Her Path Leads to Ports

Port of Oakland Spokesperson Marilyn Sandifur talks about the challenges of working in communications, lessons learned from the Occupy Oakland protests and her passion outside the port.

By Sarah Sain

Marilyn Sandifur tells those seeking advice from her to always keep their eyes open to a new path.

The Port of Oakland’s spokesperson picked up that life lesson from her own career experience.

Sandifur started out her career in radio and television. Before joining the port in 2000, she worked in a number of roles (news anchor, reporter, executive producer, associate director of operations) at stations and broadcasting service companies in the San Francisco Bay area, including KCBS, the Northern California radio affiliate of CBS.

Over time, she observed that the news business was becoming more entertainment focused, so she began working with a small public relations firm in addition to her full-time news position. During that period, a port employee informally approached her to ask advice on what the port could do to get more positive news coverage.

“This port staffer felt strongly that the organization had a lot of good stories to tell, but somehow wasn’t getting the kind of positive publicity it deserved for all of the great projects and work it was doing.”

Sandifur outlined some steps that the port could take to garner positive media interest. Shortly thereafter she was hired as a consultant, which led to her becoming a long-time Port of Oakland employee with the port’s communications department.

Preparing for the Unexpected

When Sandifur joined the port 14 years ago, she said it took a while to truly grasp the vastness of the port holdings and the variety of operations that take place there (the Port of Oakland has three lines of business: maritime, aviation and commercial real estate).

“I found maritime to be particularly fascinating because of its impact on the lives of people around the world,” she says. “Maritime connects us all in many different and positive ways. Our quality of life is better because of the shipping industry, which moves all kinds of goods – food, medicine and equipment – across the globe and creates access for many people to what might not have been otherwise available in their own neighborhoods.”

As spokesperson for the port, Sandifur works on both internal and outside projects and campaigns. She says the real challenge of working in communications is that you never really know what your day will bring.

“You might come into the office and plan to develop an ad campaign that day, write a newsletter or focus on a community relations project, but you always have to be ready to drop what you’re doing to make room for the unexpected,” she says. “You might get a call from the media with questions on a situation you’re hearing about for the first time, there could be an emerging legal or labor issue, or you might get a visit from a high-level foreign dignitary who happens to be eating lunch nearby and suddenly wants a tour of the port.”

One such challenging situation was the Occupy Oakland protests that took place at the port in the fall of 2011, when a few thousand people demonstrated in the port’s maritime area. This effectively shut down operations at the Oakland seaport for a period of less than 24 hours.

Sandifur said the port took a unique approach in its response to the protests.

“We set up an EOC (Emergency Operations Center) that one would normally establish when responding to a natural disaster, such as an earthquake or a flood. We learned that this was a very effective way to handle the event because you had all the key team members in the room, from operations to communication. Everyone could look at the incident holistically.”

Sandifur says the No. 1 goal of the port in the midst of the protest was to keep everyone – demonstrators, employees and people who worked within the port – safe. By having the EOC in place, the port was able to communicate to all of its stakeholders and coordinate effectively.

“The results: We had no injuries, there was no major damage to facilities and, at the same time, we were able to uphold the right of free speech.”

Throughout the incident, the port used its website, social media feeds, traditional press releases and editorial placements to keep the public informed and get out its key messaging.

“We quickly began to see in the public dialogue that people were questioning the value of choosing the port as a location for the demonstrations. The public began to recognize that the people who worked at the port – the truckers, the dock workers, the regular employees who come to work every day – those were the people who were heavily impacted by the shutdown.”

Sandifur says that being vocal with key messages, getting information out with social media, traditional press releases and the port’s website, and talking to reporters, all helped and led to a second protest being smaller in size than anticipated. A third protest was threatened but never occurred.

“We were able to change the dialogue by raising the question of who was really being impacted by the protests – for example, dockworkers, truckers and their families. The public had a chance to examine the issue and what was happening, and look at it with a fresh point of view.”

But whether it’s a protest or a natural disaster, Sandifur says the challenge in any crisis or emergency is collecting the information about what is happening in a timely manner and making sure it’s accurate.

“I think one of the most difficult things in communicating during an incident is getting accurate information in a timely manner. If you have a protocol in place and teams set up, you can use that to react to a natural disaster, a fire, a security threat or a political issue that has some kind of physical manifestation, like a protest.”

Training with AAPA

Sandifur became involved with AAPA shortly after joining the Port of Oakland, and she says in the 10-plus years that she has been active with the association, one of the greatest benefits has been the training she has received as part of the Public Relations Committee, which she chaired in 2010 and 2011.

“The AAPA PR committee has offered consistent training over the years and addresses all kinds of communications challenges to help those of us as professionals better serve our organizations,” Sandifur says. “The trainings deal with community relations, governmental affairs, advertising campaigns, crisis communications, and media and public relations. AAPA workshops serve as an invaluable educational forum because the information is being provided by colleagues and industry professionals who have firsthand experience.”

She also notes the networking opportunities provided during AAPA’s conferences and seminars. She says one of the best ways to learn is just to talk to the people who do what you do in another organization.

“You share ‘war stories’ and talk candidly about the things that worked and the things that didn’t. There’s a camaraderie and a willingness to share information so that we can all do our jobs better because, in the end, all of us are here to serve the public good.”

Serving the Girls in Her Community

Away from the port, Sandifur has spent the last seven years working with the non-profit, Girls Incorporated of the Island City (GIIC). It is a local affiliate of the Girls Inc. national organization. Its mission is to inspire all girls, ages 6 to 18, to be strong, smart and bold.

“What I think is so great about Girls Inc. is that it provides a safe place for girls to be able to talk about anything. No question is forbidden; there are always people there to talk to the girls, no matter what the subject is or how personal the matter. It’s a place where they can feel safe. That is critical for girls growing up.” Sandifur added, “Gender stereotyping still limits girls’ potential. Girls Inc. encourages them to explore their own abilities and interests in a girls-only environment that is physically, socially and emotionally safe.”

Annually, the organization provides 25,000 hours of researched-based programming (tested and proven effective) to more than 300 girls. Examples of the programs are Be Bold, which builds girls’ skills and personal power for avoiding or dealing with hurtful or dangerous situations, and Eureka!, a three-year program to encourage girls to explore career paths in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

“Even with kids who have only been in Girls Inc. for a year, I’ve seen a major, positive change in their personal demeanor. I’ve observed some youngsters transform from being shy and frightened to more confident and expressive individuals,” says Sandifur, who previously served as president of the board and is currently on the communications and marketing committee. “Being involved in Girls Inc. programs sets a foundation for the child to have the life that she wants. She can have the confidence and belief in herself to go forward, make positive decisions and prepare for a career of her choice.”

The non-profit recently celebrated its 50th anniversary with an “auction-style” fundraiser. Sandifur served as the “auctioneer” and was delighted to exceed the organization’s goal, raising $34,000 in donations in 15 minutes.

“It was both a wonderful and emotional experience to witness such generosity and support for the Girls Inc. programs, our community and these children. I was happy the entire rest of the day. It’s just so heartwarming to see people being so generous and giving back to their community.”