Strategic communication involves purposeful messaging, whether internally directed to employees or targeted to outside clients, customers, and suppliers. A strong, deliberate communications strategy is essential to the success of nearly every enterprise in the modern marketplace. Without clear, effective communication, institutions cannot reach the target audiences they must persuade, nor can they optimally inspire and empower their workforce.
Such messaging doesn’t just happen. It requires careful planning, deftly executed and tracked with reliable, actionable metrics. The practitioners of strategic communications typically reside in departments of public relations, advertising, management, and marketing communications.
Some examples of strategic communications may clarify the purpose and impact of this critical undertaking. This article recounts several. It also addresses:
Strategic communications is the practice by which organizations advance key messages through outreach initiatives to further business goals. They employ various public relations, communications, and marketing strategies to achieve this aim, but each follows a basic outline known as a strategic communications plan. A template for this type of strategic planning includes several common features, and usually follows a similar design.
To start, the plan should have a clear purpose and defined communications objectives. Second, it needs to precisely define the target audience so that the message reaches the right people. Next comes the how and the when: How will the message be communicated, and when is the best time to do it? Finally, who is the best person—or what are the best communication channels—for message delivery?
By following this basic template and similar structures, organizations can design communication activities that are effective in reaching key audiences with business objectives and marketing plans. By focusing outreach efforts on an organization’s business strategy, the communications team can keep key messaging on point and above all the noise.
So, what does strategic communications look like in practice? How do institutions and individuals tailor messaging to promote business objectives? And how do they determine whether to employ traditional media, digital media, or other platforms to reach their target audiences?
Traditionally, businesses might write and distribute a press release to local media about a new business objective, product, or event and email it to newspapers or media outlets to review. While this can still be a useful method for messaging, businesses have little control over the timing, targeting, and measuring of the effort’s impact.
Media coverage these days is a 24-hour continuous news cycle with a lot of repetition and distraction, and is a blend of news and hype. Modern communications strategies need to be clear, clean, and part of the larger message from the company, so some of the old systems used in advertising and marketing (press releases, radio and television advertising, and even internal communication through memos and email) may need a digital tune-up.
Even more important than the delivery system might be the planning that comes before and after. Communication professionals brainstorm an action plan to promote their communication goals but must also prepare for measurement of any effort’s success. In order to improve on the last campaign, metrics must be implemented to measure whether the right who got the what and when.
Consider Proctor and Gamble’s #LikeAGirl campaign for its Always brand. The messaging centered on taking a perceived insult—”like a girl”—and transforming it into a positive associated with P&G’s product. The campaign originated with an online video that ultimately garnered over 85 million views, ultimately spreading across social media through hashtags, shared photos, videos, and memes. Follow-up research determined that 76 percent of 16-to-24 year-old women who saw the campaign changed their perception of “like a girl,” no longer seeing it as an insult. The campaign was nearly as effective in swaying men—two-thirds indicated that the video made them rethink their use of the phrase as an insult.
Strategic communications can extend well beyond marketing. Searching for a solution to a chronic shortage of stem cell donors, a German hospital teamed with the public relations firm BBDO to develop the Life Lolli, a heart-shaped lollipop that doubles as a DNA swab. A limited budget forced organizers to rely on influencers, social media, and traditional print media exposure, but a great idea coupled with a well-coordinated communications campaign reached over 85 million people and generated 123 news stories generating 127 million impressions. In April 2019, as a result of the campaign, the donor system registered over 15,000 people; in contrast, the same system registered fewer than 10,000 over the entirety of 2018.
So how do communication professionals develop their skills? Corporate communication is big business, and learning the ropes can be a great way to polish your resume and move up the ladder in your industry. Pursuing a master’s in strategic communications enables professionals to fine-tune their planning and communication skills and stay ahead of the competition.
Because messaging and public relations are important in any industry, communication professionals in business and nonprofits can benefit from further training. Government employees in charge of developing a crisis communications plan, fundraising teams looking to finance the future of an organization, and companies that need to address human resources information to internal audiences are all candidates for the techniques and metrics used in the strategic communications coursework.
Finding your way to the right program takes research and effort, as each program offers unique opportunities and also requires specific prerequisites for applicants. While admissions processes are similar for most strategic communications master’s programs, be sure to dig deeper when you find the final set of programs that speak to you. Their requirements may be unique to the program.
Most programs ask for a formal application, complete with resume, statement of purpose, and letters of recommendation. This foundational material is crucial as a first line and example of clear messaging: show the school your communication skills in the telling of your work experience, demonstration of interest in the program, and the ways others found your work and efforts valuable in the real world. You may even be able to move beyond the written word and schedule a face-to-face interview with the admissions team to enhance your application.
Some programs wask for standardized test scores—Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) or Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) scores—taken within the past five years. Some schools waive this requirement with a high GPA or a previous master’s degree.
Curricula for strategic communications begin with theory, research and preparation, and metrics and measurement. Students examine the impact of public opinion, mass communication and digital media, targeting key stakeholders, and effective speechwriting.
You may take classes in media literacy, communication and culture, ethics, law, research methods, graphic design, advertising, copywriting, consumer insights, and global media. Depending on the program you choose and the industry you are in, your coursework may become more focused or you may pursue a more global approach.
Program specialization can vary from school to school as well. Some schools may offer a more generalized course of study, while others may have programs that specialize in public relations, advertising, creative design, or in unique areas like film, television, and radio.
The science and art of strategic communications continues to develop, as do the programs designed to study it. The best master’s program is the one you’ve found that fits your own specific needs. You’ll need to do your research.
Location matters, especially if you plan to undertake a practicum. In Washington, DC, George Washington University offers a traditional full and part-time program at their School of Media and Public Affairs. In New York, Columbia University has a full-time, on-campus 16-month option, or a 12-month program without a scheduled practicum.
Of course, you don’t need to live in the city where your school is located if you enroll in an online program.
If you are not living and working in a major city, but are looking for a great master’s program, there is no need to worry- there are lots of excellent programs offered in an online format, adding flexibility to your program search.
American University offers a Master of Arts in Strategic Communication (MASC), with the choice of a concentration in Advocacy and Social Impact or in Digital Communication Strategies and Analytics. Butler University also offers an online option with an unusual number of elective options for an online program. The University of Delaware offers an online program with specializations offered in public relations or digital and social media.
The skills that you’ll add to your resume with your newly minted master’s in strategic communication can help open doors in any industry and allow you to move up in salary and responsibility. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts this job market will grow 14 percent between 2020 and 2030, more than three times the growth rate of the labor market as a whole, and create 151,500 new jobs. Demand “is expected to arise from the need to create, edit, translate, and disseminate information through a variety of different platforms.”
Monster.com lists the top-paying jobs in communications; all sit well into six-figure salaries. At the top they list senior vice president of sales with a mid-career income over $200,000. Vice president positions in business development and marketing fall in the $160,000 range.
You’ll find jobs as advertising, promotions, and marketing managers that pay in the mid-$100,000 range, and could find work in social media public relations, and other positions in this expanding field of effective communications.
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