Insider Interview: Cara O’Donnell, Arlington Economic Development | PRSA-NCC
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Insider Interview: Cara O’Donnell, Arlington Economic Development

August 15, 2018

In this month’s Insider Interview, we speak with Cara O’Donnell. O’Donnell is the director of public relations at Arlington Economic Development, part of Arlington County government. O’Donnell holds a bachelor’s degree from Ithaca College and a master’s degree in journalism, PR, and advertising from Temple University.

PRSA-NCC: You've spent most of your career using communications tactics to get people to live, work or play in a particular location. What about this work interests you?

O’Donnell: I fully believe that every city has a story, and often a location’s most interesting stories are undiscovered. Finding those gems and telling those stories gives media new material, but doing so also encourages them to think of an area they may think they already know in a whole new way. Here in Arlington, people are aware of Arlington National Cemetery and/or the Pentagon, but outside the DMV, I found many journalists honestly didn’t know much about what was going on here. Finding and telling those undiscovered stories is key to keeping audiences intrigued.

PRSA-NCC: As communication professionals, we're always concerned with measurement. With a county as populous and complex as Arlington, how do you know whether your message is getting through?

O’Donnell: It’s funny – when I first started in Arlington six years ago, I was surprised how often people would assume I was representing Arlington, Texas (You won’t believe how many requests I had for Six Flags tickets.). Those who did know about us just thought we were exclusively a government suburb. Now, that’s changed; business leaders are realizing the innovation that’s happening here in Arlington and want to be a part of it. Visitors are taking time to explore more of Arlington. It’s definitely a marathon, not a sprint, but it’s working.

PRSA-NCC: So much is happening in Arlington right now, especially new construction and new business. How do you prioritize which stories to tell?

O’Donnell: It really is incredible just how much is going on. I try to look at trends when pitching nationally (Ballston Quarter’s Quarter Market food hall, for example, fits very nicely into a current food hall trend) and really try to look at things like the aspects of innovation and entrepreneurship here and what differentiates it from what’s happening in other cities around the country. Of course, it’s also keeping that door of communication open with the media – keeping tabs on what’s on their radar and how we can fit into that narrative.

PRSA-NCC: Along those lines, how do you decide where to tell those stories?

O’Donnell: The tech sector is a big one for us right now with Arlington’s focus on the innovation economy, and the story of Arlington’s transformation to a much more diversified economy is one that has really helped larger outlets really take notice of us – often for the first time. We’ll target specific regions for individual initiatives or regional projects, but overall, it’s really just getting that awareness out there of the resources and opportunities available to businesses.

PRSA-NCC: How much are you working to appeal to D.C. residents and businesses? You know, Arlington is all the way across the river, a common excuse for why people don't make the trip from D.C.

O’Donnell: Ah yes – the “Potomac Ocean,” as some of my coworkers call it. From a PR and marketing perspective, we’re working more closely than ever before with our partners around the region to promote the entire area – both on the economic development and tourism side. In fact, our tourism moniker is “Stay Arlington” – as in, look, we know you want to explore downtown. It’s awesome. But hey, save some money and stay across the river and explore a little over here too. We’re pretty cool as well.

PRSA-NCC: What has been your favorite communications campaign on behalf of Arlington County?

O’Donnell: You know, it’s really hard to pinpoint just one favorite. One of the best parts of my job is that I wear several hats promoting the different aspects of Arlington Economic Development, so one day I’m pitching cool new startup companies to media attending CES, and the next day I’m working with a travel writer exploring Northern Virginia. To date, I’d have to say the announcement of Nestle USA’s relocation to Arlington was probably the biggest project we’ve had from a communications perspective.

PRSA-NCC: Many people reading this are probably local to Arlington, and you have a good pulse on things. What's something in Arlington that folks may have missed or what's exciting to you right now?

O’Donnell: I do have to say if you haven’t been to the new Observation Deck at CEB Tower yet, definitely go (and it’s free admission if you’re an Arlington County resident)! But overall, I think the most exciting thing is just how much there is going on right now. There are people here developing technologies I can’t even begin to imagine. There are new restaurants. New experiences. A whole new vibe in some of the neighborhoods. It’s really a fun place to be.