Faces of the Forest Service

Meet Robert Hudson Westover

Office of Communication
June 6th, 2016 at 10:00AM

A photo of Robert Westover, a public affairs officer with the U.S. Forest Service
Robert Westover, a public affairs officer with the U.S. Forest Service, says eternal vigilance is the key to protecting and conserving national forests and grasslands. (Forest Service photo by Dominic Cumberland)

Robert Hudson Westover has a passion to share the mission of the U.S. Forest Service with the world at large. A public affairs specialist in the agency’s national Office of Communication, his life-long interests in art, world history, adventure travel and the environment inspire his work to communicate stories inspired by the agency’s management of 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands found across the country and urban forestry mission.

Being a third-generation U.S. Marine and a former private sector public relations professional influences his work today. OORAH! – the Marine’s war call – says it all for him: dedication to a worthy cause and being one of the best at his craft.

What attracted to you working for the Forest Service?

When I was 10 years old my parents took the family –with all six kids-- to the Shasta Trinity National Forest for a camping trip. I’ve never forgotten that magical two weeks of playing in creeks and hiking with my dad in the woods. As an adult, I very much wanted to do something to help preserve and conserve open spaces. But, as a public relations/advertising man in the private sector, I was working long hours and rarely found the time to touch base with the great outdoors.

Then one day my husband and I took a trip to Grey Towers and I became completely amazed by what Gifford Pinchot had created with the mission of the Forest Service. I started keeping my eye out for a public affairs position with the Forest Service and when one opened in D.C., I applied for it and got the job.

As a public affairs practitioner for the Forest Service, please describe the challenges you face in describing the mission and who is your audience?

Our mission is primarily about land conservation which comes with its own set of unique challenges in that industry, environmentalists and recreationists want the focus, understandably, on their needs. With this in mind, it’s important to add that the core of all communication awareness campaigns is key messaging, talking points, and other products that flow from this messaging. Some of these products include, publications, videos, press releases, blogs, webpage design and social media outreach.

Whenever I’m approached with a client’s communications needs I always ask: Who is your audience? What do you want them know or do for you? I ask this first because the target audience is the main focus of every awareness campaign and is how we, as communicators, begin to develop messaging and all the strategy and tactics that go into making a success out of a public affairs campaign. So it’s imperative that we are transparent in explaining our mission, our projects and our achievements to the nation--and when talking about the US Forest Service--the nation is our audience.

A photo of Robert Westover with his husband, Tom Fulton, at the Biltmore estate in Asheville, NC.
Robert Westover with his husband, Tom Fulton, at the Biltmore estate in Asheville, NC. Known as the “Cradle of American Forestry” the Biltmore is where U.S. Forest Service founder Gifford Pinchot conducted some of his earliest experiments in forestry. (Photo Credit: Fulton-Westover family photo)

Please describe a project that has garnered more public understanding, popularity or interest based on your work.

I feel the most exciting aspect of public relations work is starting a national news cycle and controlling the messaging. It’s not easy to do, so it’s amazing to see it happen especially when it’s a unique idea or news angle you’ve created--not unlike a work of art!

The most widespread news cycle I was directly responsible for creating happened in 1999 when I was leading the effort to save one of our nation’s most iconic engineering feats the national flag ship SS United States. I pitched the New York Times which then published the story of my organization’s preservation efforts. The story was then picked up throughout the year by many news outlets including CNN, BBC and ABC World News Tonight. That June, due in part to the overwhelming media attention, the ship was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

As a federal employee, and in my ten years with the Forest Service, I’ve been privileged to work on numerous high-profile and very successful awareness campaigns that have generated positive news cycles from climate change science stories to the lighting of the National Capitol Christmas Tree.

My most recent example of starting a news cycle was last year when I wrote a blog about fire season being essentially all year long. By week’s end, news stations all over the country were picking up on the storyline and some even linked directly to my blog.

What motivates you to help others to tell and share the Forest Service story?

So many employees of the Forest Service really love what they do and that passion pours forth in the stories they have to tell. How could that not be something that motivates you?! I can’t imagine doing any other work than public relations so I’m really thrilled to be at an agency where the stories I get to tell come from so many fascinating and interesting sources.

Is there a particular part of the Forest Service mission that you’d like the public to know more about?

A photo of Robert Westover with Countess Olga C. Morgan
Robert Westover with Countess Olga C. Morgan, a woman he credits with having a profound influence over his life. (Photo Credit: Fulton-Westover family photo)

Public ownership of large wildland areas is an original American ideal. It never really existed on such a massive scale until the late 1800s when we, as a country, began protecting open spaces. Many of us don’t ever want to see national wildlands ownership disappear from our nation. I feel it’s our greatest inheritance given to all of us at birth.

You have strong interests in studying history and adventure travel. What have you learned and how does this apply to your work?

After traveling a good part of the world and seeing so much, this is my take away message: eternal vigilance. Everything good and worth having needs to be protected. Nothing in this world is guaranteed and once something wonderful is lost it will be very, very difficult to get it back, if ever. The Forest Service is one of these good things.

Who do you feel has had the most influence on your life and why?

The obvious answer is Tom Fulton, my loving and devoted husband, who has never stopped believing in what I can accomplish as well as my parents who nurtured in me a love of the arts and humanities.

However, outside my immediate family relations, I’d recognize Countess Olga de Chrapovitsky Morgan, a woman I called my honorary godmother (she would insist I use her noble title bestowed from the Russian imperial court). She taught me to recognize that we can bring out the inner nobility in all of us. This inner nobility concept transformed my thinking and changed my life forever. It’s not an exaggeration to say I owe a large part of who I am today to this very noble woman.

A photo of Robert Westover and Tom Fulton react to the Court’s ruling legalizing gay marriages throughout the nation.
Robert Westover and Tom Fulton at the U.S. Supreme Court on June 23, 2015, react to the Court’s ruling legalizing gay marriages throughout the nation. (Photo Credit: The DCist/Huffington Post)

June is Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender Month. As a gay man, how important is it to have a special recognition month?

It’s very important! Both my husband and I have been vocal advocates of LGBT rights for many years. LGBT month is a celebration of who we are as a people and what we’ve contributed to the fabric of America. In fact, last year during LGBT month, the U.S. Supreme Court made our marriage, along with thousands of others across America, fully legal. Tom and I waited 16 years for that day! As fate would have it, several national and international media outlets were standing next to us as the ruling was announced in front of the court. Our story was broadcast all over the world and we unintentionally became a news cycle of our own! It is a day we will never forget.

[Note: This is Faces of the Forest Service editor Jane Knowlton’s last feature story. After many years of dedicated service to the Federal workforce, Jane is retiring. We, in the Office of Communication, will miss her and wish her well!]