Potential students often ask how a master’s degree in strategic communication differs from a degree in more traditional disciplines like public relations or advertising. Strategic communication is a term that has been increasingly used to describe academic programs of study over the last decade; as any new phenomenon, it continues to evolve. In this post, I share some background and information about the origins, nature, and value of a master’s degree in strategic communication.
Origin and Definition of Strategic Communication as an Academic Field
Although impossible to determine the true “origin” of an academic discipline, one major step in its establishment is the launch of a journal to share and make its scholarship public. The first academic journal dedicated to strategic communication was launched in 2007 -- the International Journal of Strategic Communication. A seminal piece in the journal’s first issue described strategic communication as “the purposeful use of communication by an organization to fulfill its mission”(1). More recent definitions use the term “communication entities” in place of organizations to make clear that strategic communication can include the study of purposive communication by a wide range of parties, including corporations, nonprofits, government agencies, politicians, and celebrities(2).
The driving force for encouraging the growth of strategic communication as a discipline was the realization that there is a core body of knowledge that is common to goal-oriented communication efforts across a variety of practice areas, such as public relations, advertising, health communication, social marketing, crisis communication, political communication, and public diplomacy. It is for this reason, that some universities in the U.S. have recently begun to combine and offer formerly separate communication degrees under the larger umbrella of strategic communication (3).
Goals of Strategic Communication
Strategic communication efforts share the common goal of changing target audiences’ knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors to achieve some desired outcome – whether that be enticing customers to purchase a product, improving a celebrity’s reputation with the public, encouraging individuals to engage in a new health behavior, getting out the vote for a political candidate, or persuading policymakers to support funding for a new initiative. Although each communication campaign has its own unique, contextual factors to consider, focusing a degree on the higher-level concepts and strategies that cut across all these types of efforts encourages the type of flexible thinking needed in today’s media environment, which requires practitioners who can design, manage, and launch communication campaigns that integrate a variety of public relations, advertising, and marketing techniques.
Strength & Versatility of a Master’s Degree in Strategic Communication
I’m a strong component of the strategic communication degree due to its strength and versatility. We’ve seen graduates of American University's MA in Strategic Communication program successfully move on to a variety of fulfilling careers applying the strategic communication principles and skills they learned to careers that run the gamut from business, government, and politics to entertainment, health, and social justice.
1 Hallahan, K., Holtzhausen, D., van Ruler, B., Verčič, D., & Sriramesh, K. (2007). Defining strategic communication. International Journal of Strategic Communication, 1(1), 3-35. doi: 10.1080/15531180701285244
2 Holtzhausen, D. & Zerfass, A. (2015). Strategic communication: Opportunities and challenges of the research area. In D. Holtzhausen & A. Zerfass (Eds.), Routledge Handbook of Strategic Communication. New York, NY: Routledge.
3 Holtzhausen, D. & Zerfass, A. (2015). Strategic communication: Opportunities and challenges of the research area. In D. Holtzhausen & A. Zerfass (Eds.), Routledge Handbook of Strategic Communication. New York, NY: Routledge.