Workspace: Lauri-Ellen Smith
Lauri-Ellen Smith, special assistant to the sheriff in Jacksonville, is paying attention to what’s happening to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie almost 900 miles away.
Not for the story being covered by journalists about the bridge closure and traffic jam engineered for political payback. But to deconstruct later with her colleagues how Christie’s team handles the public relations crisis.
“I want to understand what value there is in a two-hour news conference and whether they think their purpose and goals were achieved,” she said.
Smith manages public information for the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, a job which can place her in the spotlight during an incident.
“People have this belief that PR is just spin doctors and people who are going to BS you about things,” she said. “But, you don’t have that latitude in government. You have to tell it straight up and true.
“When you mess up, you have to dress up and fess up. It speaks to your credibility.”
A business and government communications professional for more than 20 years, Smith has worked in human resources, marketing and public relations for the retail, financial, and health care industries, and as a campaign volunteer and a lobbyist.
Many people become PR professionals after first working as a journalist. But Smith knew from the time she was a student at the University of Florida that she was headed for a public relations career.
“Reporters have to tell a story very quickly and move on to the next thing,” she said. “I wanted to work on full-blown campaigns, helping the public to understand a complicated issue. My proclivity was more about creating public awareness.”
For example, as a member of the Duval County traffic safety team in the 1980s, Smith helped get the public to wear seatbelts.
“We decided every time there was a crash, we’d tell the journalist reporting on it whether or not the driver is belted. We didn’t wait for somebody to ask, we offered the information up,” she said. “Now reporting about seat belts is automatic. That’s what PR people do.”
At the Sheriff’s Office, Smith leads a team of three employees. The work can range from a public awareness campaign on traffic corridors with a high number of accidents to delivering news on the agency’s cable TV show to responding to crime scenes.
Her team also advises officers how to conduct on-camera interviews.
“One of our key responsibilities is to explain, to the extent that we can, when there’s an investigation going on,” she said. “Of course, there are some things we can’t reveal.”
That job is made easier, Smith said, by strong leadership at the agency and a commitment to transparency.
“I’m blessed because I can go to the chief, the undersheriff or a director and say, ‘I think we got this wrong.’ Or, ‘I think we can do this better,’” she said. “People working here don’t view this as a job, they view it as a calling, a duty. There’s a lot of commitment to each other, and it makes the work we do so very meaningful.”