Emerging Voices: Sarah Dougherty

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Sarah G. Dougherty is an associate on New York Life’s external communications team. She works across the insurance and agency group aligning public relations and media strategy with business goals and key initiatives. Previously, Sarah was part of Burson-Marsteller’s corporate practice, where she supported media relations, issues management and awards & rankings for Fortune 500 clients. 

Please summarize your professional career and its high and low points. (How did you work your way up the ladder? What have you learned along the way? What factors most contributed to your success?)

I’m early in my career, and I credit a lot of my momentum thus far to how intentional I was about building a solid foundation in college. I completed six internships, held a leadership position in PRSSA at the collegiate and national levels, and was focused on relationship building and mentorship through my academic and extracurricular activities. (It takes a village!)

Following an internship at a global agency the summer before senior year, I accepted a full-time offer and started there immediately after graduation. I learned a lot from some of the industry’s best working across corporate, consumer and crisis accounts. I have since gone in-house to a completely new sector and have really enjoyed it thus far – there is so much to learn and so many ways our team can be creative around topics of insurance and personal finance.

Highs: Consistently learning. Living in different cities and embracing the process of being new. Meeting people who have served as role models and friends. Reflecting on how far I’ve come since college. Taking a risk to make a career move at a young age.

Lows: Learning what may be best for others may not be best for me. Spraining my ankle the first week of living in New York City (just to keep things interesting, I guess!)

According to The Holmes Report, women make up about 70% of the PR workforce, but they only hold about 30% of the top positions in the industry. Why do you think there is a shortage of women leaders in PR? What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership?

What’s most striking to me stems from two pieces of research. The first is from the Harvard Business Review and defines the difference between mentor and sponsor. It seems like many challenges we are seeing stem from older practices around women having strong relationships in the office, but not necessarily having someone (male or female) who directly serves as an advocate for growth. I’ve worked with and for several impressive women leaders and appreciate that they serve as both mentors/sponsors to me. (And it’s important to see them lead by example that I could be in their shoes one day.)

The second piece of research is new from IPR– it mentions the impact of the 24/7 “on” model and how it can be a barrier for women. This is interesting because it tends to become something that women, more often than men, have to choose between: Do I stick it out with unpredictable hours for a big growth opportunity? Or do I stay in my current role knowing that I will be able to maintain my current routine and boundaries? It seems like the tradeoff is growth vs work demands and time commitment. It’s something my friends who are also in PR and I think about often – we aren’t yet in that phase of life, but we look at our careers and wonder how they will evolve as our lives and priorities outside the office do.

What can organizations (and the industry as a whole) do to prepare women for top leadership positions? What are some strategies that can help women achieve a more prominent role in leadership?

If there had been a workshop about having tough conversations and making difficult career decisions in college, I would have been the first to register! Addressing negotiations, promotions, and struggles in the workplace can be tricky, especially as a more junior member of the team. Understanding how to seek – and apply – feedback, and how to communicate effectively through different team dynamics can make a big impact on success, no matter how challenging or uncomfortable it may seem along the way.

As a role model for women, what advice do you have for women interested in a career in public relations?

Embrace the community within this industry. It’s important to have a network of peers and mentors that you trust, support and can learn from. Whether it’s the people you had classes or internships with, connections from PRSA, or the people you work for now – find those advocates and trusted people. I have a little ‘tribe’ of peers I can talk with candidly, mentors who can give some tough love, and a group of people who hypes each other up. (Like that phrase going around recently, “behind every successful woman is a group text hyping her up” – it is so true!) It’s also really important to ask questions and speak up. Keep learning and voicing your career goals – because if you don’t ask or express interest, no one else will do it for you.

What has been the hardest thing about being a woman in PR?

I think as a younger woman in PR, there is a variety of little things that add up to create some additional stress or pressure, like learning how to manage up, when to appropriately push back, seeking those mentoring/sponsoring relationships, expressing goals with supporting actions to achieve them, and speaking up in environments that may not be as comfortable as the daily interactions with your team. Also difficult: seeing leadership that didn’t include women, or many women with families. I remember doing company visits and not seeing anyone who embodied where I saw myself in 10 or 20 years, which made it that much more exciting to go into an organization with several women who fit that mold. It’s important to have the opportunity to learn from their experiences (and understand how the company fostered a culture that empowered them to achieve it.)

What are three ways you inspire and encourage teamwork among your team?

I work on a small team and I love the comraderies among us. I hope that I contribute to our teamwork and group morale through the relationships we’ve established, asking questions that lead to discussions and more robust work, and my default nature as a positive and proactive thinker.

How did you manage the transition from the classroom to the boardroom? What was the biggest shock or surprise during that transition about the profession?

The most challenging part was learning to take myself seriously as an emerging professional. I felt like I had the whole “all-star intern” routine down, and I hadn’t anticipated the transition from student and intern, to full-time employee to be as significant as it was. Going from organized internship programs to owning projects and being seen as an equal professional challenged me to rise to the occasion.

What’s something you wish you had learned in college but didn’t? What do you do to be an eternal student?

I wish I had taken more business classes! Figuring out how your PR efforts are contributing to the bottom line and understanding the bigger picture is vital.

I do a lot of reading – whether it is about professional or personal development, news, case studies about PR, fiction for fun – and it all helps in one way or another. I also try to attend as many webinars and events through PRSA, PRSA New Pros, and The Plank Center as I can.

With the myriad of industry changes, what inspires you to stay motivated and encouraged?

The exciting part about the industry evolving is that we get to be part of the evolution! The increasing focus on diversity and inclusion, measurement, and integrating public relations and reputation management efforts across all areas of business is laying the foundation of our industry’s future.

What question have you not been asked that you want to address?

Everyone’s definition of and path to success is different. I was really caught up in what everyone thought about my career and finally accepted that I need to make the best decisions for me and trust my instincts – because other people who view my LinkedIn or follow me on Twitter aren’t the ones who have to wake up and take my commute, go to my job, serve my clients, etc. every day. It was on me to take control and navigate my career based on my values and long-term goals. A lot of momentum has come from having an open mind to different types of work and cultures… enjoy the journey, learn from it all, and always send thank you notes!

The Plank Center created the Millennials in PR series for rising public relations professionals to detail their experiences and share messages of counsel with students and other professionals.

Published: March 7, 2019