. What I'm surprised about is that there are not more reporters working in corporate communications or public relations. And I feel the best PR professionals are former reporters.

Larissa Padden  13:04
We actually get a lot of interest from clients when they hear that we have former reporters working as PR professionals, I think that piques their interest, because you're right, it's not exactly commonplace, but they do come in knowing exactly how it works. And exactly as you said, what's going to be a story and what it's going to take to get you in that story.

Liz Wellinghorst  13:24
You know, having worked in TV, I'm trying to get cancer patients and volunteers or executives, you know, in the news on the news, and people are hesitant and nervous. And how do I speak to a news media? What is the interview look like? So having done it right now I can confidently media train them to do an interview. So I think that would be really difficult. Anyway, I'm glad that my journey led me to be able to work in PR and had that experience working in the newsroom. I just feel more confident working with clients.

Larissa Padden  13:58
Yes. And can you can you tell us a little more detail about what you currently do? 

Liz Wellinghorst  14:02
Sure. So my long title is Director, regional integrated marketing, basically Media Relations for the American Cancer Society. We are a totally remote 3,000 Plus organization. And my market or the area that I am responsible for is all of Long Island, Westchester, Putnam County, lower Hudson and Albany, sometimes Fairfield, Connecticut, sometimes New York City. So the first thing I did when I got my job is I feel that the news outlet contacts are like my Bible. So I created Excel spreadsheets and I hand put them together. There are apps where you can do it but you know that the news media is a very transient business. So I have an Excel spreadsheet, you know, categorized by print, weekly, digital, TV right, so I have that for Long Island and all the markets. So what do I pitch? Well, at the American Cancer Society, we have monthly awareness months, October, Breast Cancer Awareness months, we have events that correlate with some of those monthly awareness months. So I am always trying to tell our story through cancer survivors and volunteers, and then the appropriate staff person. So one item I'm pitching is monthly awareness months. Two, we have events yesterday, I was at an event on Long Island called Babes, B-A-B-E-S against cancer. And this is the 52nd annual luncheon. And there are about 40 country clubs on Long Island that play golf and raise money for the American Cancer Society. So we had the luncheon, honor people. Our keynote speaker was a cancer survivor who wrote a book called "I wore lipstick to my Mastectomy". She was a hoot, hilarious. That book was made into a Lifetime movie, I was the MC. So that so, so yesterday, I covered that event, an event. We also have studies that we pitch to the media. In January, we have cancer facts and figures and talk about the average number of people who are researchers, say, or scientists say how many people will get colorectal cancer this year. And then we have you know, broken down by states. I do media training for our executives, I write press releases, I will do social media posts. And I think that pretty much sums it up all the last thing is we're always trying to work with partners. So you know, I recently had some conversations with a wellness company. They're very, I wouldn't say famous, but just so well respected in their profession, Rodney Yee and Colleen Saidman to have a yoga studio in Sag Harbor, New York, but they also have a side business where they, they work with cancer patients and those in the medical profession. And they have four modalities. So it could be yoga, mindfulness, aromatherapy. And I can't remember the last one, but they're trying to work with us. And perhaps they could have yoga instructor in training, come to our Hope Lodges to do a yoga session for those staying at Hope Lodge undergoing their cancer treatment. So I hope that encompasses everything that I'm doing. It's a lot.

Larissa Padden  17:44
It's a lot. It's a lot. It sounds though, fascinating. And at times tough, I'm sure and at times very inspiring. 

Liz Wellinghorst  17:53
Well, people were like, "Liz, how did you get that in the newspaper?" Because we have an amazing mission. And so many stories to tell. And so in a lot of ways, I mean, completely rewarding all the people I hear, but in a lot of ways, easy because we are doing amazing things at the American Cancer Society.

Larissa Padden  18:13
One note that before we sign off, wanted to mention is you talked about the switch from reporting to PR and comms, as - you use the phrase burnout. And that breaks my heart a little bit, because that's exactly what I would say is one of the reasons that I got out of it, you know, being a reporter and reporting on the news. And making sure that there's transparency in the news is such an important role. And I know so many people do appreciate it. But you know, I do, I do hope people know that it is hard for the people that are doing it, but it is rewarding. 

Liz Wellinghorst  18:47
For sure. Definitely. 

Larissa Padden  18:48
Okay, well, thank you so much. I know that you and I could go on and on about what it was like to be a reporter and what we do now, and I certainly do hope that we do in the future, talk more, but I wanted to finish up by asking if you were to dust off your reporter hat, what would be your dream interview, no restrictions, no specific beat.

Liz Wellinghorst  19:07
So I thought about that. I was going to choose a company which I won't tell you headed by a male and I'm like, You know what? We're going with women today. So I would interview Melanie Perkins, who is co-founder and CEO of Canva, C-A-N-V-A. And as a PR professional, I so love and appreciate Canva it literally has changed my life. Most people know what it is, but it's a graphic arts program. Super, super easy to use drag and drop. Melanie found a need for it because I think she was tutoring people in graphic arts and found a need for it. And listen, I've taken so many Adobe classes. It's just a hard program to use if you're not using it every day. So I love Canva I used it when I was a - had my own PR business and I still use it as the American Cancer Society and anybody can use it. You can do your own logo. And you can create newsletters and E flyers and graphics for social media. So love it. And she's kind of a cool girl. I heard she kite flies. She's from Australia. So that would be my, my interview of of light.

Larissa Padden  20:22
I think that's a fantastic answer. And it does remind me that I think it's important to know, we're actually hearing from a lot of major news organizations that we talked to especially broadcast that they want to be highlighting women in powerful roles, you know, just kind of elevating their platform. So that's a really, really great trend that we're seeing in media.

Liz Wellinghorst  20:42
Awesome. Terrific.

Larissa Padden  20:44
Well, thank you so much, Liz. Thanks for taking the time. And as I said, I hope we connect again soon. Great.

Liz Wellinghorst  20:48
Thank you, Larissa. Bye.