When Daisy Okas interviewed to become assistant VP of communications at the nonprofit American Kennel Club (AKC) seven years ago, she was a dog-world outsider with a background working on consumer accounts at PR agencies such as Weber Shandwick.
She spoke frankly about the AKC being viewed as elitist and not relevant to all dog owners, and she detailed a plan to change that.
Okas got the job and built a highly effective six-person team that last year garnered the AKC 4.6 billion media impressions by seizing high-profile opportunities such as Barack Obama's promise to get his daughters a dog if he became president.
Okas explains that the AKC was reticent to enter the political realm, so she devised an online poll focusing on education, not politics.
Last August, 42,000-plus people voted on presidentialpup.com for the breed they thought would be best for the first family. Overall, the Obama story has helped AKC reach 974 million people. It will also continue to provide angles for the nonprofit, including what to expect from the breed Obama picks – even if it's a mixed breed – and training expertise.
Noreen Baxter, VP of communications, credits Okas for getting the AKC into the Obama story in a “balanced” way. “It was clever and effective... It showed good vision and insight,” says Baxter, who also praises Okas' team-building and management skills.
Twentieth Century Fox's movie Marley & Me (released last Christmas) proved a perfect vehicle for the AKC to drive messages about responsible dog ownership. In partnership with the studio (with which Okas had previously developed a relationship) and John Grogan, author of the bestseller on which the movie was based, the AKC began running broadcast, print, and online PSAs last November. Okas calls it “by far [our] most successful TV PSA effort,” garnering 142 million impressions in three months.
The AKC marks its 125th anniversary this year. Okas began promotion in January in conjunction with the release of the AKC's annual “Top 10 Most Popular Breeds” list.
The Long Island, NY-born Okas took a circuitous route on her way to the AKC. Armed with a journalism degree from Boston University, she was headed for the world of broadcast news, but she wasn't comfortable on camera. CNN in London offered her a PR internship and she never looked back.
Okas loves the AKC, but admits fitting in can still be challenging.
“Many people here come from the dog world,” she explains. “Some people don't [view] me as credible. Some colleagues... go out in the middle of the night through swamps with coonhounds looking for raccoons. I'm a New York City girl. I'm not interested in hunting [raccoons].”
She's earned their respect, though. “I help [colleagues] communicate [their passion] to the average person,” says Okas. “It's broader than they're used to thinking about.
“[When I arrived,] there was such a need for PR,” she adds. “I could really affect the organization. It's harder to make those big contributions in an agency. Now that I have more trust... I can do things other[s] could not – the Obama poll for example. Seven years ago, the AKC wouldn't have gone for it.”
American Kennel Club, AVP of communications
July 1998-January 2002
Weber Shandwick, various posts, ranging from account supervisor to VP