Lisa Cox knows how to navigate a crisis. She handled media relations for Mercy Springfield when the devastating Joplin tornado hit in 2011, destroying one of its sister hospitals. She was a public affairs officer for the Springfield Police Department for more than five years, navigating the aftermath of officer-involved shootings.
But more recently, about a year into her job as the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) communications director, Cox has had to guide countless local and national reporters, government officials, and public health agencies through arguably the worst public health emergency in memory.
“Baptism by fire” has often been used to describe Cox, 35, when she starts new roles. When she joined the health department in January 2019, DHSS was working to promulgate rules for the fledgling medical marijuana program — a big focus of her job for the first year.
But almost exactly one year later, the health department had assembled an incident response team as COVID-19 became more than just a headline in an international newspaper. By March, Missouri reported its first case — and Cox stopped sleeping.
“2020 only existed for COVID response. It was definitely a strong commitment to providing as much information to Missourians as we could. COVID news didn’t rest so I didn’t either,” Cox said. “In government and public service in general, you don’t have a lot of people. We have an incredible team that’s led the state’s response efforts, but for media relations at DHSS, it was just me. I felt a lot of responsibility to just stay on it.”
Cox not only had to wrangle a gaggle of local and national reporters as the pandemic descended on Missouri, but she also gave guidance to local health agencies that were not used to media attention. She helped the agencies set up interviews, draft press releases, and put out information to their communities.
As she transitioned to working from home and her working hours increased, friends would half-jokingly send Cox job openings that she quickly dismissed.
“I am so invested in this cause and committed to this response and getting past this. I couldn’t think about going somewhere else in a time like that. I felt like I was needed. I knew what was going on, I knew where the struggle points were and things like that,” Cox said. “I guess I had a sense of feeling needed and feeling like Missourians deserved good, solid, factual information.”
“There are a lot of reporters in the state of Missouri and then there’s just me,” she added. “That was what really would bother me and often keep me up late or all night — responding to everybody because I didn’t want people to go without the information they had requested.”
Cox’s tenacity has not gone unnoticed.
“Lisa is an incredibly hard worker who cares greatly about the people of Missouri and keeping them safe,” Dr. Randall Williams, the former health director who was at the helm for most of the pandemic, said.
“Lisa Cox is a rockstar in my book,” said Robert Knodell, the former interim health director who took over after Williams left the post. “She goes above and beyond every day to provide accurate and timely information to the general public and to her counterparts in the media. During the entire COVID-19 response, Lisa has exemplified true public service.”
Born and raised in Westphalia, Cox is now raising a family of her own in Osage County along with her husband, Dustin. The pair has two children and enjoys time spent outside and coaching the kids’ soccer teams.
If you had asked Cox when she was first starting out in her career as a communications professional, she wouldn’t have picked government or health as her chosen fields. (In fact, she probably would have chosen public relations for the St. Louis Cardinals.) But now, Cox can’t imagine working anywhere else.
“We’ve got a really good spotlight on public health right now. Come for COVID, stay for all of the other stuff we have to offer,” Cox said. “We have all of these funding opportunities, and there are so many cool things we can do in public health to actually make a difference right now. I think we’re going to make a lot of really neat changes that will impact lives. I have no intention of leaving.”
Kaitlyn Schallhorn was the editor in chief of The Missouri Times from 2020-2022. She joined the newspaper in early 2019 after working as a reporter for Fox News in New York City.
Throughout her career, Kaitlyn has covered political campaigns across the U.S., including the 2016 presidential election, and humanitarian aid efforts in Africa and the Middle East.
She is a native of Missouri who studied journalism at Winthrop University in South Carolina. She is also an alumna of the National Journalism Center in Washington, D.C.
Contact Kaitlyn at firstname.lastname@example.org.