As the chief communications officer for the University of Arkansas System of Division of Agriculture, Mary Hightower has truly made agriculture the business of the everyday Arkansan – by providing clear, actionable information based on the Division’s research and expertise.
The National Federation of Press Women will recognize Hightower as Arkansas’ 2023 Communicator of Achievement during its June 23 Communicator of Achievement reception in Cincinnati. Hightower also received accolades from Arkansas Press Women during the organization’s annual awards luncheon in May.
“When Kristin first contacted me about the COA award, I felt like I’d been hit by a truck,” Hightower said on receiving the award, mentioning APW President Kristin Netterstrom Higgins.
“I know some of the past COA winners, including Charlotte Schexnayder, and I can’t think of myself in the same category. She was a giant and a pioneer. However, I am truly humbled to even be considered,” she said.
Hightower has been a member of Arkansas Press Women since 1999, serving as president for two terms from 2009 to 2013. She led the organization through a digital transition of its communication contest, premiering the format for the national organization. She also served as the communications contest manger in 2012 through 2015.
Arkansas is an agriculture state and deserves news coverage that reflects this industry’s impact. The Division’s news capabilities have grown under Hightower’s leadership through developing writers, looking for opportunities for subject-matter experts to comment on national and state issues and publishing timely stories about the Division’s activities.
Hightower first joined the Cooperative Extension Service in 1996 as a communication specialist. Previously, she spent nine years at The Associated Press, primarily in Little Rock. From 2000 to 2006, she worked at a public relations firm in Boca Raton, Florida, moving up from account supervisor to vice president of strategy.
In 2007, she returned to the Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, serving as assistant director of communications and marketing. Rising through the ranks, she became director of communications services for the entire Division of Agriculture in 2014 and entered her current position, chief communications officer, in 2019.
Using her skills and expertise, Hightower gives back in her professional and personal life. Communicators across the state attest to her impact on their trajectory.
“Mary is the reason I’ve chosen this field of agricultural communications, and my success is due to her constant, gracious guidance,” said Sarah Cato, a former intern who recently left her position as public information officer for the Arkansas Department of Agriculture to come back to work for the Division of Agriculture in communications.
Hightower is, “in my opinion, the perfect example of a communications officer, a mentor and a friend,” Cato said.
Benjamin Waldrum, another former intern, credited Hightower for preparing him for his current career as a communications manager at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.
“Being a communications professional, to borrow the recent movie title, is about being everything, everywhere, all at once. Mary is that person in spades. I could not think of anyone more deserving to be named a Communicator of Achievement,” Waldrum said.
Hightower will compete against other states’ COAs on the national level, all of whom will be recognized June 23 during the national conference.
To learn more about past Communicator of Achievement winners, including Charlotte Schexnayder, visit the Arkansas Press Women website: www.arkansaspresswomen.org/history.