A Visit with Leah Evangelista
Vice President, Public Relations
Federation of American Hospitals
Do you remember a class at Vanderbilt, where you got your B.A., that helped prepare you for your career in public affairs?
Definitely. I took a senior seminar in my political science major with Professor John Geer who had developed a thesis about negative ads in campaigns. That was in 2006 when candidates typically posted on their TV ads “footnotes” linking a claim they made to a newspaper story. This gave the claim credibility. Professor Geer said that you need more authentication for a claim made in a negative ad than in a positive one because people were more likely in a negative ad to call you on it and demand proof. Today, of course, candidates still make claims all the time that have no basis in fact, and the way people get their news — and even the quantity of news — has changed since then. But I still believe my professor was correct, and I remember what he taught us to this day. Whenever you make claims, whether they are positive or negative, whether in a political race or an advocacy campaign, you need to be extremely diligent. You need to make sure you have the facts to back up your position.
How did your work as a congressional staffer help you?
I’ve never worked harder in my life, but it was exciting. Early on, I did a lot of scheduling for the member of Congress I worked for when he was on the campaign trail or back in the district and when he was in Washington. On Capitol Hill, you learn to think about who is a constituent and what a constituent is. You have to learn to listen to constituents. That’s true when the constituent is someone the congressman represents back in the district, or the member of a professional association, like the realtors we represented when I worked for the National Association of Realtors.
At the Realtors, you managed the PAC, right?
I did, and while my portfolio is a little different at the Federation of American Hospitals, I still have a hand in our PAC operations. I think of my whole career as being in communications, and when you manage a PAC, you have two main audiences. There are the people you represent, and with them, you have to think about giving them a voice. But then there is the external audience, the individuals or groups you hope to build relationships with. Those are two different challenges, in terms of the way you communicate.
How did you transition from managing a PAC to working as you do today with coalitions?
I started at the FAH as a PAC and grassroots person, but as our needs grew, I was asked if I wanted to take on additional challenges, in the public-facing area, like managing our digital footprint from launching our social media channels and starting our blog, which I did. And it has been great. FAH is a nimble organization, and our President and CEO, Chip Kahn, has been a great mentor to me. Back in the early 1990s, he helped design the famous “Harry and Louise” ads that opposed Bill Clinton’s health care plan. And those were some of the ads we studied when I was in that senior seminar at Vanderbilt.
How have the challenges at FAH been different from some of your earlier work experiences?
Health care in general is a really complex field. When I worked for the realtors, most of the issues we were working on were dealt with in a single piece of legislation — federal flood insurance, for example. There would be an actual vote on that. But in the health care world, the different issues show up in any number of different bills. They tend to be pieces of other legislation, so there is a huge amount of legislation to follow. There is also a tremendous amount of media coverage of health care. You have to keep on top of all that as well.
What one piece of advice would you offer others just starting out in public affairs?
Besides working on Capitol Hill? I’d say that I’ve benefited so much from my colleagues everywhere I’ve worked, either as mentors or as peers. This even goes back to my college days. I still stay in touch with them and ask how they’d handle a given situation. I cannot say too much about the importance of staying in contact with people, especially those who have been your mentors. I know the Council has a great mentoring program, and I try to mentor people myself.