What to Expect as a Strategic Communication Master's Student: Q&A with Donna Davis

The Strategic Communications Master’s program through the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication in Portland is an accelerator for communication professionals looking for a higher level of insight and performance in their careers, for a seat at the leadership table or to grow their company’s presence and influence.

This series of questions with associate professor and program director Donna Davis is designed to help you evaluate if a master’s degree in strategic communication is a good option for you and if it would be the right booster for your career. As the director of the program, she is a passionate advocate for professionals interested in increasing their strategic communication skills, and she knows the difference this degree can make for companies and for individuals’ careers. She also shares special features to look for in a master’s program and the kinds of skills you are likely to build with a strategic communication master’s degree.

Watch the full video Q&A with Donna Davis

What is strategic communication?

Strategic communication is the combination of all things communication, such as public relations, advertising, marketing, social media and immersive media. It’s all the tools and strategies we use to communicate, outside of journalism.

While journalists produce stories, strategic communication professionals are also often storytellers who use all communication tools to build brands, experiences, communities and more — all through a strategic focus. You start with knowing who your audience is, who your organization is, what your objectives are as an organization, and then how to build strategy and content that will reach the audience to achieve what you need to achieve in a very strategic and measurable way. This way you know what you're doing is creating the effect that you want from communication.

How do you get into strategic communication as a career?

The students who come to our program are looking at a number of different things because they're primarily midcareer, working professionals. These are people who've been in the business for a while and realize that the world around them is moving in ways that they can't keep up with. They come to a master's program to elevate their game, to gain more skills, to do a deep dive into understanding how and why strategic communication works. Or they've been in a different career field, and they really want to pivot into strategic communication.

You can get into strategic communication whether you want to be in the agency world, government, advocacy or industry. Everybody needs strategic communication, which is one of the other wonderful and fun things about it.

What kind of person is best suited to strategic communication?

I think to be a great strategic communicator, there are a couple of important qualities. One is being a good writer. The women who started our strategic communication program used to refer to it as an MBA without the pesky math. So instead of working with numbers, you're working with words.

Additionally, an ability for strategic thinking and critical thinking. I cannot tell you how many times I've had students ask me for a template or a rubric. You are never going to ask your boss, what's the template? A strategic communicator can critically analyze the situation, understand where you want to go and then be able to process and think strategically through goals, objectives, strategies and tactics that are going to help you reach your target. They are often the ones building the template!

Some people would say a good emotional intelligence (EQ) is helpful. If you have empathy and an understanding of who is your target audience and where they are coming from, it can help you know how to communicate with them, especially if you’re hoping to change their behavior, awareness or understanding.

Why is a master's degree in strategic communication important?

A master’s degree helps our students change the way they think about communication and the way they approach communication. From day one of being in the School of Journalism and Communication’s program, I tell students to always start with why. I want them to really try to understand why they are doing what they’re doing. Why will it work? Why might it not work? Why would an audience respond to it? A master's or graduate degree really helps communication professionals build the skills that help them think critically and help them think through the why of the work they’re doing.

In a communication career you have to stay on top of the industry, understand developments, understand the technology, understand your audiences. A graduate degree is one way professionals do that.

Increasingly we’re seeing that at a management-level position, one of the minimum requirements of those jobs is a master’s degree. The strategic communication master’s degree is brilliant and gives our graduate students a solid foundation that’s also broad. They gain skills they can take into almost any kind of position.

What can you do with a strategic communication master’s degree?

The kinds of jobs you can get with a strategic communication master’s degree vary broadly, which is the fun part about a strategic communication degree and career. We have students who go into positions in social media or community relations. Our graduates have job titles such as media relations director and community relations director. You could be a chief metaverse officer. In an agency, titles include account executive and account director.

If you think about all the jobs in public relations and advertising, a graduate degree builds out a portfolio so you’re ready to level up. When you finish with a graduate degree, you’re ready to step into more of a management and strategic thinking position and be a leader in the work you do.

How do you get a job in strategic communication?

I think the most important thing that anybody can do to help them find a job in strategic communication is networking. Students have a network of peers they develop while they’re in this program, not only with the students in your cohort, but with the faculty and with the many people that we bring into the classroom. We encourage students to get involved in professional organizations. SOJC Portland’s strategic communications program also has a Strategic Communication Leadership Network.

It's stunning if you look at the statistics on how many people get a job from responding to an ad versus getting a job because they knew somebody there. So having a network is probably the most important way to get the job of your choice.

And one of the other things about getting a strategic communication master’s degree from the University of Oregon is you become part of that broader Duck family where people throw the “O.” That brand is identifiable and powerful. And people always say, now I walk anywhere in the world and if people see an Oregon hat or jersey, you get a “Go Ducks!” The Duck family is large, global, deep and passionate about sharing that community and that affinity for the university that we represent.

What makes a good strategic communication program?

As people are looking for a strategic communication master’s program, they should start with:

  • What is the curriculum?
  • How long does it take?
  • Who are their faculty?
  • Are you getting courses that are going to give you the skills you need to go out and get the job of your dreams?
  • What kind of network will you build?
  • Who are the people that will be teaching you, and what is their background? They might be experts in the communication field as somebody in academia, but do they also have communication faculty that have worked in the industry and can give them what's happening in the world right now?
  • What is their graduate placement track record?

What does the SOJC Portland Strategic Communication Master's program do really well?

The SOJC Portland Strategic Communication Master’s program is unique and exciting for several reasons.

One is we have a curriculum that is ever evolving. We brought together a Strategic Communication Leadership Network that are the top communicators of the organizations that they represent, such as the executive vice president and chief communications officers of Microsoft, Nike, Columbia Sportswear, multiple agencies such as WE Communications and Edelman. We also have government agencies, such as the Port of Portland. This network of people meets twice a year to review our curriculum with us and do a deep dive into a specific class. From that group we developed the syllabus and outline of the ethics class that we now offer based on the ethical issues that those professionals are facing right now. We’re thinking three to five years out, asking what are the things we need to be thinking about that are going to challenge us, and how do we prepare for those today or even just be thinking about those?

Having access to that Leadership Network is another incredible superpower of our program. We've had several of our students get hired by those people because they know what we're giving our students. When I met with them and said, this is what I want to do, I said, “I want you all to fight for our graduates. If I can have you all wanting our grads, I know that our grads will be very employable.”

We're nestled in the Silicon Forest in Portland, Oregon, which is a magical city, and the tech industry is very powerful here. The creative industry is just unsurpassed. The creator and maker culture of this region is really wonderful, and we tap into that community for instructors for our courses. While students have faculty from the University of Oregon teaching them, they also had the executive vice president of communications for one of the largest healthcare companies teaching our Management and Leadership class. We had another one of our Leadership Network members teaching a Social Change Campaigns class, with a focus on social change and public interest communication. We have the industry’s top people teaching classes that are based on what's happening right now. We work really hard to make sure that we are actively engaged with industry, with industry leadership, and that we know what industry wants of our graduates.

Our students are often drawn to us because of the vibe of Portland, Oregon. The heartbeat of the people that live here and around here is that they are passionate about social change. They're passionate about innovation. They're passionate about ethics and responsibility. They're passionate about diversity, equity and inclusion.

How is the SOJC Portland Strategic Communication Master’s program preparing its graduates to communicate about diversity, equity and inclusion?

When we're thinking from a diversity, equity and inclusion perspective, we're always going to be better communicators. Companies and organizations are grappling with this. As strategic communicators, how do we help them create a narrative and then follow it up with policy and behavior that backs up what a company says they want to be? That's core to what we need, and it should be automatically included in what we think and do. We want our students to always be thinking about it from the perspective of another. We teach our students how to do the work as communicators that can help the organizations we work for be more diverse, equitable and inclusive.