It would be fair to say that disaster follows Caitlin Justesen, Acting Press Secretary for FEMA.

Her career has ensured she's never far from the next challenge that natural disasters bring and the requirements for a steady hand to steer the communication strategies that are so vital to emergency preparedness and recovery efforts.

In each of her roles, Caitlin led the development and implementation of progressive communication campaigns, strengthened relationships with stakeholders, and hand-selected teams of communications professionals to execute special projects.

Caitlin has had the professional privilege to support response and recovery missions at both the state and federal level. These have included the likes of Hurricanes Ida, Harvey and Imelda (among others) in addition to working on highly emotive operations relating to COVID-19 and the Unaccompanied Children Mission on the Southwest Border.

We were thrilled to get the opportunity to learn about the communication work of FEMA and also get some helpful advice on how to work effectively with different partners and agencies.

Could you explain the differences between being a Press Secretary and a Public Information Officer?

My role as the press secretary requires coordinating responses on behalf of the agency for a myriad of issues and initiatives at all times. Whereas our Public Information Officers are deployed to the field and coordinate all public engagement for a single incident.

To some it might seem overwhelming to be overseeing media management of so many high profile emergencies. What do you do at an organizational level to ensure things run as smoothly as they can under the circumstances?

It is so important to understand the strengths of your teammates and deploy their skills in a manner that best furthers the mission. I heavily rely on our communication advisors who act as liaisons between the various divisions within the agency both during steady state and emergencies. They have the ability to quickly track down the most up to date information from subject matter experts that I can then communicate publicly.

Photo: Graham Haynes

FEMA is recognized all over the world and so that must bring significant international attention, particularly when it comes to large scale emergencies. What are your experiences of dealing with the international media and what do you say are the stand out differences between domestic and international outlets?

We are often contacted by international outlets many months after a disaster, whereas domestic outlets are in our inbox all day, everyday. International outlets are usually working on long range special projects like documentaries or doing research for publications, and often have forgiving deadlines. Domestic outlets usually have immediate deadlines with inquiries focused on funding or data.

It is so important to understand the strengths of your teammates and deploy their skills in a manner that best furthers the mission.

Working at the federal level in communications must have its own unique challenges. How does working at state level differ from working at federal level when it comes to working in communications?

When I worked for state government, we were directly supporting local cities and counties, while serving at the pleasure of the governor. At the federal level, we are working to support states in their mission to serve their local communities, while serving at the pleasure of the president. Regardless, close coordination between federal and state partners is critical to ensure local communities have the support they need to take care of their residents.

What would you say are the skills you need to handle these differences?

Being successful at the federal level really helps if you have state or local government experience. You'll often hear local government criticize Washington for being too bureaucratic or out of touch with what's going on locally. It is true in some instances, however federal agencies are governed much differently than state government. By bringing the local lens to the table, I'm helping the team see things through a different perspective.

Close coordination between federal and state partners is critical to ensure local communities have the support they need to take care of their residents.

Stakeholder management is such an intrinsic part of your role. How do you approach the organization of the different threads of communication you need for dealing with your stakeholders? How many stakeholders would you say that FEMA has?

Our stakeholders include, Congress, federal, state, and local government agencies, tribal and territorial partners, faith based and voluntary organizations, the private sector, and of course, the media. There are hundreds of entities within each of those categories which complies quite a list of customers. Thankfully, we have various teams within the agency who have a direct line to those stakeholders and can ensure we are supporting them with resources that meet their needs.

Photo: Graham Haynes

What area of work do you do that people might be surprised about?

People often think a press secretary is out front 24/7. When in reality, I spend a lot of time coaching principals across the agency so they are best prepared to be the ones out front. I have always loved coaching. Whether it was my first job teaching dance at a gymnastics academy when I was 15, a pee-wee cheer team at 25, or some of the agencies most prominent leaders now at 29, I love helping people find their groove and being confident in everything they do.

What would you tell any PIO on a state or city level that would help you and them to be able to work more effectively together when it comes to an emergency?

Open lines of communication between federal and state, and state and local partners during an emergency is essential. Without knowing the immediate needs of your customer, you're blind in developing your strategic messaging. In short, don't be afraid to ask for help or communicate your needs.

When you look for a great Public Information Officer, what do you want to see in terms of skills and personality?

Outgoing, tactful, well spoken, good writer, good listener, competent on all social media platforms, confident on camera and on the phone, not a bully with reporters, but also not a pushover. Not too much to ask for, right?

What one piece of advice would you give to someone who wants to be a PIO?

Create your brand. While you're applying for jobs, you have to show what you bring to the table and that you already have an audience. Create a strong social media presence, stay away from hot political issues, present yourself in a way where a future employer would say, "I want that person to publicly represent this agency."

You have undoubtedly seen your fair share of heartbreaking situations. How do you stay well around chaos so you can do the best job you can?

It can be challenging. There are many deployments where there were incredibly sad, stressful, gut wrenching situations I had to find a way to communicate to our stakeholders in a way that was truthful, yet not alarming. It all comes down to your support system. My husband has been in uniform since he was 18 years old and has seen his fair share of heartbreaking situations, so I often turn to him for support.

Photo: Graham Haynes

Are there any books, podcasts, websites or any other resources you would recommend for the comms pro?

Shameless plug here. The National Association of Government Communicators is a fantastic organization for education, networking, and professional development. I urge everyone to join!

What would you say to anyone in a leadership role about having a PIO who might not have one?

You need one. Leaders have to focus on strategy and they need someone who can focus on tactics. A good PIO can spend 10 minutes with a leader and understand where the mission is going, how the message needs to be tailored and how it can best be deployed.

September 9, 2021
PIO People

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