You likely don’t need to dig too far into the past to recall a major company that had to clean up its image after a public relations crisis. In 2021 alone, companies from Peloton to Better.com endured some of the year’s most shocking PR gaffes. They quickly turned to their media relations team to pick up the pieces.
In Peloton’s case, the communications team had to manage a dizzying case of PR whiplash. In just a few weeks, the company saw its product depicted as factoring into several television characters’ fictional heart attacks. To capitalize on and spin the publicity, the company responded with an online ad featuring one of the actors involved; it then had to swiftly pull the ad when that actor was accused of sexual assault. As if all that weren’t enough, at the same time Peleton also reported severely reduced demand for its product (driven largely by the high price of its product).
Better.com, on the other hand, fired 900 employees over a Zoom call in a time when employee trust nationwide was at an all-time low. The chief executive who managed the call subsequently issued an apology and temporarily stepped back from the company.
The impact of Better.com’s or Peloton’s PR tactics have yet to be seen, but regardless, they provide eye-opening examples of what your work as a director of communications could entail. On the most challenging days, you’ll be in charge of strategizing responses to potentially catastrophic publicity.
Whether managing a crisis to calm stakeholders or simply overseeing internal communications to keep employees in the know, the director of communication steps in to run the show just when needed. A communications department has many moving pieces—including social media pros, the speechwriters, and those who specialize in public affairs. It’s the communications director that typically signs off on the final details.
We’ll walk you through exactly what a director of communications handles, which industries need these specialists, and whether the increasingly popular strategic communications master’s is key to success. We’ll discuss:
Director of communications is an incredibly popular title, spotted everywhere from Microsoft to the White House. Within a team of communications pros, the director either sits at the top of the hierarchy or somewhere very close. They typically work with the Vice President of communications, chief marketing officer, or a chief PR officer.
From a bird’s eye view, a director of communications manages the communications activities and goals of a company while shaping the brand’s overall public message.
A director of communications job description varies depending on the size of the operation their overall mission and values, and which communication strategies are necessary in that industry.
For example, a large news outlet or media company may need someone to promote the work of their journalists and creative projects. Directors at nonprofit organizations may require speech writing, press releases, and management of special events.
Overall, the communications director helps shape and approves the brand voice in all articles, press appearances, branding materials, and online. They manage a staff of writers, designers, and social media specialists to ensure a streamlined message across the board. They may also reach outside the company to build relationships with journalists and media outlets to encourage partnerships and an open communication channel about changes in the company.
You will also spot director of communication jobs linked to the human resources department to handle internal communications. When a company needs to report a large change in leadership, manage a dispute, or announce a merger, a director of communications will choose the correct brand language and vehicle for reaching the team and maintaining morale.
Leadership skills are at the heart of a director’s role, as is a keen understanding of the tasks managed by their team. This includes graphic design, fundraising, writing effective communications, and managing crises.
Pursuing a career in public relations as any type of communications manager opens up a long list of pathways. Retail, finance, media, tech, and manufacturing companies typically maintain both communications and marketing operations. Even small to mid-sized companies hire a small team of communications specialists, often with a communications director at the top.
Communications directors also work outside the for-profit world managing the public image of charitable organizations or politicians. Government organizations heavily depend on an experienced spokesperson to disseminate crucial public health, safety, and policy information.
Directors of communications’ salaries and incentive compensation packages span quite a wide range. The pay scale typically depends on the levels of leadership in the company, the size of the business, and whether the candidate has years of experience or an advanced degree.
Location also plays a large role in what you’ll make. For example, a communications director in New York makes an average of $168,053 a year. The average pay for the same role in Kansas City, MO, however, is $153,597.
Overall, unless the director position sits on the lower end of a very corporate communications team, expect a six-figure salary or close to it, especially if you hold a master’s degree.
You’ll find a pretty specialized list of master’s programs for communication specialists. Degrees in health communications, corporate communications, and technical communications all home in on their related fields.
Strategic communications degrees fit in among these. The degree helps directors transform a vague communications strategy into a tangible roadmap with measurable data along the way. It also helps students build upon their current skills and understand the research behind effective theories of communication.
Does a director of communications need a strategic communication master’s on their resume? Technically, no; it’s possible to land the job without any specific degree. However, the skills and connections developed in the program, and most importantly the data to prove their growth, can be the difference-maker in a promotion decision. For example, graduates of Drexel University’s strategic and digital communications master’s program leaves with six months of additional work experience on their resumes. They also build portfolios, online profiles, and a networking strategy to get ahead of the game. Columbia University offers one-on-one career services and has graduates at locations like American Airlines, IBM, and SoundCloud. These sorts of credentials are hard to match without the advanced training a graduate program provides.
A master’s in strategic communications provides in-depth training to PR specialists, HR professionals, writers, journalists, nonprofit leaders, politicians, and in some cases, teachers. The course of study focuses on today’s top research behind reaching your desired audience with a clear vision. It also trains students to build an effective communications campaign and measure the data that backs up its success.
The ethics of communication—as well as the tools we have at our fingertips to convey a message—adapt every day. These communications programs train the next leaders to ensure a just and inclusive world everywhere from the workplace to the newsroom.
Depending on whether you opt for an accelerated, full-time, or part-time program, you’ll need between 10 and 24 months to earn your master’s in strategic communications. This is a relatively short time frame compared to many post-undergraduate options. Most programs require between 30 and 48 credit hours and often include a professional immersion or capstone.
Some programs, such as the online degree at American University, even require part-time students to complete their coursework in a maximum of two years.
Depending on the focus of the program, strategic communications admissions departments typically welcome professionals with several years of experience in their field as well as a bachelor’s degree.
Butler University provides a pretty solid example of what’s expected from successful applicants. Students must submit their transcripts, letters of recommendation, and a personal statement outlining their professional goals and why the Butler program is best for them.
As for professional experience, the school specifies that the admissions committee views their resume to see how it ties into their long-term goals and skill sets that prepared them for the program.
Required coursework tackles the foundational concepts of strategic communications. In other words: what are the theories and practices behind connecting with our audience? How do we design a communication plan to increase our company’s impact? And what tools do we have at our disposal to widen our audience and strengthen our message?
High-level and elective courses also cover the laws and ethics behind communications, particularly when building a brand’s image or building a safe and equitable workplace. Students can expand their skills in social media, working globally, or managing crises.
Many programs also include statistics, data, and research-focused courses for students to build successful campaigns in their unique professional settings for their careers ahead.
The concept of strategic communications can seem a bit broad, especially since it touches on so many career paths. Many universities offer pre-constructed tracks so students can achieve their particular goals.
American University, for example, offers specific pathways such as corporate communications and reputation management or diversity and multicultural communication. Students are not required to choose a concentration.
Electives are a large part of strategic communications curricula across the board. SUNY Oswego requires at least 15 credits in elective courses, nearly as many as the foundational requirements. Topics include crisis communication, ethics and conflicts in organizations, and global media literacy.
Specialization is where strategic communication truly shows off its reach. Each student’s capstone or immersion program also demonstrates how these tools relate to the professional world.
While strategic communications programs have become more common, you won’t find this master’s offered at every university. The schools below provide impressive stats about their graduates’ careers, offer flexible schedules, and often rank among the top schools in the country.
American University’s strategic communications program is a great pick for those looking to specialize in a range of socially focused areas. Students study in the heart of D.C. and work with top journalists, politicians, and experienced communicators from a range of fields. An impressive 95 percent of graduates from this program are either working or pursuing additional education at least six months after graduation.
Butler University offers both online and in-person formats to strategic communicators. The program’s curriculum blends its marketing and communication topics to provide updated trends and ethical practices for connecting with the public. Graduates go on to work in media, nonprofit, social, and media organizations, with median 2020 incomes ranging over $125,000 a year.
One of the most competitive programs on our list, Columbia offers an MS in strategic communications both to traditional full-time and part-time students as well as current executives. In addition to a highly customizable curriculum, Columbia students finish their studies with a capstone project with an organization in their field. The school also boasts an international alumni network, graduate-level internship program, and access to their Career Design Lab.
Ranked as one of the top 100 national universities, the University of Oregon offers a 48-credit master’s in strategic communications with online coursework for working professionals. The school tuition for both in and out-of-state residents as well as federal financial aid opportunities. Recent graduates have gone on to win top communications awards for their work at companies like Delta Airlines and the NBA.
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