Alumni Spotlight

Managing Emergencies Second Nature for Cunningham '96

Kelly Cunningham '96

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If at any point since 1988, when Kelly Cunningham '96 graduated from Texas Christian University, she had been asked the proverbial job interview question, "Where do you see yourself in five years?" she would have gotten it wrong every time.

Today Cunningham manages top-level communications strategy for the giant University of Michigan as public affairs director. This means talking to reporters daily on wide variety of issues like the university's $5 billion budget, the First Amendment and controversial campus speakers, ADA accessible seating at the stadium, and the numbers of underrepresented minority students on campus.

"In a community of some 70,000 students, faculty and staff, we say that whatever happens in the world usually makes its way to the university in some form," says Cunningham, citing Hurricane Katrina and Ted Kaczynski the Unabomber among several examples - Kaczynski attended graduate school at Michigan and the university holds a collection of his papers.

"In the event of a serious emergency, one of the first calls the [campus] police make is to me," said Cunningham. "The university has a well-practiced crises communication team. One of my first calls is to the webmaster to start preparing our dark web site to go live. With Twitter and Facebook, so much gets out there instantly; we want to communicate accurate information as fast as possible so that people can rely on something."

While some of Cunningham's job is very public, a large portion - specifically the issues management portion - is behind the scenes. When there is an incident, or a potentially sensitive situation on campus, Cunningham calls together a team of senior people from the president's office, general counsel's office, the campus police and others to think through the university's response in a thoughtful and strategic way.  "Each person brings strong experience to the table as we debate the right course of action. I'm very fortunate to work for a university that values transparency, tolerance and equity in decision-making," said Cunningham

"Nothing could have prepared me better for this job than law school," Cunningham said, noting that people arrive at the position from all paths - journalism, politics, or public relations, to name a few. "It's all about spotting issues. And in the best cases, it's about preventing crises. There is no better preparation than the discipline of thinking like a lawyer."

The Winding Road to Mi​chigan

The jobs that make up Cunningham's career path have little in common save one item: she works in highly-charged areas. "I feel comfortable in these situations. It's important to stay calm and think through the options and consequences."

Before law school she worked in the N.Y State Assembly for four years, then the Senate as the committee director for the Standing Committee on Aging. After law school she passed the Washington State bar and worked at the Northwest Intertribal Court System, and later for the state in the child support program of the state tribal relations unit.

"I did a lot of negotiation between the 29 American Indian tribes and the state; parties with a long history of mistrust - it was even hard to decide where to locate the meeting, never-mind the agenda. What I learned from my negotiation classes at Albany Law helped to navigate these discussions."

Cunningham then served as communications director for an assistant secretary at the state's Department of Social and Health Services before moving to work at the University of Michigan, where her husband is a professor.

"I've always felt that being a newcomer to each job gives me a fresh perspective. I've been lucky because the ‘outsider' perspective has been welcomed wherever I go," Cunningham said. "It does, however, mean some hard and fast work at the beginning to figure out who all the players are!"

Law School Lat​er in Life

Cunningham strongly encourages anyone interested in law to consider pursuing it - including those already on a different career path. "It's a wonderful skill-set to have," she said. "Albany Law School professors were fantastic and trained me well for the rigorous thinking I have to do. With my issues management work, it's important to know how to properly support an argument."

Well into a legislative career before going to law school, Cunningham explains the about-face: "I was working in the legislature surrounded by lawyers. I saw that their training made them very effective at their jobs. I knew that Albany Law School had a well-respected Government Law Center and thought it would be a good fit for me. That's how I ended up at Albany Law School. I appreciate the time I spent there; it has made a big difference in what I've been able to accomplish."