All Aboard!


Brenna Clairr O'Tierney
M.A. in Strategic Public Relations

It’s 3 a.m. on a Wednesday and Aaron Hunt’s cell phone rings. He doesn’t even have to look at the number to guess who’s calling. There’s a crisis at work and he needs to act quickly. He jumps out of bed, hops on an airplane, calls his supervisors for the most updated information, prepares an in-person media response, and starts to delegate staff responsibilities in order to effectively and efficiently deal with the situation. 

Welcome to the world of working as the head spokesperson for the Union Pacific Railroad (UP). As the director of corporate relations and media for nearly three years, Hunt is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 

Since 1862, UP has shipped freight across the 23 states west of the Mississippi River. The railroad’s network delivers energy, food, raw materials, and durable and consumer goods. With over 10,000 customers that include Toyota, General Motors, Nordstrom, Ford, the U.S. Military, The Home Depot, and Kohl’s, the railroad has one of the most diversified commodity mixes in the industry.

Aaron Hunt.
“Most of the products that Americans use on a daily basis are transported by Union Pacific to market,” said Hunt. “We deliver everything from furniture, to electronics like your iPod, to automobiles, to the ketchup that you put on your French fries.” 

Union Pacific owns and maintains nearly 32,000 miles of track across the 23 states west of the Mississippi. The railroad positions itself as environmentally friendly and fuel efficient, and Hunt said that the company is currently testing a ‘locomotive of the future’ that will lead to a 90 percent reduction in emissions. 

“Union Pacific can move one ton nearly 500 miles on a single gallon of fuel, and our trains are nearly four times more fuel efficient than trucks,” said Hunt. “A single Union Pacific train can take up to 300 trucks off our congested highways. The environmental efficiencies that we bring to American businesses are really compelling.” 

Hunt never could have imagined his current role when he first began his career. After landing a communications associate position at the Walt Disney Company during his second year in the MSPR program, he graduated in 2006 and switched jobs shortly afterward to become the manager of community affairs and executive communications at The Home Depot. He liked the work at Home Depot but wanted to challenge himself with more managerial duties, so he returned to the Walt Disney Company for two years as a PR manager before finally joining Union Pacific in January 2010. 

Hunt loves his current job at Union Pacific. As Director of Corporate Relations and Media, he works on a team of eight people. He reports to the vice president of public affairs for corporate relations and directs corporate communications, public relations, crisis management, and communications efforts for the company’s philanthropic initiatives in the western states. Hunt serves as the primary media contact and also offers input into the social media strategy. He focuses on enhancing the Union Pacific brand through proactive media outreach, public affairs, government relations and special events.

Throughout 2012, Union Pacific celebrated its 150th anniversary, and Hunt was heavily involved in generating news coverage and public awareness in key markets across the country. 

“UP has a multigenerational impact since it’s been around for a very long time,” said Hunt. “We wanted to connect with the 7,300 communities where we operate trains.” 

The company asked people in these communities to share their railroad connection with Union Pacific through social media platforms and a stand-alone website dedicated to the company’s 150th milestone. Many communities in the west were born with the help of the railroad, leading to high levels of engagement with the campaign. Outside of posting stories and photos and holding large-scale public events like one in Sacramento where Union Pacific staged a festival-like weekend celebration at the California State Railroad Museum, the company had a television commercial remake contest where it asked community members to redesign a Union Pacific television ad from 1971. The contest brought in entries from all over the world, and a few professional animators even created videos. This led to many opportunities for Hunt to generate media coverage for UP and further solidify the brand. 

Hunt credits the Annenberg faculty with giving him the tools -- particularly in crisis management -- necessary to have both a successful and fulfilling career thus far. 

“Several faculty members inspired me to challenge the status quo throughout my career, making the MSPR program one of the best investments that I ever made,” said Hunt. “It’s hands down the premiere grad level PR program in the country, and the degree has benefited me in some way every day since I graduated.”