An outlet for my passion: Cora Jackson-Fossett

Editor's Note: The July issue's Member Profile features Cora Jackson-Fossett, Director, Public Affairs Office, Department of Public Works, City of Los Angeles, California; Chair, APWA Diversity Committee; and Executive Producer of the video, "A Day Without Public Works."

Tell us about your background: Well, I've been in governmental public relations for almost twenty-five years. I started with the U.S. Postal Service and served in several communications and public information positions. During the last fifteen years, I've served in many capacities in this field with the City of Los Angeles. For the first nine years I was with Los Angeles International Airport performing in community outreach and passenger services communications, and for the last five years I've been with the Department of Public Works as its Director of Public Affairs. As director, I oversee and direct the activities of twelve public relations professionals and many consultants, as well as the communications and public outreach activities of the Department's more than 5,000-member staff.

Off the clock, I do a lot of volunteer work that involves performing public relations duties for community clubs in which I am involved, and for my church. These activities help to keep my skills well-honed by enabling me to keep up-to-date on any new trends in communications, as well as my pulse on the feelings of the community as they relate to local public works programs. Society doesn't get its news the same way it did when I first started in this profession. You've got to continuously stay involved in this field, and with people, so that you know the way they like to get their information and the best way to get information to them. These outside activities help me do that because I can really stay in touch with the common man...and the common woman [laughs].

Education: I graduated from Indiana University with a degree in Sociology and African-American Studies. I also took graduate courses in Media Management at Columbia College in Chicago. I've participated in a lot of seminars and received certificates in such diverse areas as marketing and communications, emergency management, and management principles.

Favorite Book: I like the mystery books of Walter Mosley. I like mysteries in general, but I really enjoy Mosley's mysteries. Right now I'm reading his latest book, called Little Scarlet, which is really good.

Hobbies/Interests: Along with reading mysteries I like to do inline skating, which I try to do at least once every two weeks out at the beach. I also enjoy dancing.

Any particular kind of dancing? Oh, no, not really. I can't do any ballroom or anything like that. I think what I enjoy most is now that I've gotten older, there isn't the pressure to stay up with the latest dances. You can just get out there and look serious, my son tells me, and move my shoulders and just flow with the music [laughs]. I just like having fun and going to those activities that feature both dinner and dancing. I enjoy that with my husband.

Role Model: My mother is a great role model for me. She's intelligent, creative, and just a sharp, classy woman. She's always had a strong work ethic, which she passed on to her children, and always willing to try something new. In fact, she was one of the first female postal carriers in my hometown back in the late 1960s. She taught me great values and exposed me to wonderful experiences when I was growing up. She also taught me to have faith in God, approach life with enthusiasm, treat others with respect and never stop learning.

Career Accomplishments: While at Los Angeles Airport in the 1990s, I had the opportunity to develop and manage a "Watch Your Bags" campaign that resulted in increased passenger awareness as well as good media exposure. Although the graphics have been updated, I'm pleased that the basic components of the campaign are still being used.

Since being with the Department of Public Works, I've had great fun. My major focus has been on publicizing and promoting the everyday services we provide. I firmly believe public works professionals, at all levels, contribute so much to the quality of life in every community, but we are entirely too modest about the great work we do. So, with the help of a fantastic public information staff, we have raised the visibility of public works services by communicating our activities, accomplishments and initiatives on a regular basis, both through news releases and community outreach events. We let residents and businesses know what services are available and how they can join in partnership with us to improve their neighborhoods.

We've also been able to start a speaker's bureau with representatives from all our divisions. So, when a citizen or member of a community group calls and asks why we can't trim their trees more often or why we can't repair their sidewalks this year, we can select an expert from our speaker's bureau to meet with them and explain how we maintain our street tree inventory, or our policy on sidewalk repair.

What advice would you give to public works departments on how to get the word out about the services they provide? I think they should look at all the media markets in their community and don't limit themselves to the well-known guys. Look for the smaller organizations such as your Rotaries, Lions, business groups, and chambers of commerce. Practically all of them have some type of communications vehicle such as a newsletter, magazine, or e-mail. Start sending them information about the projects that you're working on. You can even tailor it to the specific neighborhood. If you know there's a big construction project that's going on in a particular neighborhood, and there's a member of the team that lives in that neighborhood, do a small profile—"Joe Citizen who lives in Brentwood is part of this team working on the sewer project," or whatever.

There are ways of celebrating and saluting accomplishments of public works without sounding like you're bragging, because it's actually just information. In the end you want to always remind the citizens that if they want more information, just call us or visit our website and we'll be happy to provide it. We need to look for these other vehicles that are out there to tell our story. If you have a government cable station, and a lot of municipalities do, get your general manager to be a guest on one of the public affairs shows. A lot of radio stations have public affairs shows, as well. Place people on them to talk about specific projects or about what your department does in general. Help get the word out and spread the message that "Public Works works, and we will work with you to help improve your quality of life."

You were involved in the creation of a superb video called "A Day Without Public Works," which shows how Los Angeles residents would be affected if the Department of Public Works did not exist. Tell us about the video and your involvement in making it. The Commissioners on the Los Angeles Board of Public Works were very concerned about the continuously reduced funding for infrastructure maintenance. So they assigned me to come up with some ways to increase public support and, perhaps, even additional funding for infrastructure. So, I brainstormed with my staff and the result was our Infrastructure Awareness Campaign, which is basically an education and information effort to increase public understanding of the excellent job the department already does, and build a coalition of community advocates for infrastructure improvements. The video is one of the work products of the campaign.

I really can't take a lot of the credit because I assigned one of my staff members to serve as project manager and she did a really good job. We were able to hire a production team that wrote the script after we told them our vision for the video. Then, we actually reached out to our own employees in a little screen test to see who could be involved in playing some of the main roles. Practically all of the main roles, with the exception of that nuclear family, went to City employees.

I wanted to get as many Public Works staff involved as possible and we were able to do that. We were also able to use our own equipment, such as our own cherry pickers and trucks, which saved us a lot of expense. We went to our bulky item pickup stations throughout the city, got some of that trash and spread it around to recreate some scenes, which also saved us a lot of money. My main involvement, really, was just the final script approval and getting the funding approval for it. But it was actually my staff who managed the whole project once we got all the pieces in place.

Once the project was complete, I became a lot more involved in it, promoting it and getting the word out. We came up with a strategy where we would send the completed DVD to about 150 different neighborhood groups and ask them to show it to their members. We also set up a number of viewings in our facilities and our main City Hall building so that our own employees could see it, as well as some of the other government and elected officials and their staffs. We sent it around to related departments, such as Transportation, so that they could see that we're all in this together in trying to get money for infrastructure, because one of our main goals was to raise infrastructure awareness.

As I said earlier, the video was just one component of the entire Infrastructure Awareness Campaign, which is still ongoing. It lets people know that our infrastructure is crumbling and that we need their support in persuading elected officials to give us more funding to fix our streets and sidewalks, pave unimproved alleys, maintain our sewer system—and all of the various elements of the infrastructure. This was one of the ways that we felt would help: by letting people see what would happen if the Department of Public Works didn't exist.

The video is available for viewing on our website at under "Highlights," and "Public Works videos." (It can also be viewed on APWA's website at - Ed.) As part of our continuing campaign, we have just completed another DVD, "We Work for the Department of Public Works." Unlike "A Day Without Public Works," which is intended for public consumption, this new video is intended for our employees. Our goal here is to educate, inspire and unify so staff will realize we're a team regardless of job classification, and also so staff members can be extensions of our outreach and informational efforts. The new video can also be seen at our website.

You are currently Chair of APWA's Diversity Committee and have been active with the committee for some time. What has your participation on the committee meant to you? I really have to thank Steve Masters [Public Utilities Administrator] who is out of Lincoln, Nebraska for my involvement. I was fortunate enough to teach a session a few years ago on crisis communications, and Steve attended the session and then recommended me for the Diversity Committee. It's just been a wonderful experience being on the committee, and this past year I've served as the Chair, which has been exciting for me.

When most people think of diversity, they usually think only of ethnic backgrounds. But diversity also refers to different generations, or different physical abilities, or even positions—white collar and blue collar and other jobs within our organization. A lot can be accomplished when different groups of people come together for one cause. There's a place for everybody in the field of public works. We just need to open our minds enough to see how we can get different age groups, cultures and professions involved in this area and participate in organizations like APWA. I still learn more about diversity all the time when I hear about various activities that Diversity Committee members are involved in in their own neighborhoods and cities. They make the concept of diversity come alive in their work lives.

Why do you like being a member of APWA? I like it because it has opened my eyes to the world of public works. It offers so many education sessions that you can take advantage of, including the great online sessions. And, of course, the annual Congress is really great because it provides a venue for all kinds of sessions that you can take advantage of to learn about areas of public works with which you may not be familiar.

I also appreciate the different activities that the organization allows you to become involved in. I'd like to become more involved with the Government Affairs Committee, because it's our elected officials who set the rules and the funding levels that affect our work life. It's just so great to know that here is an organization that's an advocate for public works and sincerely believes in what we do, and truly makes a difference in the lives of the citizens across this country.

This organization provides me with an outlet. I'm a passionate person about whatever I get involved in, and APWA is an outlet for my passion in my work life. It's inspiring. Here, you can see people who are volunteering their time to bring the concerns of the profession to the forefront, and they're affecting legislation and affecting lives. And they all have full-time jobs, too, from the President on down. It's inspiring to me to know that there are folks out there who are that dedicated and I can be a part of that effort.

I don't want to forget your magazine, either—our magazine!—which is very good. It's a very good vehicle for finding out what other people in this field are doing, what some of the trends are, and how others have handled a similar problem that you're now encountering. I just think it's a really good vehicle with which to share ideas. It's even got an "Ask Ann" column, where you get answers to some of your challenges. And of course there's the great "Jobs" section [laughs]. Sometimes I flip to the back just to see what's going on. Even though I'm not looking for a job, it's nice to know what else is out there and what other cities are looking for.

But I would definitely say that APWA is one of the best things about being in public works. No complaints.