Breaking stereotypes and talking techie: Interview with Nicole Gilbride

Nicole Gilbride hates BBQs. I am not referring to the food (which is very popular in her home state of Tennessee), but to the awkward social gatherings around a friend’s grill or fire pit where new acquaintances, in an effort to break the ice, ask “What do you do?” She has great pride in her job as Strategic Planning and Communication Specialist at the Department of Veteran Affairs’ Office of Information and Technology; however, the problem lies in the reactions she gets when she replies: from sneering looks of people who think she is another lazy federal employee to questions about status of personal VA claims.

Fortunately, I did not meet Nicole at a BBQ but at a training summit for generation X and Y federal employees where she gave a talk and mentoring sessions to young people on how to thrive in the workplace. I was curious to know more about her role as a Washington insider and how she is able to bridge the communication and technology worlds.

Note: The interview has been edited for content and space.

Can you describe what you do?

I am the lead for the business planning operations in our Project Management division under our Product Development organization, which is VA’s software development organization. We handle VA IT software requests, like creating software solutions to help veterans schedule appointments online or schedule them on an iPad, or we develop systems to track prescription drug iterations to make sure people are not abusing substances. Those type of business solutions allow VA’s healthcare and benefit staff to provide world class engagement with Veterans, and they need IT solutions to effectively manage care for Veterans.

Admittedly, I am not a techie. I am in a very technical organization and in a lot of a ways I serve as a translator. I work to help translate to people who are on the ground building code and overseeing the IT projects, I help to translate the functions that they are developing and the services we are providing into words that normal people can understand. I make sure that I can explain what we do in a way that my grandma can understand… I do a multitude of other things: working strategic plans, prioritizing the assignment of our IT resources, but the communications part is probably 50 percent of my job, and it involves all kinds of comms… We do internal messaging within our organization and within VA and we do external messaging with the media, collaborating with Veteran Service Organizations, congressional engagements, video interviews, blog posts… There are very few briefings or memos that come out of Project Management that I have not seen or impacted. That’s sort of what I do.

You have a lot of responsibilities.

Yes (laughs). It’s a full day, it’s very impactful and it’s important. It’s challenging because I think communications is part of everyone’s job but we do have a lot of very technical subject matter experts that are not naturally communicators. One of the challenges in my job is “do I give them a fish or do I teach them how to fish?” “Do I do things for them or do I show them how they can do it better?” It’s a challenge.

Getting into the specifics of the technology part, as you mention you are a technology translator. From translating the user needs to the techies, how difficult is it not having a technical background? How do you learn to address that?

For me personally how did I learn to become savvy enough to be active in conversations about technology, honestly was just with time… I’m constantly researching what I need to research and when in doubt, I am constantly reminding my team “have you Googled this first?” because they’ll come to me with questions like “what is DevOps,” “what is the Internet of Things,” “what’s Scrum,” “what’s Agile?” When they do that I ask “did you consult Google?” There are so many resources available online that can at least help you… I either consult the Internet or I ask my peers, and part of that is overcoming your fear of asking people.

(…) The other part that you are talking about is what I would say is the requirements side, when the customer comes in and says “we want a shelter” but most of the time they don’t say “we want a shelter,” they say “we want a house and we want it to have tin roof, we want to have 38 windows, this is exactly what we want” and not realizing that maybe there is a better solution… I personally think its one of the most challenging areas for IT systems. Requirements are usually the thing that kills you. It manifests itself by either schedule delays or cost overruns… There has to be a line, you have to have things that go above and below the line. If you keep to your schedule or keep to your budget, it will help you decide where that line is.

In that part of the requirements, do you think the problem is the customer does not know what they want and they are having trouble communicating it? Or do you think is the problem is on whoever capturing those requirements?

I think it’s all of those things and it’s more things. If you ask two people what they want to get from point A to point B, what you would get as a response, even if they are the same business customer, is different… What the business customer wants is constantly evolving… It’s a challenge and I don’t think it’s a just communications challenge either.

In the other part of your job, the combination if internal and external communications, what are some of the challenges you have?

Our biggest problem internally with communications is really that people want a customized solution for them which is inherently impossible. The challenge is finding something that makes the most people happy and figuring out that each organization is so different… If you’ve got nurses and doctors running around with other clinicians, sending them an email twice a week with your message is not a good way to tell them that there is a new system coming out, that there is an employee survey coming out. Most doctors spend more (time) on their charts than they do on their email inbox…For every doctor out there they also have a lot of admin staff who do spend time on their computer. An all hands message in an email may work for those folks but it’s not going to reach the doctors and nurses. Finding ways to customize solutions for different audiences is a challenge.

On the IT realm (the challenge) is the level of technical detail in the messaging. We have a lot of very tech savvy people but for every one of them we have another person who is an admin staff, who does not have a technical background, a budget person, an HR person, whatever the case may be. Finding ways to balance, simplify our messaging for a general audience and keep it engaging enough that technical folks are not bored or dismissive of the messaging is a challenge.

Why did you decide to go into government work?

As a young person I went through the “I want to be a ballerina” phase. Then around 10 or so I entered the “I want to be President phase.” As a young child, I always had strong verbal skills. I could sit at the table with adults and negotiate with them. I could take on a debate. Eventually as I got to be an adult I started to get more into politics and that sort of led me to where I am today I’d say. In college I pursued an internship on the Hill which ended up being a communications internship with the former Speaker of the House. When I did that communications internship it opened a door for me.

(…) I wanted to help improve our country and so I recognized that communications is sort of the glue that holds everything together. I see a lot of great ideas don’t take root, don’t spread, don’t get shared, and communication could help spread and share great ideas. I think I kind of had an epiphany of “I really want to do communications for a job”… And I have a family that has a legacy of public (service), one of my grandmothers worked for the VA 50 years ago. My aunt works for the VA, I’ve got a lot of family members who have worked for various state, local government organizations; military service is throughout my family. I was always raised to believe that I could have a positive impact and that lead me to public service as a career.

For those people who insist on working in government because, as yourself, they feel they can make a difference, what skills in the communications field they should have or learn from?

Accolades for being committed to joining, I would tell you it took me probably close to seven years to finally get in. Navigating USAJobs is not for the faint of heart (laughs).

On the skill standpoint, I think the biggest communication skill is actually networking. Having someone who can actually write effectively is wonderful. Having someone who knows abut graphics and visuals and branding is great. Having somebody who has experience on camera or presenting to large audiences, all these things are great, they are important skill sets and by all means, put them on a resume, but the one thing that you can’t really put on a resume and will make or break a communications employee from my standpoint, is the ability to make connections with people and network. I’m not talking about networking in the sense we normally think of with LinkedIn networking or speed networking, but creating and cultivating really meaningful connections.

(…) For most people (in communications positions) it’s a multi-hat situation where you are doing various forms of communications and having those connections within your department, within your agency, with various staff offices, and with your peer group will make or break you.

I would also say an important thing for the future of communicators will be the ability to communicate by leveraging technology…Twenty years ago if you could write you could write. Today you need to be able to write to different sources. How do you turn a two page blog article into a Tweet? It’s a skill. You have to learn to transform something that is so content heavy into something so short and impactful. Being able to not only use current technology, but to be on the cutting edge and to show willingness to continue to learn and stay ahead of the curve. That is very critical I think.

Follow Nicole Gilbride on Twitter @NicoleGilbride

Follow the author @yadicarocaro

Government Communications in the Magic City: Interview with Nannette Rodriguez

‘There is always breaking news on Friday after 3 o clock”’ said Nanette Rodriguez, half jokingly, half serious, during a Friday interview at her office in the City of Miami Beach where she has been leading communication efforts for almost two decades. As the now Director of Communications prepped for a day of possible issues ahead, she chatted enthusiastically with me, a Miami Beach resident, about the lessons she had learned to ensure the city can communicate effectively and its citizens and its employees, while earning the city several recognitions along the way: in 2011 the Miami Beach Twitter account was named by Code for America as one of the top three city accounts to follow just behind New York 311 and Minneapolis Snow Emergency. The City of Miami Beach products include MB magazine, MBTV (including online channel), and use of existing platforms with their YouTube channel, Flickr and Facebook page.

The passion of this native Floridian for her job is contagious as well as her interest for learning the latest trends in social media and ways to communicate.
Note: Interview has been edited for space.

How did you started in communications?
Let me go back in my childhood: when I was very young I used to write stories, and illustrate books. I was also very in tune with the news, current events and my favorite show was 60 Minutes. Here I was this child in second, third grade, watching 60 Minutes and writing fictitious stories and illustrating. I’ve always had a knack for the written word… Historically in our family, my father, my grandmother, my great grandfather, they were all photographers… All of those interests kind of intertwined in my interests, so when I went to college I first studied Art… I was an Art and Business major.

So you thought about that early on, to make money from your art? 
(Laughs) Early on I thought ‘you have to make money on what you like.’ I did go into Communications and graduated from the University of Miami and did a degree of Communications and Marketing. From there, while I was still in school, I was working for a cable company, working for the family business in the photos industry, then finally got a job on TV. I worked on WPBT, public television, for 10 years and got to get my hand on many different very creative jobs, did advertising campaigns, we did publicity with other media, doing national campaigns across the country on new programs, also working with the local news at the station… (That experience) actually became the perfect fit when I was asked to work in the city of Miami Beach.

So you’ve been with the City for about 20 years?
It will be 20 years in November.

What was your plan or vision then and how has it changed throughout the years?
Miami Beach was in the Madonna phase of Miami Beach, I guess you can say. The international film stars were here, Bird Cage had just premiered, it was the post Miami Vice (era), star studded, the clubs were coming of age, it was that type of Miami Beach. Government wise things were changing, things were moving forward… In my career in communications we started with the type writer (laughs)… Actually when I came to the city of Miami Beach I was used to using higher level tools (in my previous job)… When I got here we got a computer, but we did not have email! I was used to having email prior to that, I was like ‘oh my gosh, we are going back to the dark ages, but its ok, I’ve been there’ (laughs)… One of the first initiatives that I brought to the city was develop a website. Of course that took a couple of years in the coming, there were not a lot of people that actually knew how to develop websites at the time.
(…) We were actually one of the first few government stations that were doing original programming… We were also the first station to go live on the web via live web streaming. We were also the first station to do close captioning and do close captioning in Spanish.

Miami Beach has been a pioneer in many of these things. The city has also won awards such as the Savvy awards. Are there any other examples of awards the city has won?
As far of communications, there is a slew of awards that we have been awarded or recognized as top 10 of something: awards for our Florida Government Communicators Association, 3CMA which is the City-County Communications and Marketing Association awards, our magazine is finalist for an award again this year, some of our videos have won awards, we actually have submitted this year for the Emmys… It’s not just about the awards, it’s great to be recognized… If we are communicating the message effectively, if we have people talking about the result of that message… that to me is more of a result than someone giving you a gold star here, your trophy. No, I want to see results of our effort. To me, that is the award.

What is some advice you can share in terms of what governments may be doing wrong or share simple practices they can start doing?
I would not say they are doing it wrong. First of all they need to start using (social media); you need to be where the conversation is… How I explain it to many other government agencies is to remember the town square back in the 1700s when our pioneers would try to get information from town to town about American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, whatever important documentation needed to go out there. There was somebody on a horse that would ride from town to town and post something in the town square. Now everybody has a town square because everyone, well not everybody, but most people have a Facebook page. And your Facebook page has posts, it’s your bulletin board, it’s also your bulleting board where you can talk to other people and post on theirs but everybody sees it.
(…) Older generations, yeah, they still tune in to the 6 o’clock news because they know at 6 o clock they are going to receive that information. But even the older generation is now on social media. We see our demographics that are following us on social media. We had My Space before had Facebook, that’s how long we’ve been on social media (laughs)… Of course the followers on there were very young. But when we went to Facebook and more people were clinging on to that, our demographics pretty much evened out.
Anybody on social media will tell you the older generation is the largest growing group on social media and that that is a reason why any government agency needs to be on there. It’s not a thing for the young anymore, its cross generational, and cross cultural as well because you can speak in many different languages on social media. We’ll put Spanish messages up as well and electronic news list serve which we have been doing since 1999 doing e-blasts and emails… I want to know what the next means of communicating is because we need to be there.

How does that translate to internal communications? Is there a similar approach to that?
On internal we do a lot of email plus internally we have our quarterly publication which actually we tried to do away with because we had our intranet, an internal website. Like we do with our community, we did an internal survey and it showed that the majority of our employees are not at a desk or an office. We have public works employees that are out on the street, we have parks and recreation employees that are out in our parks, we have firemen and firewomen and police officers that are all out on the streets. The majority of our work force, I would say only about 300, are on an office out of close to over 2500 employees. Although some of them were getting the printed version, we did away with it. (We thought) ‘now we have an internal website, we don’t need to print this anymore.’ Oh my goodness, everybody was like ‘what do you mean?’ We don’t have access to a computer and we love to see the pictures!
We had to totally reevaluate how we were doing things. Again, you can’t just depend on one type of communication because people not just receive but comprehend information in different ways.

I wanted to ask you about the branding of the city. It seems it has a pretty clear use and approach. Was it difficult to shape that branding?
Boy that was fun! We did that about 12, 13 years ago. After 99, we did the general obligation bond and with that bond we were going to be doing a lot of infrastructure work in our neighborhoods and public facilities. Between our Planning department and our City Manager’s office they thought ‘while we are doing that, maybe we should come up with a way finding, a signage branding for the city.’
(…) As part of that way finding signage identity, came our identity Miami Beach, the Beach being the book bold, the more emphasis on it and not separated, together, but the emphasis is on the Beach, not in Miami, because if you see them separate you may think ‘oh its Miami,’ ‘oh it’s the beach. ’ No, we are Miami BEACH. And on the celebration of our Art Deco and our MiMo (art style), the firm (we hired) came with a whole graphic identity package for the city.

Being a native Floridian, what do you think is the biggest misconception of the city?
We are not your typical beach city, although that’s the first thing a lot of people think of: South Beach, the nightclubs, the nightlife. But we are more than that…We are really a trendsetting community not just in the tourism industry and what you see in entertainment but in technology. A lot of the things that we do in our city as far as infrastructure, policing, fire; people from other communities, actually cities from around the world, come and visit us to see how we are starting to do things. It’s not just that glitz and glam that you see that everybody thinks of us as Miami Beach.

For professionals in communications, what do you think they should learn more about to further their careers?
Keep yourself relevant, don’t become a dinosaur. Communications is a constant learning profession, as many professions are. You always have to be on top of what the latest is and know it, learn it, become it, be in the know… If you don’t keep yourself relevant you are going to keep as old as a transistor radio.

Or a typewriter.
Or a typewriter (laughs).

Follow the City of Miami Beach on Twitter @MiamiBeachNews

Follow the author @yadicarocaro

Why Journalism Still Matters: Interview with Alsy Acevedo

If you ask journalists for recommendations on what career to choose, I bet not many would recommend their own: uncertain job security, new responsibilities added every week for smaller salaries. But many of them would also praise the lessons learned in their career: how to find and pitch an idea, searching beyond what is said, persistence.

Alsy Acevedo believes journalism is a discipline with lessons which can be applied anywhere. She started covering hard news at an early age producing a political radio show in Puerto Rico. She then became a staff writer for various newspapers in the US (El Sentinel, Orlando Sentinel, Ashville Citizen-Times). In 2012, she was named by Huffington Post as on of the Latino voices to follow on Twitter. Currently, she is a Senior Communications Strategist at Catholic Relief Services (CRS), an international humanitarian agency dedicated to disaster response, where she stills finds ways to uncover stories and bring the public’s attention to current issues.

How would you describe what you do?
I tell stories of people in distress, but I also tell ways of solving the issues that distress them.

When you talk about people in distress, what are some examples of that?
People in distress because of war, because of natural disaster or because academics. I’ve been following the violence issues in Central America very closely. I’ve also worked in emergencies such as the Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines providing communications support for that and also epidemics like the Ebola outbreak last year … They are very tough circumstances.

When you are describing communications support, what is it that you provide to them? Are you bringing awareness of any issues?
It’s everything: from telling the stories of the beneficiaries I meet overseas to doing social media around the issue, to promoting legislation or supporting legislation on a bill, setting interviews with experts or sometimes giving interviews myself on the issue, (also) speaking engagements with different audiences like students or community leaders that are interested in this subject…Certainly, more diverse than what I used to do in the newsroom.

You describe your current job is more diverse of what you did in journalism…How would you describe the similarities of both?
The fact that you can listen to people and understand story lines and trends and communicate what others say in a way that someone who has no idea of that reality can understand, that’s definitely a skill that I’ve applied in both. In journalism I covered the school board or a particular election or some obscure city code, so I would need to explain that so the person who has no idea of those topics could understand it. With people in distress and emergencies and war and epidemics, it’s more of the same because people understand that these realities take place but usually you are so detached, or is overseas, or it is something that is not immediate to us. It takes some creativity and some understanding of both realities in order to make sense for the general audience.

Even though you are based on Maryland you are dealing with people in Latin America and other parts of the world as well, trying to communicate that message, understanding their concerns. Are there any particular strategies you take on to ensure that you have conveyed the message?
I think its having open dialogue with colleagues overseas and the people who implement projects outside of the Unites States. For example, when I went Mexico recently, we were covering the violence issues and also the farmworkers rights issues. I had to explain to the beneficiaries and my colleagues overseas what about these issues was relevant for the audience in the United States because there are different takes on the same issue. So for one of the audience that I work with, who are a Catholic audience, so the faith aspect is very important…I was able to bring everyone together on the same page. So it’s a matter of finding similarities of what people are interested in.

Being a reporter working for El Sentinel and Orlando Sentinel, did people want to put you in a certain coverage area because you are a Hispanic? Was there good integration in your experience?
In El Sentinel and Orlando Sentinel Hispanic issues were definitely my beat. In North Carolina I had the health bit and I brought in the Hispanic beat myself because I thought it was relevant and nobody was doing it. I just started reporting in those stories as well. I think that in North Carolina I was more integrated to the general newsroom and in Orlando I was mostly covering Hispanic issues. That is tough place to release yourself from. A trend that I am seeing is Hispanic reporters who will not do the Hispanic beat no matter what and others who would, but it is very difficult (for them) to get out of there. The good thing though is that if you are in the beat its not going anywhere, it will be growing. If you are an expert then you have leverage and its something you can run with eventually. I think specialization is definitely a trend within the Hispanic market.

In your experience working in North Carolina, what is an example of a story that was about a Hispanic issue or maybe had a Hispanic angle that you brought up to the health coverage?
There were many Hispanics in western North Carolina but they were not in the paper, nobody spoke to them. So that is a way to integrate their voices in any story. One of the first stories that I did was actually about law enforcement and I did it in conjunction with one of my colleagues. They were talking about secure communities and this program that was implemented under that gave law enforcement the ability to ask on immigration status. We were covering a town hall so there was the sheriff, there were community leaders and there were like three Hispanics from western North Carolina who were Hispanic leaders and nobody talked to them. My colleague did not talked to them and I did. So when we got back to the room and I provided my quotes he was like ‘well, the story is to long’ and ‘I don’t think is necessary’ and I was like ‘I feel very strongly that it is necessary that they appear in this story’. We brought it to the editor and the editor did choose some of my quotes. It’s just a matter of shedding light to the reality that is already there and others don’t see it or don’t have the ways or the intention of covering it.

Do you see journalism as a career that is evolving? Or do you believe is a hype when people think that journalism is in decline?
I am optimistic so I think journalism will live forever and ever and will prevail (laughs)… I think journalism is changing so rapidly and definitely it does not work as the business model that it used to be Papers are declining but other forms are evolving and sprouting so I think content is king. As long as you have very good content and you bring journalism ethic and integrity to your stories, you will be contributing to journalism even if you are not on a paper anymore.

What do you think makes a good journalist?
I think fairness makes a good journalist and objectivity. It is such a complex concept …I don’t think it necessarily exists as definition suggests but being fair and admit that you have you own biases… Also in that fairness is giving the voice and the credibility to the people that have the voice and the credibility.

For people who are in college right now, will you recommend them to go into the field?
Well, I should know better and tell people not to study journalism because it’s hard to find a job and make a living out of it. But that is not what I believe. I believe is a great career and it gives you the skills and provides you the openness and the courage and the curiosity to question the world… I have a lot of friends who are former journalists that are in classrooms or in communications with different organizations like I am or who are doing a completely different thing like running a business and knowing how to market it to the general public.

I think (journalism) is a tremendous opportunity to learn about the world and get out of your comfort zone and really put yourself out there. I think that is a real skill to have when you go to the real world. And maybe the real world is that there is no newsroom that will hire you because its shrinking, but the fact is that you will have skills to enrich other working in environments juts because you went into journalism school and know how to listen to people and ask really good questions.

Follow Alsy Acevedo on Twitter at @alsyacevedo