San Jose is losing its top communications official amid the pandemic
San Jose's Director of Communications Rosario Neaves is leaving the city to pursue a master's degree in Chicago. Photo courtesy of Rosario Neaves.

When Rosario Neaves became the face of San Jose in 2017, the city grappled with sharp criticism and fallout from a failure to communicate amid massive flooding nine months earlier.

Neaves was given an important task from her boss, City Manager Dave Sykes.

“His challenge to me was to modernize our communications approach so we could avoid a situation like what happened with Coyote Creek,” Neaves told San José Spotlight. “In 2017, the city needed to do a better job with how they communicates with residents in a timely manner — whether we’re in a crisis or not.”

Now, Neaves, 40, the city’s director of communications, is leaving San Jose. Her last day was this week.

But as one of the youngest directors — and a woman of color in an executive leadership team comprised mostly of white men — Neaves got it done. She met her goal of modernizing the city’s antiquated communications tools and practices — and in record time.

In less than three years, Neaves overhauled the city’s communications team, revamped its outdated website and revived its mostly non-existent social media channels. The new website is now mobile friendly, unlike the old one — a surprise considering the city’s position as the tech capital of the world.

And, in a move that probably should’ve happened years ago, Neaves transitioned San Jose’s public meetings to YouTube, allowing residents to easily watch their government in action.

While Neaves is leaving at a critical time — the city faces crises with the COVID-19 pandemic and a reckoning with systemic racism — the changes she spearheaded puts the city in a better position to confront those challenges.

“If we hadn’t done all of that over the last couple of years, the city of San Jose would not have been prepared to communicate with residents during this pandemic,” Neaves said. “If you think about how much people are struggling right now and how much they need support from their city government, we wouldn’t have been able to communicate with them without the new website. I took an aggressive approach – I’m glad I did – or we wouldn’t have been prepared for this.”

Sykes said Neaves played a major role in modernizing the city’s communication efforts from a technological, digital and strategic standpoint.

“This included leading the recent website relaunch and serving as Emergency Public Information Officer through several Emergency Operations Center activations including PG&E’s Power Shutoff events and the ongoing COVID-19 response,” Sykes said. “I know we will continue to benefit from her contributions moving forward and wish her the best of luck in her next phase.”

Now, Neaves is off to her next adventure — she will attend the University of Chicago in the fall, pursuing a master’s degree in social sciences. The university’s social science research program is one of the top ten in the country.

Eventually Neaves wants to write a book. Her interests center around urban sociology and housing justice.

“Right now is a great time to be in social sciences because we’re creating a new environment with COVID and it’s a great time to be thinking about this in terms of research,” she added.

The city will conduct a nationwide recruitment in August for Neaves’ replacement and has tapped Sykes’ chief of staff, Lee Wilcox, to oversee high-level communications in the meantime.

Neaves also served as the city’s emergency public information officer. Those duties will now be handled by Carolina Camarena, a spokesperson for the city’s Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services Department, and Colin Heyne from the Department of Transportation.

Neaves said she’ll miss San Jose’s diverse neighborhoods, culture and arts scene. She lived both in the downtown core and near The Alameda.

While Neaves moved the needle in San Jose’s slow-moving government, there’s still more work to do. She said San Jose should hire full-time translators and interpreters to reach the city’s diverse residents and ensure their voices are heard.

Right now, San Jose works with outside vendors for translation services and uses its own employees to provide multi-language communications in emergency situations — but it’s not enough.

“In a city as diverse as ours and as committed to equity and communicating well, it would be great to have those services in house,” she said.

Contact Ramona Giwargis at [email protected] or follow @RamonaGiwargis on Twitter.

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