Heather Cavanaugh is someone you’d want to be up in your business. Her favorite part of her job as director of corporate communications for Alaska Communications is working with the company’s leaders to develop effective communication strategies to ultimately boost their bottom line. But this business-minded Alaskan wasn’t always set on a career in strategic communication.
Born and raised in Anchorage, Heather sought a change of scenery after earning her high school diploma from Service High School in 1996. She spent her undergrad years at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash., where she earned dual degrees in English and journalism.
Upon her college graduation, Heather opted not to pursue a career in journalism, but rather started investigating a possible career path in book publishing. She signed up for a summer-long intensive graduate-level book publishing course at the Denver Publishing Institute. “I fell in love with publishing and knew it was the field I wanted to get into,” Heather says.
And what better place to work in book publishing than New York City? Heather made the trek from Denver to the East Coast and landed a job in the Big Apple with major publishing firm HarperCollins. She originally thought she wanted to become a book editor, but after taking a course in marketing and public relations for book publishing, she was hooked. “I didn’t even know what public relations was at that point,” Heather says. “I thought it was event planning; I dismissed it at first and never considered it as a career.”
But it turns out that public relations was the perfect fit for Heather. She fell into the role of book publicist at HarperCollins, where she worked for four years on “really amazing book campaigns with bestselling authors.” She made arrangements for authors to appear on big name TV shows like The Today Show and The Oprah Show, and coordinated authors’ cross-country book tours. “It was super exciting, really fun,” she says.
As her career progressed with HarperCollins, Heather was given the opportunity to attend regular sales and marketing meetings with the company’s executives, where she got a glimpse of the company’s bigger picture. “It gave me more of a strategic view of the company; I started thinking that I wanted to do more than just publicity, to understand the bigger picture and think more strategically.”
Though Heather loved living and working in New York City, the lure of her home state was tugging at her. “I knew this [Alaska] is ultimately where I wanted to make my home,” she says. So she followed her heart back to Anchorage to figure out her next move.
To continue learning, Heather applied to a few different business schools, including UAA. She took a summer off to recharge and, in the meantime, met with several Anchorage business leaders to get their advice on the next phase of her education and career.
“What’s amazing is that people took the time to meet with me—that’s the advantage of being in a place like Anchorage,” she says. “If you show the initiative, people are really willing to help you. You have to put in the work, of course, but if you’re willing to do that, there are so many opportunities. I think young people have opportunities here they wouldn’t necessarily have anywhere else.”
She heard repeatedly if she wanted to make Anchorage her home, UAA has an excellent business program that gives students the chance to meet local business leaders and understand the local economy. “It’s a great testimony for the university that different people in the business community recognize and value UAA.”
Heather listened to the words of her advisors and enrolled in the Master of Business Administration program at UAA. One of her greatest takeaways was a class on leadership taught by then dean of the College of Business and Public Policy, Tom Case, who now serves as UAA’s chancellor.
The class invited Alaska leaders to campus to share their philosophies on leadership and give students an overview of Alaska’s business climate. It’s where Heather was first introduced to Liane Pelletier, former CEO of Alaska Communications. “I thought she was someone I’d want to work for someday, a dynamic leader, someone I’d like to learn from,” Heather says. She started to keep closer tabs on the company.
Heather says UAA’s M.B.A. program opens up different concepts in finance, statistics, economics and marketing, giving students an excellent foundation for their business endeavors. “Having this really great understanding of business from the M.B.A. program, plus my experience in public relations and marketing, ultimately helped me figure out where I wanted to take my career,” she says, “to use communication to boost a business’s bottom line and to help employees better understand the company’s strategy.”
To help pay the bills and continue gaining experience, Heather worked for Anchorage PR firm Bernholz & Graham (now Thompson & Co. Public Relations) throughout her graduate education. She moved onto a job as communications director for the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation, where she worked when she graduated from the M.B.A. program. Then an opportunity to work with Liane Pelletier became available at Alaska Communications—an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.
Now, four years later, Heather has settled in nicely to her position as corporate communications director. “Every day is different,” she says. Heather oversees the company’s employee communications, media relations and community relations. “Part of what I do is make sure we’re being a responsible corporate citizen, but doing so in a way that’s good for our business.” What she really enjoys, though, is helping to move the needle. “What I like most is working with the company’s leaders to develop a strategy around something and really make a difference.”
Heather has been around Anchorage long enough to have noticed the many changes happening on UAA’s campus over the years. “UAA is really important to our community and we all have a responsibility to make it a great university,” she says. “It’s been really cool to see the university develop, the partnerships it’s created—I want this to be a vibrant university for our state.”
As an alumna, Heather remains engaged with UAA as part of the Alumni Association board of directors. “It’s my goal to help develop a strong board that fulfills the university’s alumni relations mission, and to contribute to a board that is full of leaders in the community that want to be engaged and want to make a difference for students, for alumni and for the university.”
In addition to her involvement with the UAA Alumni Association, Heather and fellow M.B.A. alums Andrew Romerdahl ’08 and Rachel Morse ’08 established the UAA M.B.A. club in 2009. She is also president-elect of the Public Relations Society of America, Alaska Chapter, and is involved with Alaska Communications’ United Way workplace campaign.
Heather couldn’t be happier with her choice to return home to Alaska. She met her husband Chris—a Wasilla native—about six months after landing back in Anchorage and the couple now has a 3-year-old son, James.
“I grew up fishing, visiting my family’s cabin, drifting the Kenai and hiking Flat Top—I really missed these things when I lived in New York City, things I knew I wanted for my kids one day,” Heather says. “I would go on a run in Central Park and it felt like I was on a freeway. Here, I can go on a cross-country ski after work on a trail that’s literally five minutes from my house. Anchorage is a really beautiful place to live.”
We couldn’t be happier, either. Anchorage is a better place now that Heather Cavanaugh is back in town.