Long-established, dominant brands like Coca-Cola and Nike rely on it to maintain their reputation and sell products. Institutions use it to notify their staff of new organizational priorities or policies. Government agencies employ it to educate the public about new legislation or services. ‘It’, of course, is strategic communications.
Strategic communications is the process of creating and implementing a plan to convey the right message to a specific audience via the best channels. It’s used to advertise products, influence public opinion and behavior, and communicate priorities, policies, and accomplishments.
Strategic communications plans are implemented in a variety of ways, depending on the target audience and their favored media channels. To reach particular segments of the public, beer, snack, and car companies run television ads during the Super Bowl, which they know their target audiences are watching. To encourage COVID-19 vaccinations and boosters, federal, state, and local public health experts create public service announcements tailored to address the concerns of key audiences, such as the parents of school-age children who watch a particular morning TV show or visit a particular parenting website.
While those are two examples of external communications strategies, this process also is used to convey key messages to groups of individuals within a company, organization, or agency. A company-wide memo regarding a new human resources policy shared on Slack is an example of internal strategic communications.
This field can be quite rewarding, if you know what you’re doing. Communications professionals with the right combination of expertise and experience typically earn six-figure salaries. Advertising and public relations managers earn well over $100,000 annually, with top salaries $140,000. And that’s before performance-based incentives, bonuses, and other add-ons.
Though it has many applications, strategic communications boil down to several foundational principles (more on those below). All communications professionals use the same tools and communication principles, whether to raise funds for a nonprofit organization or repair a company’s reputation after an accident or scandal.
Continue reading to learn more about the five fundamental principles of strategic communications and how a master’s in strategic communication can help you land top jobs in the industry. This article covers:
In her book Writing for Strategic Communication Industries, professor Jasmine Roberts identifies five fundamental principles of strategic communications. They are: intentional message design, the correct platform, calculated timing, audience selection and analysis, and desired impact. Let’s take a closer look at each.
First, you must determine what you want your communications plan to convey. Roberts offers questions to guide decision-making such as “Do you want to cultivate positive associations with the organization’s brand? Raise awareness of a new product? Connect with key stakeholders in a meaningful manner?” Your communications efforts will be for naught unless you’ve figured out the purpose of your message. Consider Nike’s “Just do it” campaign, which successfully influenced consumers to associate the brand with accomplishment and excellence. Nike shoe sales increased tenfold over the first decade of the campaign. “Just do it” undoubtedly contributed to that phenomenal growth.
As the famed media theorist Marshall McLuhan once said, “the medium is the message.” You need to be aware of—and purposefully choose—how your content is going to be delivered via communication channels, and whether that alters the impact or perception of the message. For instance, different audiences consume social media advertising versus TV commercials. Young people are far more likely to use Instagram than older adults, who watch more TV. If you’re trying to sell a new kind of knee brace, you probably want to purchase an ad during a syndicated rerun of Star Trek or Matlock over an Instagram ad.
Timing is everything in strategic communications. To underscore this point, Roberts uses the example of a failed Malaysia Airlines promotional campaign that asked potential customers to detail their bucket list trips in exchange for possible prizes. The concept itself was fine, but the campaign launched in the wake of two horrific Malaysia Airline crashes. Other less dramatic examples of poor timing include not permitting customers enough time to engage with a campaign or promoting a summer activity during the winter.
Matching the right message to the right audience is essential. Widely broadcasting a message intended for a specific audience is ineffective (and a waste of resources). Once a target audience has been identified, it needs to be analyzed through audience segmentation, where it is broken down according to “attitudes, demographics, and media use.” To figure out what your targeted audience desires and needs, you have to understand their thinking about your message and craft it so it will be relevant to them—and they’ll notice it.
Similar to the message design, you must be clear about your goal. If you’re running a public relations campaign to win back public support after a company misstep, it’s important to set realistic expectations. Roberts offers a case study regarding Starbucks’ attempt to initiate a dialog about race relations between its customers and employees in the wake of several ugly national racial incidents. While the “Race Together” campaign was well-intentioned, the public reaction was overwhelmingly negative, as many people felt that Starbucks ’ shops were inappropriate venues for attempting to address hundreds of years of racial injustice (some also pointed out that the company’s leadership is largely white).
Strategic communications principles are used in nearly every industry for communications campaigns. These include advertising, marketing, advocacy, media relations, public relations, and public affairs.
While strategic communications jobs utilize the same communications principles, their roles differ by industry. Advertising, promotions, and marketing communications managers earn a median income of $141,490 to sell goods and services. Public relations and fundraising managers improve their client’s image and raise funds for projects and initiatives. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), these professionals earn $118,430 in median annual pay.
Other titles include communications director, content specialist, or public relations coordinator. Younger professionals may have a job with one function (metric analyst) in one department (media relations).
While not required, earning your master’s in strategic communications can equip you with the knowledge and expertise necessary to advance and succeed in this competitive field.
As in most communications jobs, experience is essential for moving up the ladder. Many employers require five or more years of relevant work experience to qualify for most management-level jobs. Candidates with experience and a master’s degree often are more valued by employers and can command higher salaries.
Strategic communications master’s programs teach students the communication and media strategy skills necessary to work effectively as communications professionals. Students typically focus on one area of strategic communications, such as internal communications, marketing, or public relations.
On average, strategic communications programs take two years to complete on a full-time basis. Students pursuing their degree part-time usually require three or more years to finish their studies. Accelerated programs (for experienced students) can be completed within a year.
Typically, applicants must submit undergraduate transcripts with a 3.0 GPA, letters of recommendation, a resume, and a personal statement demonstrating why the program will advance their professional goals. Many programs are adopting test-optional admissions policies, meaning they don’t require Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) test scores as part of the application packet.
Many strategic communications master’s programs seek applicants with relevant work experience—typically two years in a communications sector like marketing, journalism, or public relations. If you have five or more years of experience, you should consider an executive program. If you have little or no professional experience, don’t worry; some programs are designed for career changers.
Though programs differ, strategic communications courses cover both theoretical and practical subjects. That means you’ll learn public relations theory and research methods, plus take classes that help you create or manage content for various audiences.
Students typically specialize through projects and internships (usually called a practicum). Most programs ask students to produce a capstone project, often based on their work with a real business. Choosing where you work can significantly impact developing a career focus.
During a program, you can specialize through more focused elective courses. Not many programs offer specialization tracks, but a few do.
Well-regarded schools with strategic communications programs include:
Butler University offers one of the top online programs in strategic communication. It provides features similar to in-person programs, including a capstone experience in which you’ll develop a working communication strategy with the flexibility of an online degree. The program emphasizes “ethical and effective strategic communication” and includes coursework like Research Methods: Design and Analysis, Law and Ethics in Strategic Communication, and Visual Communication. Students also complete five elective courses (half of their degree), which allows them to focus their studies in particular areas.
University of Southern California offers a Master of Communication Management that teaches students the “knowledge and tactics to decipher, design and execute effective communication strategies valued by executives, stakeholders, and customers.” Thanks to the thriving Los Angeles media landscape, students can apply their knowledge during internships with top companies. According to program statistics, 99 percent of alumni are employed within a year of graduating.
The Master of Arts in Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota is unique as it prepares the average graduate to pursue a career in academia. Students work on their research and academic writing during this two-year, 30 credit program. Those who want to enter or advance within the communications field can earn a Professional MA in Strategic Communication. This degree is geared to full-time professionals and is billed as an “MBA with less number crunching and more creativity.”
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