IGS Alumni Snapshot: Kyle Simerly, Public Information Officer of Caltrans (Cal in Sac 2011), with IGS’s Kelly Jones
On March 14, Caltrans deployed 700 electronic road signs to remind drivers to take precautions during the coronavirus pandemic. The signs currently flash the messages, COVID-19/LESS IS MORE/AVOID GATHERINGS and DISINFECT/2 PROTECT/WASH YOUR HANDS.
IGS’s Kelly Jones had a chance to speak with 2011 Cal-in-Sac alum, Kyle Simerly, who is now a Public Information Officer for Caltrans. Kyle elucidates the process by which he and his team crafted the statewide, COVID-19 messaging campaign. He also describes how his time as a Fellow in Sacramento allowed him to establish a supportive network of colleagues that has made working in the state capital more fruitful and enjoyable than it otherwise would have been, especially during this trying time.
Kelly Jones (KJ): How did you arrive at your current position as Public Information Officer of Caltrans? Did your time as an IGS Cal-in-Sac Fellow have anything to do with it?
Kyle Simerly (KS): It’s been kind of a circuitous route to where I am now. My initial fellowship [in 2009] was with then-Secretary of the State Senate, the late Greg Schmidt. Then the next summer, I went to Washington DC for Cal in the Capitol, where I served with my home town Representative. It was in my last year at Cal  that I applied to be the Student Director for Cal-in-Sac—the fellowship program that, looking back, really kicked off my career. As the Student Director, I had the privilege to come back to what I was most passionate about, which was the politics of California. For that year’s internship, I served with the Press Office of then-Governor Jerry Brown. I did well, enjoyed myself, and learned a ton, but then stepped away from politics for a moment. I thought about going to law school, and also worked in retail. But eventually, I ended up getting a Master’s in Comparative Politics from the London School of Economics. When I came back, I knew I wanted to reengage with California politics. I was lucky to be was appointed to the California State Transportation Agency, which was a new cabinet-level agency dealing with the transportation parts of the administration. That’s where I formalized my interest in transportation. After that, it was a natural fit for me to pursue this job with Caltrans.
Leading up to my current job, I always kept in mind what I learned about myself during my time as an IGS Cal-in-Sac Fellow, which was that I am interested in the “concrete” things the government does (pun intended). I really enjoyed learning about things like transportation and infrastructure because they’re so tangible. Since I’m not much of a hard science person, I have mainly focused on communicating the benefits of these complex infrastructure systems the government provides to people. And that’s why I am now a spokesperson for the Department of Transportation here in California.
KJ: Talk a little more about what it means to be a Public Information Officer at Caltrans? What are you tasked with day-to-day?
KS: Communicating the benefits of a massive organization is a difficult task, but it's one I really enjoy because the better I do my job, the more time I can save people.
My day-to-day activities at Caltrans as a Public Information Officer can involve any number of things. Honestly, there's almost not a routine day. You’re taking phone calls from the media, you’re monitoring social media, you’re researching, crafting, and drafting copy for press releases, advisories, and statements to the press. It can be a lot, but it is incredibly fulfilling every day.
KJ: I'm sure you're in hyperdrive right now, given the COVID-19 pandemic. Thank you for your work and for taking the time to talk.
KS: Of course. But I would be remiss to claim any sort of equal credit compared to the heroes that are in the Department of Health and Human Services, in Governor Newsom’s team, or his Office of Emergency Services, and with the California Department of Public Health. We at Caltrans are in the background providing the roads on which all of these people are doing amazing work right now—playing a support role in all the crazy work that they're doing. But it's great to play a part.
KJ: Tell me a little bit about the decisions that you've been involved with regarding COVID-19 and the messaging Caltrans is posting on their LED road signs. What was the thought process behind what language you chose other than brevity? How does Caltrans picture its role in this pandemic?
KS: Well, number one, I want to pluralize the “I”. This has been the work of a big team with regards to what went on those signs and deciding to use them. I also want to acknowledge that it’s not like we're public health experts. We have some people in our department who know more about public health than others, but we largely looked to the experts like those at the California Department of Public Health and the Governor’s Office for guidance. Their expertise helped us learn the critical messages that needed to reach the public. We knew bullet points: you need to be socially distant—or physically distant. (We don't want people to feel isolated.) You need to wash your hands way more than we usually do. You need to be diligent about covering your coughs. These are things that we all learned needed to be stressed as things developed. So it really wasn’t, “what messaging do we put up?” It was “what are the experts saying?” The really big step for us was realizing maybe we could or should put messages up on our signs.
KJ: I noticed you stopped yourself and noted that you do not want to evoke a sense of isolation by using the phrase, “social distancing.” Caltrans does not use this phrase. Signs say, “avoid gatherings” and “less is more.” Did you choose these phrases instead because of the potential psychological effects using the phrase “social distancing” might have on people?
KS: Well, so I don't actually know anything about the genesis of the phrase “social distancing.” It’s a public health term aimed at limiting spread and educating people about the safety benefits of maintaining six feet between you and the next person. I know it has been widely accepted and according to CDC and other health professionals, a successful tool in helping prevent the virus from spreading to more people. But as we’ve learned and grown and taken new advice from experts, we’ve been starting to talk about how we need to be physically distant but not socially isolated.
KJ: I see. Okay, so you're more translating what experts at the Governor's Office and Public Health have told you, and Caltrans came up with the idea of putting it on the signs.
KS: Exactly, and it was not done unilaterally either. You know, we needed to vet the messages with the FHWA [Federal Highway Administration], as the press release said. And obviously we also collaborated with our law enforcement partners and also many other parts of the administration, as discussed above.
KS: And, you know, the messages aren’t permanent. They get rotated out based on other needs. But I think it has had a big impact. They’re hitting every set of eyeballs that passes by.
KJ: So, do you think this effort has been effective? And have you received any anecdotal feedback or data that it has helped in any way?
KS: We're not tracking how many people see it or whatnot. We just know that many people are on the road and that the messages are up. I think, in general, it has been effective because the signs are sometimes seen as kind of ordinary, kind of sterile but authoritative. I think it has lent legitimacy and seriousness to the situation, to see your government and Caltrans participating in that way. We are glad to do it. And I am glad to be part of the team.
It’s more or less that we are on the ship with you all. We want to do our part, and this is the way to do it. It was a way to use the tools we have to help.
KJ: Going back to Cal-in-Sacramento, in dealing with this crisis, have you contacted anyone from your Cal-in-Sac days to aid you?
KS: That’s an interesting point. With this particular crisis, not really, no. But have those connections helped me personally during this crisis? Yes! My professional and personal life in Sacramento is gobs more fruitful and enjoyable because of all the different connections that started with Cal-in-Sacramento and then blossomed out from there. They’ve been a support structure that has kept me sane. But, specifically for this situation, I have not reached out professionally to that network for advice. But from my career to my life up here in Sacramento, so much of what I have and hold is thanks to Cal-in-Sac. It’s an amazing program that I can’t speak of highly enough. Thank you for helping the program be around for future fellows!
KJ: Thank you so much, Kyle, for your time and for teaching us all about Caltrans’s role in helping people navigate this pandemic.