Survival Guide: Lucy Caldwell, public information officer, Virginia Department of Health

Lucy Caldwell, public information officer, Virginia Department of Health

It's Lucy Caldwell's job to communicate clearly and calmly, especially in a crisis. From 1989 to 2002, she was a Virginia State Police spokeswoman, serving as a liaison with the public on a variety of incidents, ranging from automobile accidents and small plane crashes to drug busts and homicides. During a major incident, she might have fielded 100 calls a day.

In December, she stepped into a newly established position as spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Health's Emergency Preparedness and Response program, based in Northern Virginia.

In her new job, Caldwell works with local health officials to educate and inform the public about matter related to bioterrorism and other pressing health issues, such as smallpox vaccinations, West Nile Virus and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.

Drawing from her substantial experience as a spokeswoman for government organizations, Caldwell spoke with Washington Technology Staff Writer William Welsh about how organizations can deal effectively with the press and public.

WT: What was the toughest incident to cover in your 13 years as a state police spokeswoman?

Caldwell: The loss of one of your colleagues -- somebody that you were talking to in the office one day who got killed the next week. Trying to make sure they were recognized and appreciated by the public for what they did, and at the same time mourning the loss of a friend.

WT: If there's something you personally feel strongly about, how do you detach yourself from that situation as a spokeswoman for law enforcement and government?

Caldwell: You do it by taking action. [In other words], helping victims' families and participating in community events. ... I dealt with some of the emotions by pouring it in another direction that could be helpful to people.

WT: What are the major challenges you face in your new job as a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Health?

Caldwell: If there is a bioterrorism incident, I am trying to be prepared for that: set up protocols with the media for how we would communicate to the public specific details they would need.

WT: What do you try to communicate to the public about the dangers of chemical, biological or radiological threat from terrorists?

Caldwell: One of the messages I have to send is that the risk is low, but the cost of being unprepared is high. Government now has the responsibility to be prepared.

What I am finding by talking with people who have been in public health for years is that with communications and media and emerging infectious diseases such as SARS, there is no time to rest. Many of these are looked at as crises and are handled that way.

WT: What advice would you give a company, such as a government contractor, that is dealing with the press on a situation that might cause it financial harm or public embarrassment?

Caldwell: The golden rule [is to] be honest, open and communicative. It doesn't take a whole lot to have a good relationship with media sometimes. It can be something as simple as making sure you return their calls. You would want your calls returned, so make sure you're returning their calls.

If you have an inkling that the news isn't going to be good -- if you have that bad feeling in your gut -- it's a difficult phone call to return, but just do it. Get the poison over with quickly. Then you can focus on the positive.

If there is some negative event or crisis, make sure you evaluate it, have a critique of some sort, and release the results of that critique to the media and public.

WT: How can a company correct a misperception of itself?

Caldwell: Sometimes it can be a quick e-mail or phone call to a reporter, because it might have been an honest mistake on his or her part.

I wouldn't automatically assume the worst. Sometimes reporters can pick up a piece of a story that has been put out before. It wasn't fact then, either, but it wasn't important enough [to contact them about]. But if you've seen that same piece of information used in three or four articles covering the same topic, go ahead and correct the reporter. He or she may or may not choose to run a correction. At least it may perhaps appear differently the next time.

WT: What steps should an organization take to shape its image, rather than letting others shape it?

Caldwell: Formulate a communications plan and create policies that get input from all of the various aspects of your company, not just the marketing people. I would want to hear the views from all walks of the organization. *

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