Sarah Dunn handles media for Air Traffic Controllers Association

Sarah Dunn
Photo of Sarah Dunn. Photo supplied by her.

By Johanna Ordonez

With the flying public jittery about terrorism concerns and air accidents, doing public relations for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) is serious business.

Sarah Dunn, J/MS 2010, communications and public affairs specialist for NATCA, doesn’t bother with A-listers, launch parties, or goodie bags. She speaks with the media daily about flight safety and writes about legislative issues before Congress.

She likes that, in public relations, she is in control of what is said and written about her organization.

“I like knowing that I control the messages about our association as much as is humanly possible, and I say that because I don’t believe that an organization can ever be in total control of what is said or written about it, especially in the aviation industry,” said Dunn.

Some of her biggest pleasures are to write about air traffic controllers who have gone way beyond their duties in saving lives.

For example, an air traffic controller in Denver saved the life of a pilot and his wife by instructing the pilot’s wife to an emergency landing route after the pilot became incapacitated from lack of oxygen during the plane’s ascent.

A controller in Rome, Georgia, saved the life of a pilot by providing a safe path to the runway despite the plane’s malfunctioning navigation equipment, low ceilings and fog, low fuel, and two missed approaches.

But when things go wrong, Dunn is at NATCA’s Washington, DC, headquarters at all times and is ready to explain it to the media.

“We are very well prepared for an emergency situation,” she emphasized. “The group of people that needs to be involved in a response to the situation immediately gets in touch about whatever the situation is and discusses whether we will put out a statement or press release.”

Born in New York State

Dunn  was born and raised in Eaton, New York. Her parents are recently retired English teachers, but she discovered her talent for writing all on her own. At Rutgers she wrote for The Daily Targum when she could but spent most of her time playing field hockey.

“I don’t regret one moment of that time because it was what I liked to do,” said Dunn.

She also found something that kept her busy and focused: half marathons and sprint triathlons, which she still does in the company of her sister.

When Dunn entered college she had her eyes on majoring in marine biology, but when class conflicted with her sports she had to find another direction, and that was J/MS.

She loved the writing, she said, and listened carefully to what her professors taught her.

“It is always hard to figure out if what a professor is saying is something you will actually need,” noted Dunn. “It seems that everything that you need to know to become a great journalist you learn on your way.”

Dunn found her inspiration in a few of her professors, including professor Liz Fuerst for public relations and professor Robert Kubey for his Media in Politics course.

“I found professor Fuerst straightforward but helpful since she knew what she was talking about,” said Dunn. “Everything I learned in professor Kubey’s class I am now using when I deal with the media directly.”

At J/MS she had two different internships that helped her prepare for jobs in public relations, and she particularly thanked professor Steve Miller for helping her find these internships.

When she graduated, she was not sure her hard work would pay off. She took a position at a government-affairs firm in the Washington area but felt no room for growth. As soon as she heard about the NATCA job from her boyfriend, she immediately sent in her resume and was hired.

Dunn said she loves what she does. What advice does she have for current J/MS students?

“It’s very simple, go to class.”