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Accomplished Alumna Alert: A Conversation With Katie Harbath, Former WUD PR Coordinator

Katie Harbath

It’s no secret that University of Wisconsin-Madison alumni go on to do amazing things after graduating, and alumna Katie Harbath is no exception. During her senior year, Katie was the Wisconsin Union Directorate (WUD) public relations coordinator before she graduated in 2003 with a bachelor of arts in journalism and political science. Since then, Katie has achieved an accomplished career in public policy, working for several campaigns, committees and companies with a focus on exploring how technology impacts elections and policy. 

Notably, Katie served as deputy e-campaign director for the Rudy Giuliani presidential campaign, chief digital strategist for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and public policy director for Facebook, where she worked for 10 years. She currently serves as the CEO of Anchor Change, a company she founded in April 2021 that educates people about the intersection of technology, policy, business and democracy.

We were lucky enough to get to talk to Katie about her professional experiences, how her student involvement in WUD influenced her career, her advice for current college students pursuing jobs in public policy, and her thoughts on the importance of technology in today’s current political and pandemic-stricken climate. Below, you can read our eye-opening conversation with Katie.

As a current UW-Madison student working with the Wisconsin Union, I’m interested in learning more about your time as WUD PR coordinator when you were a student here. How long were you involved with WUD? What responsibilities did your position entail?

I got involved with WUD later in my university career. My free time outside of classes was spent at the Badger Herald, and, when I didn’t get editor in chief my senior year, I looked for additional things to get involved in. I don’t remember exactly how I found out about the open positions at WUD; I’m sure I just saw something posted at Memorial Union. I was a journalism and poli sci major, and one of the things that I realized going into my senior year was that, rather than wanting to be a journalist, I wanted to try and do more of a communications or press secretary-type role, likely trying to move here to D.C. I thought the PR coordinator position would give me that type of experience versus the experience of being a traditional reporter. 

As for my responsibilities, I remember we redid the logo and made brochures, and I still have a bunch of the magnets that we ordered in a box somewhere. They’re blue ovals with “Wisconsin Union Directorate” on them. I may have redone WUD’s website as well—this was back in 2002 and 2003 when websites were much more primitive. I also ended up helping out the president and others. PR coordinator was my main job, but the Union became the place where I spent most of my time, in our offices above the Terrace, helping out the entire Directorate. 

That seems like an interesting time to be doing PR, when colleges were just starting to use the internet. 

We made a lot more posters, redid the bulletin boards down by der Rathskeller, and created brochures. It was much more offline, if you will.

How do you think your past role as WUD PR coordinator has helped you in your post-graduate career?

There were a variety of things that I ended up doing my senior year that helped me realize that there were more career options than just being a journalist. WUD helped to open my eyes to that. My position helped me adapt to doing different jobs, because I had been working at the Herald the whole time. It helped me build different skill sets, and I think it helped me in terms of the first job I had out of school. I worked at the Republican National Committee here in D.C., and I ended up making a lot of proposals and coming up with things we should be doing on the web. A lot of that came from things that we had built or done as part of WUD. 

Has a particular memory or experience from your time at the Union stuck with you over the years?

More than anything, I remember the people. One thing in particular was the end-of-the-year party that I helped put together: a murder mystery party. We dressed up in 1920s outfits, somebody “died” and then people had to figure it out. I remember the event being a ton of fun. 

I understand you worked as public policy director at Facebook for 10 years. Can you briefly describe what public policy means, especially in relation to such a major tech company as Facebook? What did your role as public policy director involve?

A public policy director at a company like Facebook leads the team that engages with government officials and regulators at the national, state and local levels. In my particular role at Facebook, I built up the team of folks that supported government officials and politicians in how to use the platform: how to create a Facebook page and what types of posts they should be putting up. The other team that I built project-managed elections across the company for the entire world. We’d start a year and a half to two years out of any election and do risk assessments: what types of problems do those elections usually have? How have those manifested themselves online? Have they used the internet in past elections? What offline problems do they usually have? Is there a tendency for violence in those elections? I worked as the contact for these policymakers and their staff, and also worked directly with our product team.

That’s so interesting. I didn’t know much about the public policy aspect of any major company, but Facebook especially. 

Some people call it government relations, some people call it public policy, but most companies do have a team dedicated to it. It varies on size; if it’s smaller, they might hire consultants who will help lobby on their behalf, but most of them have their own in-house teams.

I’m sure many, if not most, of us reading this have Facebook profiles, or at least are familiar with the company. How did your efforts as public policy director affect how we, as consumers, experience the app?

There are a couple different ways. For one, if you see a political or issue ad in your newsfeed and it has the disclaimer “paid for by” somebody, I was involved from the very beginning in building those ad transparency tools. If you follow any of your elected officials or politicians or governments, our work was a part of that, too. Last year, people may have noticed the Voter Information Hub prompting people to register to vote. That was another thing that I was directly involved in. 

Did you leave your job at Facebook with any key takeaways? These could be realizations about your professional goals or new understandings of public policy as a whole.

There are actually quite a few things that I took away from the role overall as well as the ones before that. One of the things that I like and that I’m proud of is that the jobs I’ve had in my career—except for one in the very beginning—never existed before. I like creating jobs based upon new problem sets and helping to solve current issues for companies and organizations.

Facebook is a great company, and it has no shortage of fascinating issues. I was originally hired at Facebook to only do things in the U.S., and, in 2013, I thought about what new experiences I wanted to get in my career. I knew that if I wanted to work in the corporate world, having global experiences and international understandings could be really important. I pitched to the company about allowing me to build up an international team, which was super helpful, as well. 

Another takeaway is that the only thing I can guarantee is change. Whatever organization or career you’re in, you’re going to do better for your stress and anxiety if you can learn to roll with the punches and understand that things are always going to change, potentially very quickly. Sometimes you may have the best-made plans, but two weeks later, you have to throw them out. It doesn’t mean your plans weren’t good, it just means the circumstances have changed. And that’s okay. 

Another big one is that your career isn’t going to go in a straight path. The myth of the career ladder doesn’t exist anymore. My dad worked at a paper mill in Green Bay for 45 years of his life and worked his way up. It’s pretty unheard of now for someone to work that long at one company. I had colleagues who jumped around a lot of different teams at Facebook to gain experiences, and then there’s someone like myself, who stayed in one evolving role that looked completely different in 2020 than it did in 2013. It’s really important to consider the experiences that you want to get in your career and think about whether you want to make career moves or not. 

The last thing I would say is the importance of saying thank you and paying it forward. Not too shortly after you’re out of school, there will be somebody that just graduated themselves, so I like to be as open as I can with my time and give advice, since you never know where those folks are going to end up 10 or 20 years down the line. People will remember how you made them feel; it’s less likely that they’re going to remember all of the work that you did. I always try to focus on that.

I love all of those points, especially what you said about change. I feel like that has become so much more apparent in the past year; COVID-19 has made it clear that life doesn’t move in a straight line. Whether it’s a global pandemic or just everyday things that throw a wrench in your plans, you have to figure out a way to work with that. 

If I had gotten editor in chief at the Herald, I don’t think I would have done WUD or interned at the state party, and it would have been harder for me to get the job in D.C. And so, does it suck? Yeah, because I really wanted the job. But sometimes you have to look at what other opportunities it might be opening up. 

What advice would you give to students who want to go into the field of public policy? What can they do during their college career to eventually establish themselves as leaders in the workplace?

I would say the first thing is to find opportunities while you’re still in school. You’ve got the State Capitol right there—go be an intern for a state representative, a state senator, the governor, the city council or the mayor. Student government is another great place to get that experience. If you want to get into public policy, starting to understand how the system works, how offices work, and how elected representatives think about these things are all really important. You can also think about volunteering for campaigns, especially living in Madison, where you’re going to be closer to more rather than less. 2022 is just around the corner, and campaigns are going to start wanting volunteers as soon as this fall. You have to go to your classes, you have to get good grades, but this is a role where you really need on-the-job experience. 

When I was first trying to get a job in D.C., everyone told me, “You just need to get out here.” It’s really a ton of networking: getting introduced to different people, talking to folks that you know, or even reaching out to people on LinkedIn. The poli sci department usually has a summer event where students come out to D.C. and connect with alumni. Start building up a network of people to find out what different types of jobs are out there. Within public policy, there are a whole bunch of different jobs: working directly with elected officials; writing content and product policies; or, like mine, helping others use the platform. You’re not going to learn about those unless you start talking to people and understanding what those different roles are. 

The last thing I would say is that you’re going to start at the bottom, doing things like answering phones. It may be a little disheartening wondering, how am I ever going to get to where I’m actually doing the thing I want to do? But I had to do that and everybody who’s been in these jobs has had to do it, too. You have to remember that even if you’re just answering phones, you’re getting experience. You’re getting experience by being in those meetings, by hearing what’s happening, by asking people questions or taking them out to lunch (in post-COVID-19 times when we can actually do that). All of it is building up the experiences and skills that you need. 

Frankly, I think that answering the phones was some of the best training I got for public speaking. When I represented Facebook, I got a lot of arrows shot at me, because it was a lot of hard questions about what the company was doing. Having that customer service experience and knowing how to talk to somebody on the phone who might be really, really upset came in handy down the line. So, remember to work hard and don’t look down your nose on some of this work. If you work hard and people recognize that you’re a hard worker, when they move jobs or notice opportunities down the line, they’ll be much more likely to help you out.

Since Facebook, you’ve founded Anchor Change, a company that explores the intersection of technology, policy and business and how these relate to democracy. How do these four fields challenge and support each other?

They challenge one another because those industries and the people within them have a lot of different ideas about what the right solutions might be around regulating big tech: how much people are using them, whether they’re anti-competitive or not. I think part of that is that we, as a society, have not yet fully figured out what, exactly, the problem is. There are a lot of different problems, which can be hard to wrap your head around. I think, too, that industry is particularly on the business side—we saw this with the Georgia voting laws—and that businesses are being forced to weigh in on more political issues than they may have wanted to in the past. If you look at the Edelman Trust Barometer, the entities that people trust the most are businesses or companies. They want companies to fill the void that they aren’t getting from their elected representatives or others. 

As for supporting one another, something I find very interesting is how many of these different entities worked together to help people get the right information about how to vote in 2020. You had companies like Facebook with their Voter Information Center, and you had other companies like Starbucks that worked to get their customers and employees the right information on how to vote. 

You saw society, academia and others coming together to also make sure people had the right information about the process of counting the votes. Most people don’t pay attention after election night, when there’s usually a winner announced. We really wanted to make sure people knew that a delay in knowing the winner didn’t necessarily mean a bad thing. I think that all of these entities coming together is what led to record turnout in 2020, even during a pandemic. 

We’re living through an unprecedented age right now, with our current political climate as well as COVID-19. What role do you believe technology and social media play in how we address these salient issues, at the individual level as well as the national or global level?

There are a couple of different ways. One, I can’t imagine how much harder living through the pandemic would have been if we didn’t have technology—if we didn’t have the ability to do Zooms or use Facebook to stay in touch. I think it has done a lot for people’s well-being that isn’t even fully realized yet, because it’s hard to imagine not having these things. I think, too, that tech companies made it easier for people to get information about everything. Over the summer, it was reminders to wear a mask and wash your hands, stuff like that. 

It also means that there’s misinformation and disinformation that people are spreading. This is a balance that companies have to grapple with. It’s important to think about these companies in conjunction with the broader media ecosystem that people are consuming: what TV they’re watching, the places that they live and the folks that they are hearing from. There’s a lot more work that these companies need to do, but I’m still in the optimistic mode of thinking that we can get to a place where we can amplify the good and mitigate the bad. At the end of the day, technology has had a lot of positive impacts on our lives, and I would hate to throw all of that out just because people don’t like the bad. 

Flashback to when you were a student at UW-Madison. Would you have guessed that your career would have taken the path that it ultimately did? 

(Laughs.) No. The company that I worked for for 10 years didn’t exist when I graduated school! It’s kind of funny, at first I didn’t want to do anything digital. Then, in my J202 class, Katy Culver made me be a webmaster. She loves to remind me that she knew before I did that I was going to go on a digital path.

I did know that I wanted to go into digital stuff, and I made the shift of wanting to come to D.C. and go into politics. Working at a place like Facebook really didn’t come to me until seven years into my career. 

When you’re not busy thinking about public policy, what sorts of things do you like to do in your free time?

I love to cook, which has been great during the pandemic. I love to read—I started getting physical books again to cut down on screen time during COVID-19, but I’m definitely running out of space for those. I’m big into nonfiction. My family says that I’m boring, but I love nonfiction. I’ve been reading biographies, like Obama’s and one on Peter Baker that recently came out. I’m also reading a lot of stuff about the tech industry. And, of course, when it’s football season, I watch the Badgers and the Packers. 

A huge thank you to Katie Harbath for sharing her time, expertise and advice with all of us. It’s fascinating to catch up with former Union student leaders to see how their leadership skills have translated into incredible careers. To learn more about WUD, visit union.wisc.edu/get-involved/wud, and to keep up-to-date with Katie, check out anchorchange.com

Note: Some responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Author: Abby Synnes

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