Master in Communications: Matthew O'Connnor

It’s time to share another view of the communications industry through CIPR Communications’ ‘Masters in Comms’ blog series.

Every week we feature a new professional that has proven to be a true Master of Communications in their respective field.

Our goal? To learn from one another! There are valuable lessons to be learned from fellow communicators – from risks they took to words of advice that motivates them to ensure their life Is full of balance.

In this week’s blog, we hear from Matthew O’Connor, Senior Communications Advisor, Media Relations at the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association


“Take on challenges that make you feel uncomfortable.”

- Matthew O’Connor

Q: What is the best piece of professional advice you ever received? Who provided it? 

A: I spent a long time working in media before moving to corporate communications and that meant days driven by multiple competing deadlines. Sometimes we can become so focused on executing tasks that we forget about the people we work with. One day as I was handing a videotape to my assignment editor, Shauna Smith Duncan, she said, “Matt, you always have time to ask how people are doing.” She was right, and it is something that I carry to this day. Take the time to connect, it goes a long way.

Q: What is the biggest challenge and opportunity for communicators today?

A: The biggest challenge in Calgary is the limited number of jobs for folks working in communications. But this is also the opportunity. Communicators have a real opportunity to stand out in what they do. Learn and understand more about what you are working on. The less direction you need from subject-matter experts the easier their job becomes and the more valuable advice and content you can deliver. As companies are looking to do more with less they are looking for diverse skill sets and knowledges bases.

Q: What project would you consider your most significant career accomplishment to date?

A: My most significant career accomplishment would be making the transition from media, as a video journalist, to corporate media relations. It was a real slog trying to change and hone skills into a second career. That career shift required me to understand a different industry’s language within a different medium. My proudest moment was penning an opinion editorial for The Globe and Mail, having almost no editorial changes at work, and having The Globe and Mail run the story. We got lots of great feedback from the team and from other companies. I’m still proud of that and keep the article in my office at home. Sometimes I dig it up and read it when I doubt myself.

Q: What do you read to keep your brain sharp?

A:  As a father of two young boys with a wife who works full-time I don’t have much downtime. But when I do I like to play strategy games such as backgammon, pick up my guitar or banjo, or listen to music and sit by the fire and think. I also try to walk about 8 – 10 kilometres a day and spend much of that time listening to podcasts on various topics.

Q: What’s the best podcast on your radar right now?

A: Tough question… There are so many. The best podcast I have ever listened to would fall in the category of investigative journalism: S-Town. I try to listen to The Daily every morning. Radiolab does some fantastic science-based stories that have incredible production value. This American Life is incredible and all over the map in terms of what they cover. I also listen to one-offs on different topics related to oil and natural gas.

Q: Where do you see communications five years from now?

A: I see communications roles being more multi faceted. Having full-time staff that specialize in one area doesn’t make as much sense as it used to. Being able to provide media relations, social media and digital communications, brand management and internal communications support and leadership are skills that will be in high demand. I’m already seeing some of that in conversations I have with fellow communicators and management.

Q: What advice would you give to someone that’s just entering the field of communications?

A: Learn to do a few things well. To the answer above: a variety of skillsets is what distinguishes people from their peers. Be willing to learn and contribute in areas outside your comfort zone. And take on challenges that make you feel uncomfortable. Don’t be afraid to fail as long as you are also willing to learn.

Q: What do you know today you wish you had known when you first started your career?

A: This is my second career if you don’t count a few years washing cars. I wish I had thought more long-term when I was younger. A strategic approach would have helped me to decide what types of skills I needed. Having said that, none of what I did previously was wasted and provides me with unique and valuable skills. I’ve worked in warehouses, ice cream stores, carwashes, built wooden toys, been a handyman, been a barista, worked in a liquor store and driven a ride-on lawnmower. A little focus would have gone a long way.

Q: What drives you crazy?

A: Inaccuracies drive me nuts. Taking the time to better understand issues goes a long way. If you are going to publicly have an opinion on something you should take the time to research the issue and research your opinion. Working in media relations in the energy sector means scrutiny in everything said. Always check, double check and triple check your facts. If you don’t have credibility, you can’t get public support.

Also, be good to each other. I once read a quote from someone’s grandma and it resonated with me, “It isn’t you versus each other. It is you versus the problem.” Taking things personally will literally drive you crazy. We are all, well most of us, just trying to do the best we can and make a go of things.

Q: Is it better to be under dressed or over dressed?

A: I am the worst for this and have lots of practice being both under dressed and over dressed. I can unequivocally say that it is better to be over dressed. You can always alter your outfit to make it more casual. For example: remove your tie, toll up sleeves, undo a button. But if you are underdressed you really don’t have many options.

Having said all this, since I have made this mistake so many times I always do my best to get specifics on dress code. I call ahead or ask someone in the know. I’ve even been known to pack a couple more formal accessories, so I can upgrade as necessary.

Q: What do you love and dislike about your job?

A: I absolutely love my job in almost every aspect. As someone who formerly worked in media, working in media relations is the next best thing. The unpredictability and immediacy of the job makes it extremely rewarding, trying to make pitches both within and outside the business is exhilarating and seeing a story that you played a part in is exciting.

Personally, the part of my job that I find the most challenging is that I just don’t have enough hours in the day to engage in all the conversations I see taking place. Oil and natural gas transmission is an extremely contentious issue in Canada and people are passionate about the information they share. It strikes a very-real moral cord for many people and drives heated debate. Having conversations around oil and natural gas is key to understanding the issue and I wish I could spend more time talking to people and understanding the different perspectives. Truthfully, I think those who work in oil and gas and those who oppose the industry have more in common than they realize.

Q: Who is the most interesting person you know and why?

A: The most interesting people I know are my two sons, ages six and three. They challenge me to do better, to keep my temper, to learn as I grow, to value what is truly valuable, to focus on what’s important, to appreciate my time with loved ones, to be thankful for what I have, to never stop growing, to take risks, to play it safe, to be creative, to see things differently and to not compare myself to others only to my former self. But most importantly, my kids teach me to love unconditionally and to judge people, not by their actions, but by their intentions.

Wow Matt! Thank you for taking the time to make us smile and help us grow. Great advice! We appreciate your experience – and all that you learned on your path to Media Relations at CEPA.  

If you’re interested in being a part of our blog series, send us a note.