Mary Deming Barber and Senator Lisa Murkowsi
Mary Deming Barber ’78 (right) and Senator Lisa Murkowsi (R-Alaska) pictured at a news conference during the successful write-in campaign.

Alumna Mary Deming Barber ’78 played a key role in the 2010 effort that marked American political history – the first successful U.S. senate seat election won by write-in votes in some 50 years.

And now she herself has won something that typically does not come easily. Her work on the Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) for Senator Write-In Campaign not only contributed to the election victory, it earned her the highest honor in the nation in the field of public relations – a Silver Anvil Award, presented by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) in recognition of work that represents the highest standards in the profession. This is her second such award; she won one in 1991 for public relations effort on behalf of the Beef Industry Council. And it is her second political campaign, having contributed public relations efforts during Senator Bob Packwood's (R-Oregon) reelection campaign in 1986.

The award recognizes campaigns that successfully address “a contemporary public relations issue with exemplary professional skill, creativity and resourcefulness.” Entries are evaluated for their strategic nature using four key components of public relations — research, planning, execution and evaluation.

Media reports have called the re-election of Murkowski “stunning,” As a write-in winner, she accomplished something no senator has done since Strom Thurmond of South Carolina in 1954. Murkowski had been defeated in the state's 2010 Republican primary by Joe Miller, a political novice and Tea Party insurgent backed by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin. At first, Murkowski bowed out of the race but later staged an energetic write-in campaign, squaring off against Miller and the Democratic candidate Scott McAdams.

Enter Barber, who had supported candidate Murkowski since 2004 and stayed connected with her during her term. After the primary, she began discussing her concerns regarding the organization with the Senator and her organization. The Senator herself asked that Barber be added to the team.

Once aboard, Barber and a former Murkowski staffer led an intense effort that, among many strategic objectives, had to announce and promote the write-in candidacy, educate voters about how to vote for a write-in, teach voters how to spell the name Murkowski, align with fundraising efforts, plan campaign events, and more.  Barber volunteered her time to the campaign, taking a break from her independent firm, because she believed Murkowski was best for Alaska’s future.

Barber worked closely with the senator’s communications team and offered a strategic and supervisory hand in almost all aspects of the outreach plan, with the exception of traditional media. On a daily basis, she was responsible for making sure the “message of the day” was communicated to various groups throughout the state using vehicles such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, email, text messages and web. Senator Murkowski has credited her success to the planning and execution of her communication team who capitalized on focused messaging to maintain visibility in both new and traditional media.

Barber says the importance of social media was evident early on as messages and news traveled very quickly. Monitoring, responding and proactively sending messages was critical to success. Barber's expertise in this area was considered to be extremely valuable in reviewing and recommending content that kept the campaign on message and in front of Alaskan voters. Each morning, she reviewed online stories, comments and tweets and forwarded information to the senior campaign team along with recommendations on next steps.

Barber, a member of the Whitman Alumni Association Board, knew from a young age that she wanted to be a writer and communicator. But she says that regardless of her career choice, “the listening and analysis skills learned at Whitman are invaluable in any career. Whitman taught me to look at the world differently; in public relations we are regularly asked to look at things differently, listen to what is said and create a program or plan to transform views,” said Barber, president of The Barber Group, a strategic communications firm in Anchorage, Alaska.

In addition to owning her firm, established in 2000, Barber is also an avid community volunteer. She has been involved with United Way and the Alaska Community Foundation. She is chair-elect of the PRSA College of Fellows and has served the organization locally and nationally in several leadership roles.

As a member of the Whitman Alumni Board, Barber is able to get back to campus for several times each year for meetings. But her next trip will reflect a legacy and her most important role – mom – as she will bring her son Thomas, who becomes a first-year Whittie this fall.

Barber is a firm believer in giving back and paying it forward, regardless of the cause. She contributes to causes in which she believes. “It’s a way to strengthen our community and make the world a better place for everyone,” she said.

Read more about the Murkowski campaign and victory here.

– Ruth Wardwell