By Shannon Mullane (MJour’19)
Dawn Doty says she is always thinking forward, but when she received a lifetime achievement award, she took the opportunity to think back on her past—Tiger Woods and tyrannosaurus rexes, included.
Doty is an award-winning teaching associate professor in the Department of Advertising, Public Relations and Media Design, and in 2022, she became the recipient of a new honor—the Swede Johnson Lifetime Achievement Award from the Public Relations Society of America, Colorado chapter. When she learned the good news, Doty was speechless.
“I was just blown away because I never really expected to win this award from PRSA Colorado,” she said. “I’ve known of many award winners in the past, and I just never had that in my sights. But it was a lovely surprise, and I am deeply humbled.”
During her 30-year professional career, Doty worked with corporations, global firms and nonprofits in Chicago, San Francisco and Colorado. Her clients were often high-profile and included the likes of Chipotle, Crocs, Southwest Airlines and the U.S. Air Force Academy. In 2016, she embarked on a new phase of her career and joined CMCI as CU’s first-ever, full-time public relations instructor for undergraduate studies.
Her first job was as a public relations coordinator for an arts council in Ohio in the late 1980s. By 1995, she landed her first position at a global firm, Ketchum Public Relations, which she describes as one of her most meaningful experiences.
“I was just over the moon because that was sort of the crème de la crème of jobs, to be in a global firm,” she said.
There, she recalled learning how to work with national clients—including some high-maintenance ones—and how to supervise teams. The key is learning from your best supervisors and recognizing that every person has different needs, Doty said.
Then, while working with Burson-Marsteller, Doty helped McDonald's create an educational campaign focused on a tyrannosaurus rex fossil, named “SUE.” The fossil, discovered in South Dakota, was acquired in partnership with the Field Museum of Chicago and is still available for viewing.
“I feel like that’s a neat legacy project. I did it back in the day, but still, kids are going to see it and just find it marvelous and wonderful,” Doty said.
At Foote, Cone & Belding and Burson-Marsteller, she recalled working with the Tiger Woods Foundation and seeing how fans mobbed around the golf celebrity. Later with Linhart Public Relations, her team was a finalist for a PRWeek Award for its work with a different client, Crocs. It was one of the top awards in the field and a source of pride for a firm of their size, Doty said.
After receiving her lifetime achievement award, Doty met with CMCI to share her career highlights, keys to working in public relations and tips for students launching careers of their own.
What made you want to go into public relations?
Doty: I was an education major, oddly enough, at UD (University of Dayton), and I went in and did student teaching at a really tough, inner-city high school. I said to a teacher, “So how do you motivate students?” She looked me in the eye and started laughing and said, “Motivate students?” And at that moment, I really paused and said, “Oh my gosh, this probably isn’t for me.”
My uncle’s partner was an executive at a company in Dayton, Ohio, and I remember talking to him about business. I think he was the one that first suggested public relations. Then I looked into it, and we did have a communications program at UD, so I just switched my major.
How did you feel before graduating as an undergraduate?
Doty: I was so excited to work. I was ready to wear a suit and have a briefcase. I was pumped, I really was. I was so excited about it, and I think I’ve never really lost that enthusiasm, quite frankly. I love work, I do. If you’re doing the right work, I think it’s really interesting and doesn’t feel like work.
I always tell students, too, if I’m talking about my career. You can see, I wasn’t trying to climb any kind of ladder. I wasn’t trying to become a chief communications officer. That was not the path I was on. I didn’t want that. So I always looked for what is interesting to do, and that is how I built my career.
Does your career connect to your work with students?
Doty: Completely. I had a student tell me yesterday that—because of a class she was just in with me, PR Strategy, and her Strategic Writing for PR class—she said, “I finally feel like I really love this profession and really get it.”
It’s when students say that to me, I think, “OK, they’re ready.” And that’s a magical time to me because you see it click, and it really needs to click. It is really hands-on work. So when students can really grasp that, I think they’re really well prepared for what’s next. And I love that. So my career completely informs how I teach.
What do students give back to you?
Doty: So I’ll never forget (when the pandemic started): The first thing I said to our PRSSA student board was “You guys, what are we going to do to be part of the solution for what we’re dealing with right now?” I could see students kind of getting stressed about it a little bit. But I think in the end, it taught them this lesson that, if you’re in communications, when crisis hits, that’s what you’re going to do: You’re going to say, “OK, I’m going to work with my team,” and “How do we need to communicate with our stakeholders to make sure that we manage our way through this?”
That was a real moment of pride for me with students, and I think it taught them really important lessons. I was really proud of what they did. I think when you can get students in this proactive mode, that they’re being part of the solution, it really helps them cope.
Do you have any advice for students as they launch their own careers?
Doty: I start the semester and end the semester with my three important things. Two of those important things are what I think are really important for lifelong advice.
One is the grit theory that Angela Duckworth created. It’s all about putting effort into your life because that really helps you with your achievement. It’s effort, not talent. So I always remind them: If you can put in the effort, I think you will go far.
The second is a line of poetry from Mary Oliver: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” I remind them that they’re here to figure that out. They’re young adults. They’re on their own. They’re trying to figure out their lives, and I think that’s super important for them to remember and to just hold on to.
The third, that’s servant leadership, a whole different thing. It’s my way of saying, I’m here for you. . . . If my students aren’t successful, that means that I’m not being successful either. I always say, “If you ever need me after class ends, just ask me—because that’s what I’m here to do, is really support you.”