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From the White House to the NFL gridiron

From the White House to the NFL gridiron
From the White House to the NFL gridiron

Harpeth Hall alumna Katie Hill’s communications skills and passion for storytelling has guided her professional career to the highest levels of political and professional sports arenas.

People often ask Katie Hill what the hours were like during her time working in the White House.

“I tell them there weren’t hours,” she said. “It just never ended.”

Yet, every morning the Harpeth Hall alumna and Class of 2000 Lady of the Hall found herself marveling at the opportunity to serve her country as she walked in the Northwest gate of the White House and took in the iconic view. First, as the national press secretary for health care at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and then as assistant press secretary for President Barack Obama’s administration, she played a significant role in informing the nation about the important decisions of the executive branch.

Though the lines between night and day often felt blurry, she settled into the rhythm.

Work began pre-dawn as she read news stories from across the world and monitored “what was popping on Twitter.” By mid-morning, she joined calls with Cabinet agencies to see how they handled tough stories published overnight. She prepared talking points for the White House press secretary's briefing and then spent an hour or more readying the press secretary to speak to White House press correspondents.

By the time Ms. Hill took a downbeat to watch the briefing each day, “it felt like I’d run a full marathon, but the day was only half over,” she said. She spent the second half of the day reviewing news coverage, talking to reporters to correct stories, and working on strategic plans for upcoming policy announcements or events.

As a student at Harpeth Hall, Ms. Hill never foresaw her future in the White House or in her new position as the National Football League’s senior vice president of communications. From public relations to politics to professional sports, her professional path has taken many turns — “I majored in ancient Greek in college, for example,” she joked. With each step, however, there has been one constant guiding her.

“I wouldn't be who, or where, I am today without Harpeth Hall. Period,” she said.

Lady of the Hall

Growing up, Katie Hill admired Amelia Earhart, Marie Curie, and Louisa May Alcott. When she was younger, she simply saw the women as cool people. Looking back now, she realizes what truly appealed to her about them.

They each dared to pursue their passions, she said, and push the bounds of what was possible, especially for women, at the time. They were unapologetic and relentless.

And each of the women also spoke to something personal inside her.

“For Earhart, my love of exploring and travel,” she said. “For Curie, my love of science and the unknown, and for Alcott, my love of the written word.”

Today, Ms. Hill sees those qualities and passions reflected in her life and career so far.

The self-described news junky loves languages and believes deeply in the power of narrative “to change people’s lives and our country for the better.” Her lifelong interest in storytelling, language, and writing drew her to the communications field. And much of her journey she credits to her alma mater.

Ms. Hill came to Harpeth Hall as a freshman in 1996. She played soccer and joined the school’s very first lacrosse team. Through Junior Classical League, she developed her interest in the language, literature, and culture of ancient Greece and Rome. She edited for Logos newspaper and served as president of the school’s Honor Council.

As a senior, she earned the distinction of Lady of the Hall and senior speaker at graduation.

“My four years there provided me with the foundation for so much of my career success and personal happiness,” Ms. Hill said. “The school instilled in me a deep belief in the importance of honor and showing up each day with integrity and authenticity. “My teachers were demanding in the best way possible, always expecting me to do my best, providing support for me to get there, and ensuring that I stretched myself at every opportunity. The school nurtured my curiosity and taught me the kind of rigorous analytical mindset that I still bring to my job each day. And I made lifelong friends at Harpeth Hall.”

Charting a Path to Politics

After graduation, Ms. Hill pursued a bachelor’s degree in classical Greek from the University of Virginia. She worked for a short time as the community relations manager at Hands On Nashville and then spent four years as a senior account executive at Nashville-based McNeely Pigott & Fox Public Relations.

The day-to-day work she loved most at MP&F involved grassroots and issue-based campaigns in front of the state legislature and Congress. Interested in politics from a young age, as a side hobby she started getting involved in local political campaigns.

The professional and personal pursuits opened up new opportunities. At the time, Ms. Hill and her partner talked about moving away from Nashville to explore other cities. So when a position opened up to work as press secretary for Rep. Jim Cooper in Washington, “it was a dream job,” she said, “and I couldn't say no.”

Channeling her inner Amelia Earhart, she charted a new route in her professional adventure.

“I hope my path would show other young women that first, you don't have to know at your age what you want to be when you grow up,” she said. “It’s OK to follow your curiosity and your passions. In fact, it's good. I've always known that I wanted to make a difference in some way, but I wasn't more prescriptive than that.

“I often think that if I had set out in high school or college with the single-minded goal of working at the White House, I would’ve made very different choices — in terms of college major, internships, summer jobs, etc. — and ironically, probably wouldn’t have gotten to the White House.”

From the Hill to the White House

Work on the Hill had its own rhythms, lingo, and culture.

Ms. Hill had a front-row seat to why bills do — or don’t — become law. She learned what members of Congress care about. She experienced the critical role that constituent communication plays, saw the interplay between political campaigning and governing, and noted the importance of developing tight relationships with members of the press.

She worked for Rep. Cooper for two years, and the experience in the legislative branch set her up for the next step.

“Working on the Hill was foundational for me eventually working at the White House,” she said.

In 2014, Ms. Hill accepted a Cabinet agency-level position as the national press secretary for health care at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In that role, she worked very closely with the health care press corps that covers the health care industry. Her primary responsibilities fell with the Affordable Care Act, which, at a time, was being challenged by a group of lawmakers. Ms. Hill also designed a communications campaign around other consumer-focused health care reform efforts.

She worked very closely with the White House in the role, which is how she eventually got asked to interview for a position there.

The West Wing

Each day, she sat in the West Wing of the White House just on the other side of the blue door that opens to the left of the White House podium. As an assistant press secretary and spokesperson, Ms. Hill oversaw a broad domestic policy portfolio, including health care, education, veterans’ issues, women's issues, and presidential nominations and appointments.

“Reporters could — and did — wander back to my desk all the time to ask questions, snoop around, and have conversations about stories they were working on,” Ms. Hill said.

In addition to helping prepare the White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, each day for his press briefings, Ms. Hill worked closely with the staff at Cabinet agencies that fell under her purview, including Health and Human Services, the Department of Education, and the Veterans Administration. She also traveled with President Obama and prepared him for interviews he might be doing that fell into her portfolio.

When Obama’s term ended, Ms. Hill was asked to continue on with the former president. She joined a Washington D.C. office with around 20 aides who helped with Obama’s post-presidency endeavors, including work with the Obama Foundation, managing public events, and writing speeches.

Ms. Hill demonstrated “her smarts, judgment, dedication, and work ethic every day on behalf of the American people” during her work in the White House, said Anita Decker, then-chief-of-staff for Obama, in an interview with The Tennessean newspaper in 2017. “President Obama is lucky to have a strategist of her caliber by his side as he builds on his already impressive legacy in the years to come,” Decker said.

Tackling the NFL

Ms. Hill had worked in President Obama's post-White House office for about four years when she began to think about what her next chapter might look like outside of politics.

She loved sports and entertainment, particularly football and soccer, and she wanted to take on a bigger management role at an organization where she could spend most of her time driving strategic communications planning, learning new skill sets, building a team, and getting a front-row seat to how a successful business operates.

“I also wanted to work at a place where I could operate at the same global scale — in terms of huge reach and audience — that I was used to working at,” she said. “And when you think about the huge platform of the White House, and the huge place that the Obamas hold in our society, there are very few organizations that could come close.”

The NFL does. At the start of the 2021 NFL season, 45 of the top 50 TV shows were NFL games. Last year’s Super Bowl garnered far more viewers than the presidential inauguration.

“With that kind of reach also comes a responsibility,” Ms. Hill said, “and I was excited at the prospect of helping the league be more proactive in talking about the incredible work our teams and players do in the community.”

In May 2021, the NFL named Ms. Hill its next senior vice president of communications.

She is one of only a handful of women to ever hold the position, and, as the United States marks the 50th anniversary of Title IX this year, Ms. Hill recognizes the opportunities — both in athletics and myriad other professional pursuits — that the landmark legislation created.

“Title IX was groundbreaking in putting us on a path toward equity with men's sports and male athletes,” she said. “Women's sports — professionally all the way down to youth sports — hasn't been the same since.”

And progress continues. The NFL, Ms. Hill said, has worked to create a talent pipeline for women — many who are former college, amateur, and pro athletes themselves — to become coaches, scouts, and referees.

“Last season, for the first time in NFL history, in the same game there were two female assistant coaches, Jennifer King and Callie Brownson, and a female referee, Sarah Thomas, on the field,” Ms. Hill said.

And that progress extends to the front offices across the league where more than one quarter of NFL teams have women as majority owners, including Tennessee’s own Amy Adams Strunk with the Titans.

Of course, there is still work to be done, not just in athletics but in pursuit of educational and professional equity for women in many arenas. To the next generation of Harpeth Hall graduates, all who are poised to break barriers of their own, Ms. Hill offers this sentiment.

“You will hear over and over again that you can do and be anything you want to be,” Ms. Hill said. “That's 100% true. But even in 2021, there are forces and even people — some overt, some inadvertent or unintentional — that will get in your way. When you encounter this, rely on the incredible confidence that Harpeth Hall has taught you, and don't let the world erode it. Your classmates and Harpeth Hall alumnae will always be here to help you — and, in turn, you must make it a point to help other women in the workplace and in their careers.

“A rising tide lifts all boats, and we as women have a special responsibility to each other.”