Caltrans District 7 welcomed Lauren Wonder, the department’s new Chief of the Public Affairs and Media Relations unit, on January 3.
The Public Affairs staff met their new leader after the New Years holiday and noticed that Wonder placed a Wonder Woman figurine apart from other festive desk décor. The staff wondered: besides a similar name, could Lauren Wonder possibly possess superhuman skills like those of the action heroine to spread the message of truth and goodwill in Los Angeles and Ventura counties?
Sure, some skills and tools are needed when you’re a key media spokesperson for Caltrans, whose job is to present the agency in the best light in its media, public affairs and outreach efforts. But there’s no red star on her tiara (there’s no tiara), no magic metal gauntlets, and no hidden jet-pack.
One tool that Wonder has that Wonder Woman lacks is a Caltrans policy – Deputy Directive DD-19-R2. (More on that later).
Yes, Wonder is 5-foot, 8-inches tall, but her calm and even demeanor – and years of experience - are the main assets needed to spread the good news stories of District 7 – along with her staff of 10, including four public information officers (aka ‘sidekicks’).
“We’re going to focus on promoting Caltrans’ good news, showing how this agency accomplishes all that it does and enhance District 7’s stellar reputation,” she said. “We’ll look for stories that highlight our good work and spread that message.”
In her first three months with District 7, Wonder has attended numerous groundbreaking events planned and executed by staff, has attended many internal and external meetings, and has written speeches and speaking points for various public addresses by the executive staff.
So far, so good, but things can (and do) go wrong, even for superheroes. Through 25 years of experience, she has many stories (and battle scars) to share with staff about things that have gone wrong in public outreach efforts and public perception of the agency. Of course, it all begins with the best intentions to promote the department’s good work. Like, for instance, holding an event.
“An event site was located off, but near the freeway, as many of them are,” she explained. “But it became a distraction to motorists and it caused a ‘Lookie-Loo’ situation and congestion during the afternoon commute. That’s what made the headline on the evening news rather than the good news we were attempting to convey.”
“Caltrans is a visible agency, both on and off the roadway,” Wonder says. “From our day-to-day work at meetings or even the maintenance crew working in the field, you can be approached by the media at any time for a comment or a quote.”
“Although staff should refrain from speaking with the media, if you’re asked for a comment or information, just imagine anything you say as a news headline,” she said. “Many Caltrans staff are potential spokespersons to some extent. Just be cognizant of the Deputy Directive that defines the Department’s process for media interaction.”
The Directive describes Caltrans' process for interacting with the media (click here to see Caltrans Deputy Directive [DD-19-R2] on Media Relations) http://admin.dot.ca.gov/bfams/admin_svcs/sw_policy/dd/DD-19-R2.pdf
“When it comes to speaking at community or public meetings, everybody must remember to explain the whole picture of Caltrans, to consider all of the Department’s functions, and to refrain from speaking from a limited perspective,” she said.
“My unit and I will work towards gaining more exposure for the department by sharing our many positive stories,” Wonder says of her goals. “We’ll speak with one voice, transparently and effectively; and we’ll share Caltrans stories that are complete, accurate and newsworthy.”
Applying for numerous national and statewide transportation award competitions, which Wonder can name from memory, is one way to get well-deserved recognition in the industry, she said, and it’s a good opportunity to enhance the public’s perception of Caltrans.
“Public affairs work is so exciting; there’s never a dull moment. Those of us in this practice may have just an inch of science and engineering knowledge, but we know how to spread a good story a mile wide,” she said. “We have the people, the experts and resources to help us tell many compelling stories that are waiting to be told.”