Deborah Harris, Public Affairs and Media Relations Chief
District 7 losing its public face.
When District 7 Public Affairs and Media Relations Chief Deborah Harris started working for Caltrans 20 years ago, one of her biggest challenges was overcoming her shyness.
Huh? Who knew? Certainly not the legions of employees, members of the public, media, elected officials and representatives from other agencies that have encountered her gracious demeanor and heard her booming laugh.
“Having to deal with people who are irate or have differing needs is a great way to get over yourself,” Harris said. “I did it because I didn’t have a choice – it was part of the job--and over time it got better.”
While many of us “end up” in our positions for various reasons, Harris has been fortunate to have worked for the agency she chose in a job that interested her. When she first came to Caltrans from another state agency, where she was headed for layoff, she took a demotion in order to get a foothold in the communications field.
“I was first offered a Right of Way Agent position, which I turned down because of the long commute, and then offered a position in public information,” she said. “I accepted the commute for the opportunity to do something I thought I might really enjoy.”
Harris started in District 12 as an Assistant Caltrans Administrator but, despite having no experience in this line of work, she was upgraded 90 days later to Associate, bringing her back to her previous level.
Then came the ping-pong years: After a year in District 12, she transferred to District 8, where she spent five years, some of those working for now-District 7 External Affairs Director Deborah Robertson; then, it was back to District 12 for a promotion to Public Affairs Chief; two years later, it was back to District 8 (where Harris resides) to be chief there; and then….she was asked to take a temporary position in District 7 just until a permanent chief could be found—six months, tops. That was nine years ago.
“What has kept me interested all this time is that this is such a large and varied district with so many issues, challenges and opportunities,” Harris, a native Angelino, said. “Los Angeles is one of the largest media markets in the world.”
Media here are pretty aggressive, she said, as opposed to Districts 8 and 12 where they seemed at that time more inclined to work with Caltrans to get the word out. After first coming to District 7 “it seemed like there were non-stop interviews – I had to appear like I knew what I was talking about even though someone had just briefed me an hour before.” Gradually, as other members of the Public Affairs unit took on more media duties, it became easier, she added.
During the last 20 years, Harris has seen changes to the role of public affairs within Caltrans. “Increasingly, the Department has recognized the need to speak with one voice, and they are relying on Public Affairs to help craft our messages. The Department realizes the vital role the public plays in project delivery,” she said. “The Public affairs unit is one of the most important in the Department because we have an obligation to keep the public informed of our activities and our possible effects on their lives.” A current project involves translating the District 7 website into Chinese, Spanish, Korean and Armenian. The web will be up and running in Spanish and Mandarin by the end of June.
Within the division, there have been major changes brought about by technology. When Harris first started, they were just transitioning to computers. “There are so many different ways to reach out to the public now, such as virtual conferencing, webinars, Facebook, Twitter and blogs,” she said. “Speaking of which, we will be launching a District 7 blog, The Caltrans Connector, in the very near future, so stay tuned.”
In fact, dear readers, this will be the last monthly issue of Inside 7 as we transition to keeping you informed via the blog. Inside 7 will begin publishing bi-monthly in August.
In other news, this will also be the last appearance by Harris in a Caltrans publication as she is retiring on June 30. “I’m planning to do all the things I didn’t have a chance to do when I was working every day,” she said, including working out, learning upholstery, spending more time with her grandchild, volunteering at her church and traveling to such places as South Africa, Europe (Tuscany, in particular) and the Caribbean (“always my favorite”).
Where do we sign up?