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  4. Episode 9: In the Mindset of the Reporter

In the Mindset of the Reporter

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Episode 9 In the Mindset of the Reporter

Technologically Speaking Host John Verrico, who retires this week after 15 years as S&T’s chief of Media and Community Relations, takes a surprising turn in the hot seat as a guest—talking with co-host Dee Saini about what it takes to make sure audiences know about the great work being accomplished at S&T. The innovation and research happening across the many diverse and varied S&T programs rely on skilled and dedicated media specialists who connect scientists and administrators to the public in a way that resonates and makes sense in their daily lives. 

 
Run time: 30:33
Release Date: December 27, 2023

Show Notes

Guest: John Verrico, Chief of Media & Community Relations, Science and Technology Directorate, Department of Homeland Security

Host: Dee Saini, Media Strategist, Science and Technology Directorate, Department of Homeland Security

[00:00:00] John Verrico: It's just a matter of putting yourself in the position of the person who is going to be impacted by the science, right? And putting yourself in the position of somebody who is going to be subject to those actions, those decisions, those policies, whatever, then you start to ask the right questions.

[00:00:26] Dave: This is Technologically Speaking, the official podcast for the Department of Homeland Security, Science & Technology Directorate, or S&T, as we call it. Join us as we meet the science and technology experts on the front lines, keeping America safe.

[00:00:18] Deepak: Hi, welcome to Technologically Speaking. I'm your host, Dee Saini.

[00:00:37] John Verrico: And I'm John…

[00:00:39] Deepak: Wait John, we're flipping the script here, all right? This is where I get to interview you for this episode.

John, you've been with S&T for more than 15 years in your role as the Chief of Media Relations and Community Engagement. You're retiring at the end of 2023, a huge accomplishment for you. We're so sad to see you go, but we can't let you leave without, you know, picking your noggin first, right? We want to get your career trajectory, your journey, your insights on the important role of communications at S&T. So welcome to you being in the interview hot seat of this podcast episode, John.

[00:01:19] John Verrico: It's really weird to be in this side of the microphone, so to speak. It's kind of like all of a sudden you're walking into the room and it's, you know...

[00:01:26] Deepak: Eyes on you.

[00:01:27] John Verrico: It's like an episode of, this is your life.

[00:01:30] Deepak: Yeah, So John, I first have to talk about the elephant in the room. You've been here for 15 years. You have become so well known for your colorful outfits, for your Hawaiian shirts, for bringing a little bit of color and pizazz to a government organization. I feel like even something as simple as that probably met with some resistance because the government is known for being stuffy, right?

[00:01:57] John Verrico: You know Dee, my journey actually started way before coming to DHS and S&T. I have been in government, between military and working in state agencies, and federal, other federal agencies, for over 42 years. And I've always tried to add just a little bit of pop of color and the reason why is because throughout the majority of my career I've worked with traditionally scientists, engineers, program managers, and cops - brilliant, intelligent people. And they've got a lot to bring to the table. I had a lot less to bring to the table, so I wanted to be a little bit more interesting. But no, in all seriousness, you know, you're right, the government does have a reputation for being kind of, you know, formal and stodgy and old fashioned and that kind of thing. And so I have always tried to help to change that perception in the public by bringing just a little bit of personality and fun. I used to wear, you know, bold colored shirts and brightly colored ties. I mean, not exceptionally loud. Okay, yeah, maybe they were.

[00:03:05] Deepak: Hawaiian shirts, right? Or just like even if you wore a suit, it's, it looks like tie dye and it's really colorful.

[00:03:12] John Verrico: So, years ago when I was working for state government, I did a short stint, working for Governor Glendening’s press office. And at the time I was wearing, you know, I would wear bold colored shirts, and ties, and things like that. I had gone to an event, the governor's wife was there, and I was wearing a cobalt blue shirt. Now, Governor Glendening’s palette was pretty basic. It was, you know, mostly like powder blue and gray for shirts, and maybe an ecru. Then, you know, his tie, his jackets, were pretty much navy blue and gray or whatever. So here I am wearing this cobalt blue shirt and his wife went nuts. She went, “That's a beautiful shirt.” “Paris, you need to wear stuff like that.” And he said, “Not in a million years.” This was on a Friday. And on Monday morning, he walked into the office, he's wearing a navy blue shirt with no tie. And he came and stormed into my office and said, stuck his finger in my face and said, “This is your fault. Just telling you, this is your fault.”

[00:04:21] Deepak: His wife dressed him that…

[00:04:22] John Verrico:Yeah, his wife made him, you know, change his look. So later on that afternoon, there was actually an article in the style section of the local paper talking about Governor Glendening’s new look. And it was in a positive light, so at least that.

[00:04:36] Deepak: Fashionista John Verrico over here, setting trends.

You've done over 15 years with S&T, you have decades of experience just with the federal government, but you got your start as a professional communicator as a broadcaster and I think being in a role like you and I have at S&T it really helps to have that experience on the front end where you have been a reporter yourself, where you think like one still, where you know exactly what a reporter is going to reach out for. I would love for you, John, to just walk me through that journey with your humble beginnings in broadcast news.

[00:05:15] John Verrico: Well actually, years ago, Dee, I did not start out in this career field. I started out as an electronics technician. I had gone to college for electrical engineering, and I was one history class short of my associate's degree, but I went out in the field and worked for a couple of years as an electronics technician. And although I was good at the work, I just didn't get much enjoyment out of it. What I found was I got enjoyment out of writing training manuals for my fellow technicians, for providing training. So I said, okay, I like the writing stuff and all of that, so I'm going to go back. And I went back to school for journalism and ultimately became a journalist. I was a freelance journalist for a couple of years, ‘79 and ’80, and I was working to support my way through college. I was working doing all kinds of different things

[00:06:09] Deepak: walk me down memory lane with your resume.

[00:06:12] John Verrico: Okay. I sold men's clothing. I was a short order cook. I was a bartender. I was a standup comic. I was a disco dance instructor, and my problem was that I couldn't, I could not, hold a day job because I did so much night work stuff that I just couldn't get up in the morning, and I was unreliable. So even as a journalist, I was unreliable to get to any place on time. I would write a good story, but by the time I showed up, the story, the news, was over. So, I decided I needed some discipline in my life and I joined the Navy. I figured the military was the way to go, but I didn't want to go crawling through the mud, so I did not want, you know, Army, Marine Corps, were right out and I have a fear of heights, so Air Force was out. I did know how to swim, so I figured Navy would be a safe place to go, so I joined the Navy and became a Navy journalist. The Navy journalist field is across the entire spectrum of public affairs, and that's when I really started getting into all of this stuff. Understand, when I was on my Navy ship I ran two TV stations, two radio stations. I did all of the responding to media. I wrote all the press releases. I did a shipboard newspaper. I did a monthly newsletter that went home to the families and the community of where home port was.

[00:07:30] Deepak: talk to me a little bit about that.

[00:07:32] John Verrico: When we pulled into port I became a tour guide. I wrote speeches for the commanding officer. I set up, you know, dignitary visits. You name it, I did it. I was the ship's photographer, and I was a staff of one. I was like, this is cool. I mean, I was doing so much. I was constantly busy. No two days were alike, but I realized I really enjoyed the spectrum of, you know, doing all of the different tasks. When I was getting out of the Navy, I started looking around and realized I did not want to go and work for a newspaper or a TV station and just do one type of job. Even though every story would be different and be interesting, it was still one type of work. But I found that in government public affairs, I could be involved still with all of the different types of tasks. I started working for state government in the state of Maryland. And I worked for 10 years in different agencies there; Department of Natural Resources, and Department of Environment…

[00:08:28] Deepak: What was that like?

[00:08:29] John Verrico: At the time, there was, an outbreak of something called Pfiesteria, and Pfiesteria is a microbe that normally is an algae eater, but then it changes its form and becomes a flesh eater, just because it decides that it needs a nutrient. So all of a sudden, it's a flesh eater. Then having, all of a sudden,  hundreds of thousands of dead fish washing up on the shores with these open sores. The fishermen are catching fish and they've got like these big lesions on them and they can't sell those at the market like that. People are starting to get quite concerned. This was the first time the scientists in this region have seen Pfiesteria and it's a remarkable microbe, no doubt about it. I mean, the thing can change its form, pretty much at its own will, which is kind of, unusual. So they were fascinated by this microbe. And when they were talking to the public and talking to reporters, they were talking about how fascinating, how remarkable this microbe was. Meanwhile, the public is sitting there getting freaked out because fish have got these big open sores on them. People are actually getting sick, not from eating the fish, but from being exposed to the microbe in the spray of the water. The professional, commercial fishermen were coming up with immunity disorders and other kinds of ailments all because of this microbe. People were terrified. Telling people that it was a remarkable, fascinating, whatever, microbe was not exactly the way to get the word across. And so, I was able to work with these guys and explain to them, look, we have to allay the fears first before we talk about how remarkable the microbe is. It's just a matter of putting yourself in the position of the person who is going to be impacted by the science, right? And putting yourself in the position of somebody who is going to be, subject to those actions, those decisions, those policies, whatever, then you start to ask the right questions.

[00:10:32] Deepak: Yeah, that's a really good point, John. I think that's what you and I have to think about a lot is, Okay, if this is what we're communicating, who are we communicating this to? Right? Who is the target audience for this piece of communication? And then what does that messaging need to look like? Right? I'm glad the road led you to S&T.

[00:10:49] John Verrico: Me too. And it was a great place to be because I could tell the important stories of DHS, and I can really focus on real, substantive, impactful work that was being done. The stuff that we're doing in the background is really helping to support the ability for the frontline to perform their mission, as well as helping, and I think even more importantly, the first responder community and critical infrastructure and the nation. There are so many misconceptions and incorrect perceptions of what government agencies are. And with the Department of Homeland Security in particular, you know, this agency is under scrutiny. A lot of things that they do, you know, people don't like. I mean, people don't want to take their shoes off at the airport or whatever it is, and all of the things that are done. It's difficult for an organization like DHS to show the results of what they've accomplished because what they've accomplished is that we haven't had a terrorist attack.

[00:11:58] Deepak: Yeah, there's so much we can't talk about.

[00:12:01] John Verrico: And that's what makes it so challenging. So, I try to always put myself in the mindset of the reporter, you know, going back to my reporter days, but even then it wasn't necessarily the mind of the reporter, but the mind of the public, what do people want to know? They also need to know that the government is not just making decisions to benefit the government. It's that old classic that basically says, “People need to know you care before they care what you know.” And that's really what it comes down to, so we try to make sure that there's an understanding of where these decisions are coming from, and why things are the way they are. There is a very intricate science to this, and science has proven that what you say is not necessarily what they hear. So, we have to understand that everybody is listening to us or, well, in this case, listening for the podcast. But everybody is, when they're reading a story about us or hearing about us on the news or whatever, they're doing it through their own filter, and they're doing it from their own lens of perception, and it's based on their experience, whatever's going on in their life, whatever impacts that they've had. You just don't know where other people are coming from all the time. So you have to take into account other people's perspectives and potential for seeing things in a different light.

[00:13:31] Deepak: What is a typical day like for you? Walk me through that.

[00:13:35] John Verrico: You know, if I could say there was a typical day there really is not…

[00:13:38] Deepak: There isn’t. No, yeah,

[00:13:40] John Verrico: Every day is dramatically different.

[00:13:41] Deepak: That is so…

[00:13:42] John Verrico: Any given day, we can be working on trying to help some of the program managers, or scientists and engineers that we have around the organization, who are doing fabulous work, understand how to tell their story and why it's important to tell their story. We may be working to get somebody ready to do a media interview. And that would be, I don’t want to say that we sit there and we drill them, and make them practice, but we try to get them comfortable with the idea of telling their story in a more human way than rather than the high techie thing. And then it could be a call from headquarters that might change our day. There may be some policy change or some impact that come our way. And then you get a call from a reporter who says, “Hey, do you know that there's an RFI out and what does this all mean?” And we didn't even know the RFI was out. Oh, by the way, request for interest, or RFP, request for proposal, you know, the government is putting out looking for contracts.

[00:14:42] Deepak: Yeah.

[00:14:43] John Verrico: I'm in awe of the brainpower that we have in this organization. What I found rewarding, not just here, but throughout my entire career, is helping people to tell these important stories. You know, when I get somebody to come out of their shell and be able to explain what it is that they do, to a group that needs to hear it, and you see that little light go on in somebody's eyes and go, “Oh, I get it.”

[00:15:10] Deepak: How have you seen your role change over the time that you've been here?

[00:15:16] John Verrico: Wow. I think the fact of when I first got here, there was nobody in a role at S&T doing this. There was nobody here who can really take the time to understand the impacts of the research and development side. And so over the years I think the thing that has changed the most is an acceptance of the importance and the impact of the research and development arm of Homeland Security.

[00:15:51] Deepak: That's significant. John, what are, in your mind, some of the most significant technological advancements that you've been involved in?

[00:15:59] John Verrico: [00:16:00] You know, Dee, I think it was, it's really the ones that we could tell the story of in an interactive way. I'll give you a really good example. You're trying to tell a story, you can just, you know, spew out some words or send out a press release or an article or whatever, maybe do an interview or two with a reporter, and that is that. But when you have an opportunity to bring people together in a physical location, and a reporter has an opportunity to actually touch, feel, experience the technology, that helps in the storytelling, just enormously. FINDER is one of those technologies. In its early days, FINDER is a technology that is designed to help, search and rescue teams locate victims buried under rubble after a disaster, building collapse or earthquake or whatever. It's an amazing technology. So here we had this prototype device and we had - we went to a search and rescue training center, a training facility, and we brought the firefighters out there, and search and rescue teams, and said, “okay, we're going to play with this today.” We brought reporters out and we actually had the reporters watch as the firefighters and search teams were using this. We had people hiding in the rubble piles and the reporters were actually watching the firefighters go and be able to physically locate them because of this device. Now that wasn't enough, because then we even allowed the reporters to go and hide in the rubble pile and enable the camera guy to walk around with their search and rescue team using the device to locate them. Those kinds of things are such eye openers. I remember a CNN reporter walking into the transportation security lab and being fascinated because there was a room full of luggage. I mean, it was just piles and piles of lost luggage from over the years. They use that luggage to test all of the x ray machines and things like that, that are used by TSA to see what's inside. So there’s a suitcase with a bunch of clothes and hair dryers and the normal stuff that you would have in there. Then, trying to see if that bomb that was put in there by the technicians could be detected by the technology. This is how we test the technology, but we use, instead of just putting it in a box and running it through and saying, well, can you, can this device determine if there was a bomb in this box or not, that's great, but now you've got real luggage with real stuff in it. And it was an eye opener. So this CNN reporter just was fascinated by what we go through in order to make sure that technology works. You know what's amazing, I think the world was interested to find out that every single piece of technology that is used by TSA is tested first at the Transportation Security Lab by S&T.

[00:19:25] Deepak: So in all the years that you've been in this role, is there like one moment or not even that, maybe a very memorable challenge, when it came to a certain story, you know, working with program teams, working with the media, that it took to kind of get this across the finish line? You bring up the tunnel plug a lot in our conversations.

[00:19:48] John Verrico: The tunnel plug is kind of an interesting one, so here was the challenge. Okay. There was a concern about, in subway tunnels, which are so confining, the spread of gas. If it were smoke, if there were a fire, or that kind of thing, and also the spread of water, if there is a flood. A lot of these tunnels go under bodies of water, and if there's, for some reason, a breach in the tunnel or a leak that could cause catastrophic flooding. We had a team that worked on trying to find a solution, and they came up with this thing called the tunnel plug. And it's like a giant balloon, basically, that gets inserted into the subway tunnel and inflated, and would work as literally a plug to prevent gases, and smoke, and water, from getting through. We were working to test the concept; is this really feasible or not? We were working with West Virginia University, and a company out of Delaware that was creating the fabric and the materials. And we went to do a test of this thing. Now, it was the first time and we had one plug, only one plug, so, you know, we built this model, full scale, of a section of a subway tunnel. The back of that was closed and had pumps in it and stuff like that, so it could be filled with water. In the front was this installed Plug, so we could test it out and see if it would work. Keep in mind, one plug. While we were doing all of this, Hurricane Sandy hit New York.

[00:21:38] Deepak: Oh, perfect.

[00:21:39] John Verrico: Of course the subways flooded, showing the need for this technology that we were working on, but we literally had scheduled this technology demonstration, the test date wasn't until like the following week and then Sandy hit and everybody was in an uproar going, well, you've got this tunnel plug, why didn't you just bring it to New York and help them? Because there's only one. And you kind of need two to plug both ends! There were so many misconceptions about what the tunnel plug was, how it can work, all that other stuff. And that it’s something you could just, you know, dolly in and then inflate. The design is that it's pre-installed and in place, and then it's inflated remotely as needed, kind of a thing. But it was just such a fascinating technology, and it actually worked extremely well. And what's interesting about it is that there have been so many offshoot technologies that have come from it. There are multiple technologies in the subways in New York right now that are derivatives of the tunnel plug and they, you know, they're used over the entrance from the train yards and they're used over, even some of the access points, in the city, you know, like the passenger access points, they can actually close those off using this technology if they need to.

[00:23:01] Deepak: So, John, a lot of what makes your job really tricky is that we always have to be careful about what we release externally versus what we keep. So, in your career experience, how have you maintained a balance between security and transparency when communicating about sensitive tech or research that we work on?

[00:23:25] John Verrico: Yeah, it's always very hard. you want to tell, you want to tell all, right? Cause you want people to know how great this technology works or whatever, how wonderful the solution is, but you can't reveal too much about how something works because by doing that, you're telling the bad guy how it works. You're also telling the bad guy how they might try to come up with a way to defeat it. So as we come up with a solution, we have we also know that's not the be-all-end-all solution. There need to be alternatives because every time you put one thing out, there's going to be, somebody's going to find a way to defeat that. Every time we come up with a solution and we put it out there and say, “Hey, this is just one way that we are addressing this problem.” We never want people to think that there's only one way one way out there. There are always alternatives. There are always backup plans. It's very hard for us who really want to tell the story to be able to maintain that balance and keep in mind that there's still a lot to this and you don't want to reveal vulnerability.

You know what, Dee? It's like that with so many other projects too, as we watch them get transitioned, and all of a sudden, they're out there. I passed a security gate the other day at a military base, and the barrier that they were using was one that we developed in S&T. And I had a heart monitor put on, you know, just for diagnostic purposes, and I looked at that technology and that was a technology that we developed a number of years ago as well for the emergency medical community. It's amazing to me as I walk around in the outside world, in the real world, I look around and I can see all the impacts that our people have had, that I've helped to communicate over the years. And so that brings me great joy and pride.

[00:25:26] Deepak: When you look at how much technology has changed, how much your scope has changed, how it's impacted our mission in the time that you've been here, where do you think today's advancements in tech, and AI, and everything else, buzzwords and biometrics, where do you think S&T will have the most profound impact in the coming years?

[00:25:50] John Verrico: Well, I think the areas that are probably growing the most are, you mentioned AI. I think that is going to have a significant impact. I think they're looking at how artificial intelligence and machine learning can advance technologies. I mean, there's only so much we can do in developing, mostly in detection and sensors types of things. The ability to detect is critical. You know, the DHS mission is enormous. And no matter what the problem is, we have to be able to, detect it, prevent it from happening, mitigate the damage if it does happen, and recover from it if it does happen. Another area that is probably going to continue to grow I would say is more of the practical emergency response stuff. I think it's really critical to be able to help communities get back online after a disaster. A lot of people don't realize how much work S&T has in those areas as well. Helping people to get clean water once again, helping people to get power up. Working on some of the projects we've worked on over the years of the resilient electric grid, which finally got installed in Chicago, these kinds of projects are amazing. And now, with the hydrogen powered emergency response truck, that can actually be a temporary power source, a command center, in a disaster that can be just brought in and be self-contained.

[00:27:25] Deepak: What advice do you have for the next generation, for the new wave of S&Ters that come in that want to pursue a career in media relations? At a place like S&T or just in the federal government in general, what advice do you have for those folks?

[00:27:44] John Verrico: My advice after 42 years of doing this professionally, and three or four years before that, as a journalist, myself has never changed. And the advice is this, learn something new every day. Keep learning, keep an open mind and don't think that anything is beneath you. It's so important for us to stay up on the latest methods and technologies, but also understanding how people communicate, even person to person. And that's evolved over the years. If you're not up on the latest science behind it, or if you're not up on the latest methods of communicating, then you're going to fall behind. As I've told folks, I've met some people who were interns of mine years ago, who were like, I just want to be a broadcast journalist, I want to be on TV. That's great. Are you taking any writing courses? Well, I won't have to write because I'm going to be on TV. No, absolutely. You got to be able to write first, because if you can't tell the story, you can't verbalize the story. So I always say, try everything new, cross train. If you've never done this before, go do it, and get an appreciation for what goes into all of the work.

[00:29:07] Deepak: I just, on behalf of everybody, just want to say thank you.

[00:29:11] John Verrico: Oh, thank you, Dee. And thank you for being such a great mentee that allows me to go off into the sunset and know that S&T will be in great hands.

[00:29:21] Deepak: I'm gonna call you all the time though, don't get me wrong. You're still gonna be my advisor.

[00:29:26] John Verrico: There'll be a consulting fee.

[00:29:28] Deepak: Yeah, yeah. John Verrico, S&T, Chief of Media Relations and Community Engagement - this has been such a great conversation and I'm so glad that folks across the directorate that are so used to working with you professionally now have also had a chance to just get to know you if they didn't before on a, not only a professional, but a personal level too. Thank you so much, John, for all your service and your mentorship and everything you've done for the directorate over your 15 years.

[00:29:54] John Verrico: Thank you so much, Dee. I really appreciate it. And I just hope, the one thing I hope people take away from all of this is that there are really great people in the government and they're doing great work, and they just need to be appreciated. I’ve just been trying to help tell that story over the years.

[00:30:13] Dave: Thank you for listening to Technologically Speaking. To learn more about what you've heard in this episode, check out the show notes on our website, and follow us on Apple and Google Podcasts, and on social media at DHS SciTech. DHS SCI TE CH. Bye!

Last Updated: 12/27/2023
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