10 Qs with Lauren Opett
Director of Communications & Chief Agency Spokesperson at Virginia Department of Emergency Management
1. HOW DID YOU GET STARTED IN THE INDUSTRY?
After graduating from Virginia Tech, I moved to Washington, DC where I got a job working with the federal government supporting training programs all over the US. After having my first child, I realized I needed to take a breather from all of the traveling and focus on my family. Working in DC means very long hours and with my husband working in a similar field, we struggled to spend quality time together with our son. I decided to take a contracting job that allowed me to telework and gain experience writing emergency response and continuity of operations plans for local governments. In 2013, we moved south to the Richmond area and I took a contracting job with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM) supporting their Training and Exercise Division. During this time, I was also able to work several emergency activations supporting the state Joint Information Center (JIC) and I started taking more communications-focused training. I eventually took a full time job at VDEM as the State Exercise Officer and also assumed the role of JIC Manager for my Virginia Emergency Support Team (VEST) role. This experience lead to my desire to pursue the Director of Communications job when it came open. I am perfect example of how many opportunities lie within emergency management and how I was able to eventually find my passion for communications through working various other aspects of the field.
1. Don’t be afraid to try new things! Emergency management is very a diverse field and there are a ton of cool things that we do (often behind the scenes). Find your passion even if that means starting somewhere and working your way to where you want to be.
2. Network, network, network! Network early so that you have a better chance of breaking into the field, but never stop networking and building partnerships. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve worked with someone early in my career and we end up re-connecting 5, 10, 15 years down the road. It is a small world and you never know when you might find yourself needing someone you met/worked with in the past.
6. HAVE YOU READ A RECENT ARTICLE OR BOOK THAT INSPIRED YOU?
On a related topic to the questions above, I recently read an article published by the Harvard Business Review highlighting research that showed women are better leaders during crises. Of course, this sent me down a rabbit hole of reading several other posts and research on the same topic. I can honestly say that I am blessed to work with many women that embody the traits listed by the researchers, which included women as motivators, relationship builders, and communicators. I also was able to take away several lessons learned regarding the competencies that direct reports found to be most effective in the workplace.
2. WHAT PROJECT ARE YOU MOST PROUD OF?
While it wasn’t a project, I think I am most proud of all of the accomplishments made over the past two years in response to COVID-19, including managing all of the projects that came along with it. This was by far the most challenging experience to-date in my career. In addition to coordinating messaging for the various other disasters that occurred in 2020 and 2021, I was proud to manage the state’s largest JIC for the longest activation in state history. In this role, I was part of the state’s Unified Command, managed more than 70 JIC personnel from over 10 state agencies, for a total of 16 months.
7. HOW DO YOU STAY ENGAGED WITH YOUR COMMUNITY?
To me, the stakeholders that I work with on a daily basis are my community. I take advantage of networking and educational opportunities any chance that I get. I am a firm believer that building relationships and partnerships allows others to trust in you and the work you do. I also think it allows for more open and honest dialogue to share your varying perspectives. I participated in a training session recently that discussed how to “humanize your brand” and be more personable in your messaging. It allowed me to identify the difference between simply engaging with and talking at a community versus creating meaningful connections. This is definitely something that will stick with me in the future!
3. WHAT DO YOU CONSIDER TO BE A ROADBLOCK FOR WOMEN IN THE INDUSTRY?
I think one of the biggest roadblocks is the perception that emergency management isn’t a field for women. There is history of emergency management positions being filled by those coming out of other male-dominated fields such as fire, law enforcement, or the military. I am proud to say that I work with a lot of brilliant women in various levels of government/roles and I definitely see a shift to more women in emergency management from when I entered the field over 15 years ago versus today. We now have a female leading FEMA and we have several female leaders at my own agency. I think the more we can proactively reach out to organizations and networking groups for women entering into or currently in emergency management, the more we can show that women have a place in emergency management and in many ways possess characteristics that make us highly successful.
When I’m not working, I spend a lot of weekends as a spectator or caddy for my two boys that are both competitive golfers (ages 8 and 11). Both have played competitively since age 5, including qualifying and playing in the World Championships at Pinehurst several times.
9. ANY TIPS FOR WORK/LIFE BALANCE?
Emergency management is not your typical 9-5 Monday through Friday job. Disasters can happen at any time, and I always tell everyone that no two days are the same. Having the ability to remain flexible is key! Since my husband works in the same field, we have built a system of family and friends that we can rely on, which takes the stress off of us in an emergency. Most importantly, we have learned over the past few years that our kids need vacation just as much as we do. As difficult as it can be sometimes, take the time to take a break! I find that vacations allow me not only to mentally unwind while I’m out of the office, but they also give me something to look forward to throughout the year.
4. SHARE A HOT TOPIC OR TREND IN YOUR FIELD!
One of the biggest hot topics right now is incorporating diversity, equity, and inclusion principles into everything we do - especially communications. Messaging is critical to life safety and we need to ensure that we are reaching everyone regardless of how they receive information. We have put a lot of emphasis in recent years on identifying vulnerable populations, learning about their unique communications needs, incorporating translation and interpretation activities, and ensuring digital accessibility. Our agency just opened an Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and we look forward to learning more about important initiatives we can take to improve our communications efforts in the future.
10. SHARE YOUR BEST CAREER ADVICE.
Never burn bridges! Believe it or not, emergency management is a small world. I’m not saying that you should stay in a negative environment, but when you find yourself in a tough situation, take the higher road and always remain professional.