My first “crisis” in my 14 years at the Texas Department of Public Safety actually started before I was officially on staff as a Public Information Officer (PIO).
My bosses, Mike Cox and Sherri Deatherage Green, were scheduled to travel to Washington, D.C., for a government communicators conference, and asked if I’d like to come to the office a few days early.
“I can’t pay you,” Mike said, “but you could come in and set up your office and be available to answer media calls…but there won’t be any. Nothing’s going on this week. It’s been quiet.”
(You should know that the first rule of being a PIO is that you NEVER use the Q-word. If you say it’s Q-U-I-E-T, all hell is guaranteed to break loose.)
I welcomed the chance to get settled in and get acclimated before starting my new job “for real.” Three days in the office, reading files and figuring out the computer system sounded like a great idea. Building up brownie points sounded pretty great, too.
And then the phones started ringing. And ringing. And ringing.
A mother of quadruplets had been found brutally murdered in Florida, while her babies crawled beside her. Because the mother had recently moved from San Antonio to Florida, the Texas Rangers got involved in the investigation, especially once it became clear that her murderers had traveled from Texas to Florida to commit the crime at the behest of her ex-husband.
I found myself in the middle of one of the biggest stories of 1997, fielding calls from state, national and international media. Laura Luckie and Beth Warren, the office admins, did a great job of wrangling the media and holding my hand — as I answered questions, they would nod when I said something that sounded good, and winced when something didn’t come out quite right.
Bruce Casteel, the Senior Ranger Captain, gave me information that I could share with the media, as well as info I wasn’t allowed to share but would make my task easier by knowing what speed bumps to avoid. One thing I absolutely wasn’t allowed to discuss: where the Rangers were focusing their manhunt.
This led to a quote that I never will live down.
When the Associated Press reporter asked me where the manhunt was concentrated, I went with the most obvious answer: The Texas Rangers have statewide jurisdiction and are searching statewide.
Where, specifically, in Texas? the reporter asked.
“Texas is a big state,” said DPS spokeswoman Tela Goodwin Mange. And there the quote went. In the story. On the front page of the San Antonio Express-News. Above the fold.
God help me.
Although I had stated the obvious, the Rangers were happy because I hadn’t spilled the beans. The reporters weren’t really happy, but I did give them a good quote. Mike and Sherri were happy because they were able to go to their meetings. I was happy because I didn’t get fired before I even officially started to work.
The Rangers solved the case and apprehended the murderers, who were convicted and sent to prison.
Twenty-plus years later, I still receive emails from friends who have found politicians, ad campaigns, magazines and other clippings agreeing with me and saying that Texas is a big state. It is, indeed.