Katie O’Donnell is recognized for being many things: a great mentor, co-worker and social media specialist. Only 23 years old, O’Donnell has accomplished so much that most young communication specialists at her age still dream about. The journey to where she is now was not always simple; however, O’Donnell is now flourishing in her career and has a lifetime to go.
Life at UA
O’Donnell arrived at The University of Alabama (UA) in 2015 with the dream of studying pre-dental. After majoring in biology for one semester, she quickly learned that a career in science was not for her. She spoke with an adviser at UA who recommended the Introduction to Public Relations course after O’Donnell mentioned her passion for the beauty industry and her fascination with how it was utilizing social media influencers.
“Over the next four years I got really involved in social media and PR,” O’Donnell said.
The unique coursework and team projects required by the Department of Advertising and Public Relations at UA prepares students with both the experience and practice they need to succeed, she noted.
In her senior year at UA, O’Donnell was enrolled in a campaigns course where she had the opportunity to work with FOX Sports and NASCAR on a campaign for the Coca-Cola 600 race. From taking this course with Professor Randall Huffaker, O’Donnell says she “honed her ability to articulate a creative vision to both her team and clients.”
O’Donnell was also highly involved in activities outside of the classroom during her four years at UA. She served all four years on the PINK Campus Team for Victoria’s Secret, held the position of PR chair for Delta Zeta, and was the social media & PR fashion intern for a Birmingham stylist, Megan LaRussa.
Serving as the PR chair for Delta Zeta was where O’Donnell’s “love for social media management, content strategy and team management really formed.” As PR chair, O’Donnell revamped and expanded the PR committee, developing numerous opportunities in both PR and social media roles for members of the organization. As part of the expansion of the PR committee, O’Donnell led her team to design photoshoots, contract videographers, create engaging content and develop storylines behind recruitment videos. O’Donnell served as an adviser to her former assistant, Tori Manson, a current senior at UA, who was elected as the next Delta Zeta PR chair.
Manson detailed working with O’Donnell as “encouraging.” Manson said that O’Donnell prepared her and the rest of the PR team to work creatively and push themselves to do their best work. As the former PR chair for Delta Zeta, Manson uses O’Donnell’s techniques as a “backbone” for her work.
O’Donnell’s experiences during her four years at UA helped her to learn the world of both social media and PR. “That’s how I got started,” O’Donnell said.
First glance into the real world
After graduating from UA in May of 2019, O’Donnell landed a social media and PR coordinator job at Brand Institute, an international branding company specializing in pharmaceutical naming. While working at Brand Institute, O’Donnell played a part in many of the company’s digital efforts beyond social media. Her successes led her to be awarded the Best New Hire of 2019.
O’Donnell said that her most memorable project during her time at BI is when the company became the main sponsor of Emerson “Emmo” Fittipaldi Jr., the 12-year-old son of two-time Formula 1 World Champion and two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Emerson Fittipaldi. O’Donnell was tasked with helping build the young Fittipaldi’s presence on social media. She developed the idea of creating a YouTube series following the life of Emmo, his training and his dream of racing in Formula 1. Following the sponsorship and launch of the series, O’Donnell landed her first PR pitch of her career in Forbes.
Professor Randall Huffaker, an instructor at UA, said that following graduation and landing her position at Brand Institute, O’Donnell stayed in touch with him on her first full-time PR position. O’Donnell had reached out to Huffaker to inform him of her project with Emerson Fittipaldi.
“It was really cool stuff she was doing … [things] not a lot of kids that start out of school get to do,” Huffaker said.
Working at Tervis
In May of 2020, O’Donnell moved to Sarasota, Florida, to work as the social media strategist for Tervis. The timing for O’Donnell was great, she said. The new position at Tervis granted O’Donnell with more responsibilities, more room for creativity and entrance into the B2C (business-to-consumer) world.
“I was thrilled to be working with a company whose products I had grown up with. It is both challenging and fulfilling to work on such a legacy brand. My job requires developing engaging content for our core consumer, while also developing new strategies to attract a younger audience,” O’Donnell said.
Joining the company in a unique setting due to the rise of COVID-19, O’Donnell has experienced a unique work environment. Although it was different, she said she has no complaints. She noted that working in social media gives her a sense of flexibility, but the flexibility is even more prominent because of COVID-19.
“The best thing about working in social media is, as long as I have my phone and my laptop with me, I can do my job from anywhere in the world,” O’Donnell said. “I am not constricted to sitting at a desk all day.”
O’Donnell has achieved a lot at such a young age and has grown tremendously in both positions she has obtained since graduating from UA. Huffaker said he is proud of O’Donnell, especially for her growth after college and for “growing into what she is now doing in her career.”
Advice for young PR practitioners
O’Donnell has learned that “it is hard to find mentorship in social media specifically.” She explained, “The industry does not have as many executive-level social media professionals as compared to other industries. Many companies in the last decade or so have only just begun to understand the importance of social strategy within their business plan.”
O’Donnell said it is important to be a “self-starter,” and she advises young professionals to be team players. “There is always going to be someone you work with that knows more than you,” O’Donnell said. “Utilize them. Take time to understand how they do things even if it is not directly related to your current position. The more you know, the more you can achieve for yourself and your company.”
What is next for O’Donnell?
Linn Jordan, vice president of marketing at Tervis, said that O’Donnell is a delight to work with. O’Donnell’s passion for her work is shown every day and “her passion for her alma mater at The University of Alabama has carried forward into her role at Tervis,” she noted. Jordan believes that O’Donnell provides a new perspective to the company and will be able to influence the organization; the past months have only been the beginning for O’Donnell, she said.
Jordan explained that the investments being made into the marketing department at Tervis will give O’Donnell the space she needs to “grow as a professional.”
“Katie is going to be on the front edge of this monumental change and help lead us as we take it to the future,” Jordan said.
O’Donnell said that she has no regrets for the paths she has taken and is having an amazing time working with her team at Tervis.
“I absolutely love working at Tervis,” O’Donnell said. “I don’t know what is next, but I am excited to watch myself grow at Tervis and see how the social media industry evolves over the next few decades.”
Editor’s Note: This article was edited and republished.