Communications & Public Relations

What Is Strategic Communications?

What Is Strategic Communications?
Strategic Communications: "It’s the difference between doing communications stuff, and doing the right communications stuff." Image from Pexels
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Lucy Davies December 16, 2021

All public-facing companies, government agencies, and nonprofits need to employ strategic communications experts to get the right message out to the right audience. But what exactly is the field of strategic communications?

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In business, communication is key, but using the right communication strategies to effectively convey your message is what greases the lock. Whether your outreach is designed for internal communication with your employees or external communication with the public, the strategies you design and employ matter greatly when it comes to reaching your target audience.

What is strategic communications?

Strategic communications is a term used to describe various professional communication roles, including corporate communication, internal and external messaging, public relations work, government-led crisis communications, marketing campaigns, and digital media.

Several attributes define an effective communication plan; research and execution of these attributes can be critical to the success of a campaign. Relying on a strong social media following or assuming your employees are a captive audience won’t necessarily reward your communication efforts. Instead, you need a well-developed communication strategy plan that includes:

  • A clear purpose
  • A researched target audience
  • Defined communication channels
  • Strategized timing
  • A professional communications strategist to deliver the message

Career paths in strategic communications

Because the purposeful use of communication benefits both big and small groups and organizations, strategic communications career paths lead in many directions: towards journalism, politics, advertising, media management, higher education, and nonprofit organizations, to name a few. Depending on your interests, you’ll find challenges that reach far beyond writing press releases. You’ll also employ metrics and theory to reach stakeholders, employees, and anyone else in your target audience.

Which industries are hiring strategic communications professionals?

Effective and targeted communication is invaluable in any industry, but in some it is critical. Political communication in the age of pandemics and conspiracy theories has become vital to public health. Educators need strong communication strategies to reach students, parents, and teachers with cohesive and forward-thinking initiatives. And, of course, marketing and public relations in business mean communicating within the corporate structure to ensure employee engagement and in outreach efforts to sell merchandise and services for profit.

What are the top strategic communications jobs in each field (and how much do they pay)?

The widespread need for capable strategic communications professionals translates into many opportunities in this field. At the top sit human resources managers and directors, who may earn salaries from about $143,000 to $184,000, depending on their level of education. Public relations directors can make between $130,00 and $169,000, depending on education level, skill set, and years of experience.

Then there are careers in journalism, which are vast and vary greatly in pay, depending on the medium. You also may find work as a social media manager, which either enables you to spend your day following media trends or simply too much time online. These careers may be full-time or in the gig-economy; pay may be specific to the medium or industry in which you work.

What is a master’s in strategic communications?

When you want to get your message across, strategy is everything. According to Shayna Englin, Georgetown professor of public relations and corporate communications, “being strategic means communicating the best message, through the right channels, measured against well-considered organizational and communications-specific goals. It’s the difference between doing communications stuff, and doing the right communications stuff.”

A master’s in strategic communications will help you to achieve just that. You’ll learn theories and models of persuasive communication and explore related law and ethics as well as strategic marketing, reputation management, public relations, and branding. Most programs terminate in a capstone project that requires you to put theory into practice.

Who enrolls in this degree program and why?

Earning a master’s in strategic communications allows those already in the marketing communications and media relations industries to further their career goals or move further up the pay scale. While a master’s degree is not a requirement for many positions in media strategy and organizational communication, it may be necessary for the top positions in the business. As an added credential on your resume, it undoubtedly can provide an edge over job candidates with less formal training.

Students with an undergraduate degree in political science or who are looking to work in advertising, marketing, or human resources might decide to move directly on to a master’s in strategic communications.

Admission requirements/prerequisites

As with any master’s degree program, admissions requirements vary among schools, but many have similar general requirements. You’ll likely need to complete an application that includes all the usual supplemental material such as transcripts and a resume.

A statement of purpose is another important piece of your application that allows admissions directors to hear from you directly not only about your interest in their master’s program, but also how well you communicate and use the skills acquired from your previous studies and work experience. Take this as an opportunity to show your written communication strengths.

Previous work may need to be outlined too, as the admissions team will want to hear what experience you bring. You’ll want to leverage those previous work connections to provide two or more letters of recommendation. Letters of recommendation are important; admissions officers want to see that someone else has been impressed by your work or your potential.

You’ll need to research each program for specifics on whether they require standardized tests like the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE)or Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) and what scoring minimums they require.


Much like admissions requirements, curricula vary among programs. That said, some classes are typical across programs.

Most program teach the principles of communication theory, examining the roles of research and the impact of public opinion, and how message development is critical in designing communication campaigns. Classes in communications theory examine human communication in the context of groups and organizations, media, mass communication, and public speaking.
In addition, coursework in ethics, speechwriting, grassroots digital advocacy, digital media literacy and skills, crisis communication, and political communication are commonly populate master’s in strategic communications course listings.


Master’s in strategic communications programs offer a number of specializations, including sports, politics, social media, and advertising. Studnents can also specialize in specific areas such as social change, multicultural media campaigns, reputation management, or nonprofit communications.

Top strategic communications master’s programs

Several school offer outstanding strategic communications master’s programs. The best one for you is likely the one most closely tailored to your specific interests, focus, and preferred location.

American University is located in Washington, DC, “the epicenter of national political and social movements.” DC provides access to a “diverse, dynamic faculty of accomplished writers, documentarians, correspondents, PR experts, politicians, and social change advocates” who “teach you to grasp a communication challenge and create a strategy to address it; to target an audience; to create a compelling message; to write persuasively; to advocate in a changing digital media world.”

At Columbia University, a different set of influences predominate: the commercial and financial giant that is New York. Most students complete the program in 16 months (with or without a summer practicum, i.e., a graduate level internship). An accelerated 12-month degree program omits the practicum.

Online and hybrid options

Both American University and Columbia University offer online, hybrid, and accelerated options too, in case you are not in a position to move to Washington, DC or NYC.

But there are a number of other great online options too, each one with the flexibility that online programs offer. Butler University offers an online master’s in strategic communication in which students take one seven-week course at a time. This program offers “a rigorous yet flexible curriculum through a merger of theory and practice” stressing “real-time application of a broad range of communication skills.”

Fairfield University also offers an online strategic communications master’s ‘ with state-of-the-art tech, an unmatched alumni network, and faculty and staff who strive to meet learners where they are, Fairfield makes studying online all about connection and flexibility.”

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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