Online Student Experience

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During this webinar, Larry Parnell and our student panelists provide in-depth information about The George Washington University’s Strategic Public Relations Master’s Program, a look at the online learning experience, the unique perspective of a student enrolled in the online program, and answers to audience questions regarding admissions requirements and funding options.


Angela: Your presenters today are Larry Parnell and Elizabeth Alouche. Larry Parnell is the Associate Professor and Program Director of the The George Washington University’s Master of Professional Studies in Strategic Public Relations program. Larry has held senior communication positions in consulting, on the client side and in politics. He was more recently VP and group leader of the corporate communications practice at Hill and Knowlton Canada. He also maintains a small consulting business called Bench Strength Communications, which specializes in strategy, advocacy and issues management. In December 2009, Larry was one of six recipients inducted into the Hall of Fame by PR News.

We also have Elizabeth Alouche, Enrollment Advisor on board to answer any of your admissions questions. Elizabeth has been part of the online admissions team for the Master’s Program in Strategic Public Relations for the last year. She enjoys assisting people in achieving their educational and professional goals. Okay, Larry. It’s over to you to begin the presentation.

Larry Parnell: Thank you and good afternoon, everybody. Just to quickly walk through the agenda of what we’re going to cover today … and there are a number of slides, I’ll try and be brief and, again, look forward to your questions … we’ll talk about online learning, brag a bit about our faculty, we’re very proud of them, talk about our students, what their needs and objectives are and how they’re doing so far. Cover for you how the support team works, both at online and here at GW. And then walk through the program, the courses and a little background about George Washington University. So that covers that slide, if you would please advance.

Our experience to date with the online learning program is that it has a lot of flexibility, not the least of which is any students interested in getting a Master’s Degree in Strategic Public Relations from a recognized leading university like GW but unable to move to Washington, DC to do it. This brings that school to you. That is probably the primary benefit of this.

But once you’re in the program we have a very flexible system where students are able to check in whatever time works for them in terms of their busy schedules, on a 24 hour a day, 7 day a week basis. You find that you are working with both experienced faculty, which I’ll talk about in a few minutes, as well as people like yourself with good backgrounds and experience, looking to fine tune their skills and move forward in their careers. And that connection is a very valuable thing, both during the program and after, we’re finding. The ability to interact with your colleagues, and the professors and myself is always there, given the nature of the medium. And the curriculum is very timely and current. So we’re very pleased with the program to date.

As I mentioned, we’re very proud of our faculty. I tell people that one of the benefits of distance learning, it works both ways, it’s also convenient for our faculty. There are many people who I’ve worked with over my career who would be very interested in teaching at George Washington University but are they somewhere else. And so I’m able through this program to bring in people from very senior positions at major corporations, such as Coca-Cola, ITT, FedEx, et cetera who are people I know and have worked with in the past to be instructors because they don’t have to move to DC either. And that’s worked out very well in our favour.

We also have training programs to make sure they’re effective, as communicators and educators. And then the system we’ve set up with the online facilitators work with the instructors to help you in your week-by-week activities are very well grounded. In many cases, we’re getting now alums of the program, we’re able to work with students and relate their experience to it. So we bring the expertise of practical, knowledgeable professionals who may not necessarily be in Washington, DC to a body of students who have the same situation, they’re not in DC but they want to get a good program like we offer.

Our students, you know, we’re very pleased at the success we’re having. This is a quote from one our recent graduates, Aaron, as I mentioned is one of those students who soon after he finished the program became an online facilitator working with our professors. So he’s able on a peer-to-peer basis to help [phone beeps] students work with their way through system issues, and understanding the assignments and being available to consult with. And he’s been a very star for us and we’re very, very proud of him and very pleased that he thinks so highly about our program.

Support team, both at GW and online, is a very valuable part of this program. You’ll hear from our admissions and student services people shortly. And I mentioned already the role of the facilitator who works with the SME, subject matter expert in our larger classes to provide support and assistance to you. The faculty, as I mentioned, we’re very proud of them. We bring in very highly placed people with great experience. And there’s a technical support team that takes care of the inevitable problems that occur in an online environment and they’re very adept at doing that.

So what does all this lead to. I mean, it’s an investment you’re considering making. You need to be sure that it’s going to do something for you. We’ve done some recent surveys, which are described here. I’ll also tell you that as part of one of our student’s assignments, about a year ago now, we … her capstone program was studying the value of an advanced degree in the communications marketplace. And we did a study of head hunters, recruiters and hiring managers at major agencies and corporations and asked them their views about an advanced degree in communications in particular.

And while their tendency still is for an MBA or a law degree to be more familiar to them, what they’ve told us is that, progressively, students with an advanced degree in communications are … in an even situation, that could be a difference maker in getting the job because it indicates a commitment to the profession and a commitment to learning and self-development that someone who hasn’t had time or inclination to get a master’s degree previously doesn’t have. So we’re very pleased that we’re getting good response in the marketplace, especially in the current economy, there is a value being placed on candidates with advanced degrees in communications.

You can read the results of the study here. I’ll need to get them to you but the bottom line is students are seeing immediate results. One of the most gratifying things we find is that students will tell me that they’re able to take the lessons learned in class on one given week and apply them on a real-time basis in their daily work. So we know that there’s value there.

Also, as I mentioned before, the value of who you are in class with, if you will, virtually, is very, very important. The network that we are building up over the past couple of years is becoming very, very powerful in terms of working with each other and offering career advice, job leads, references, all those kinds of things that you go to a networking event for. So in addition to getting a really good education, a good grounding in current trends and practices in public relations you’re also connecting with people. The kind of titles you see here are people that either you would like to aspire to be or you currently are and you can treat them as peers and learn more from them. We hear this from students all the time, the value of the teams that form and the networks that get setup, and I’ve seen it now that we’ve had a couple of rounds of graduates, where the students are looking after each other and keeping in touch.

Our expectation is that with the degree, when you complete the program, you know, we are … we are assessment based, we are outcome based and we want you to know what it is you can expect to be able to do when you finish the program. For most of our students we find that they have a deeper, broader understanding of the field and that issues that impact it. They may have knowledge, for example, about media relations but not be adept in issues management. They may have some awareness of new media but not really know how to use it and implement it in a program, et cetera. We find that the confidence that the advanced degree and the training we provide creates for our students makes you that much more confident in your day-to-day work with your clients and your executives. It’s very valuable to be able to say, “Well, in my master’s classes at GW we learned the following and I think that applies here.” There’s an element of stability that indicates to people, it’s not just something you’re pulling out of the air.

And, in many cases, there are people that are looking at a career change and they go into this field and this program helps them make that transition, or there are some who after a fairly long career want to get a master’s degree so they can eventually teach communications at the university level.

So an overview of the program is detailed here. I think the key really is that the focus of our program is really on the notion that there is a connection between public policy, business trends, political reality and the news media. And we try to create a situation and produce graduates who understand that connection, that nexus and can give advice and counsel to their clients, or companies or political candidates, if that’s what you’re involved in, that reflects this grounding.

We look at ways to capture public attention and to shape public policy. And it’s relevant, we feel, for anyone. It’s not just people who are worried or interested in politics. We think you have to understand politics to be good at this profession. But if you are not interested in running a campaign that does not mean this program does not have stuff to offer you. And that’s a very important consideration that we’d like to emphasize. Next, please.
So what are the courses. Well, they’re described here. And I am a professor of a few of these. And we are always looking at the curriculum and making changes to it. For example, you know, we have a basic couple of courses that are described here. We cover both the principals and practice of PR, writing is very important in our program, it’s stressed throughout. No matter how good a writer you are, you can always be better. We focus on the media relations environment. That’s one of the courses I teach, and specifically how new media’s changing this. At the same time, understanding that the core challenge is still to have a good story to deliver to the right audience to get the right outcome.

Ethics is another underpinning of our program and we have a course dedicated to that. We cover marketing communications, we cover research, we cover issues management, we cover grassroots, which is a political term but has to do with public opinion. And we talk also about the … how politics and social trends affect PR. That’s another course where you get some basic understanding of how all this stuff interrelates and how you can give advice.

Then the program completes with a capstone project, which is designed to apply all of the activities you’ve done to date. This typically takes our students about two years to complete. And these capstone projects are done in an online environment, virtually, where we set up teams and you tackle a real-life problem. We have one going on right now, for example. I’ll be happy to chat about that if you have questions.

Don’t have to spend much time about George Washington University. It’s certainly well known worldwide. It is based in Washington, DC. It has a great experience and a great tradition. And we are leveraging that brand and that knowledge of what goes on in Washington, putting it into a public relations environment and bringing it to you potentially online so that you can get the benefit of this experience without necessarily having to be in Washington, DC.

We do, at the end of the program, have an optional residency component where our capstone students can come to Washington, spend a couple of days working in teams with our on-campus capstone students and do peer review as their final project, meet some of faculty, our network of alumni, which in Washington, DC, as you might imagine, is pretty good. There are fourteen members of congress who are GW alums, for example, and countless numbers of people on their staff. And they’re always at the school and participate in these networking programs, help our students and their colleagues who are students become better at their jobs.

So I have covered what I wanted to cover. I think there’s some slides coming up, my colleague’s going to speak and I’m happy to get your questions as you have time.

Elizabeth Alouche: In front of you here you’ll see the admissions requirements. What you will see here, one thing I did want to touch on is where you’ll see a little bit lower in the slide three or more years relevant full-time professional work experience or official results for the GRE general exam. I just did want to clarify that. What we’re looking for, for those individuals that do have three or more years managerial experience in PR or related field and have a 3.0 GPA in their undergrad qualify to apply for a GRE waiver. So it is an actual application process that is separate from the actual admissions application. And your admissions advisor would walk you through that.

The role as the admissions advisors here, of course, we will assist you with any questions you have and help you determine whether or not this program is the right fit for you. We will compile all documents required for your application as well as assist you in locating any documents as well. And we also would get together your GRE waiver application, present that to the admissions committee and they will review that and make their decision.

For those that do not have three years managerial experience in public relations or related fields, would then be required to write the GRE exam. And our required score for the GRE exam is for to score above thirtieth percentile in each section.

Now, with approval from the admissions committee you are able to transfer up to nine credits for relevant course work. So what you would be doing is if you’ve taken any master’s level courses that are related to the courses that we offer in this program you would write out a statement of some sort and send it over to me. A syllabus would be beneficial for us to look at the courses that you were taken … or have taken, excuse me. And then I would forward that over to the admissions committee so they can take a look at that and determine whether or not you are able to transfer any credits. So you are able to transfer up to nine. And, again, you would have to take the courses up to … from up to two years.

Now, there is … there are a couple of options for financial aid. Firstly, of course, there is employer reimbursement or possible tuition assistance. It depends on your employer. Your next step and the best course of action at that point would be to contact your human resources department or your personnel office, let them know what’s available by informing them, of course, how you feel that this degree would definitely enhance your organization and your skills as an individual. So that’s something you can research on your own.

Alternately, there is Federal Stafford Loan, otherwise known as FAFSA available. And at master’s level they don’t base their decision on your income, or credit or if you own a home, things like that that is traditionally the requirement with any student loans. They do only have three requirements, one, that you’ve never had a drug charge, two, that you’ve never previously defaulted on a federal loan and, three, that you’re an American citizen or permanent resident. So, typically, what we’ve found is as long as you’re falling under those requirements you are able to receive a full tuition loan, including a loan for your books as well. Your admissions advisor would be able to assist you with the process and the components that we require for you to complete your FAFSA application. Thanks.

Angela: Great. Thanks to Larry and Elizabeth for a great presentation. Before we proceed to the first question, please, when you have a chance, complete the poll questions on the right-hand side of your screen in the poll box. Your answers will be used to improve future webinars.
So I’d like to go directly to our first question now. Larry, this question is for you. We have a attendee who has over ten years in the public affairs field and was wondering what and how a Master’s Degree in Strategic Public Relations might do to help further her career and professional development.

Larry Parnell: Well, that’s a good question and we get that fairly often. It really depends on the individual circumstances of what it is you’re currently involved in and what areas you might like to learn more about. We have many people who have ten or fifteen years of experience and they may come into our program because of their desire, as I mentioned before, to get a master’s degree to teach at some point in time. We also have those whose companies will provide additional compensation based on degree level.

But in terms of content it really depends on the circumstances of what the individual’s doing now but there’s probably areas of your game, if you will, that could be refined or improved. And the networking opportunities that this program creates and the brand that you would walk away with, a master’s degree from George Washington University has a lot of currency in the marketplace. So [phone beeps] say specifically without knowing individual’s background, experience and where he or she works but we often find there are new ideas, tactics, techniques, et cetera that you can use.

I think it’s important to emphasize this is not an academic program per se. So we have an academic foundation, and requirements, and papers and grades and all that stuff. This is a practical applied program. So we are looking for people who want to enhance their existing skills or develop new ones and you learn from people who’ve done this or currently doing it now.

Almost all of the faculty … in fact, I would think entirely, as I think about it … are working professionals. I’m the only full-time employee of the program, online or on-campus. All of our instructors are working professionals, doing what it is their teaching the class on. So I think it’s really an element of what you bring and what you want to get out of it that covers the answer to that question.

Angela: Thanks, Larry. The next question is for Elizabeth. The question is, “What is the duration of the program?”

Elizabeth Alouche: The program will be completed in just under 24 months. And what you would be doing is taking one course at a time every six weeks and then you get about a two-week break in between.

Angela: Thanks, Elizabeth. Larry, the next question is for you, “Could you please explain the capstone in more detail?”

Larry Parnell: Sure. The capstone really is sort of, like … think of it as a thesis but it’s not in the traditional sense where it’s a fifty-page research paper that you have to come and defend before a committee. The capstone project is designed to be a situation … let me give examples, that’s the best way to do it.
Our students will look at either their current employer … and this is often the case and beneficial for obvious reasons … a situation, a challenge that’s facing the organization and they will take that upon themselves, with the approval of their supervisor, to design a comprehensive communications solution to that problem.

Here’s a case in point. One of our students was … is still the manager-level person at the cellular telephone industry association, the trade group for all the cell phone companies in the United States. And her capstone project had to do with initiative that the association was moving forward on which had to do with healthcare and specifically mobile healthcare, using mobile phones and mobile devices to monitor people’s health, to report in on blood pressure, to keep track of doctors, to use materials that be sent back and forth between doctors. Yet while it sounds like a wonderful idea there has … there’s challenges around that. There are regulatory issues, there are privacy issues, they are consumer concerns. And she was tasked at her office with coming up with a solution for this.

So that became her capstone. She designed a program that she did research for, she developed a budget, she developed a media relations strategy, she developed an issues management strategy for … she put it all together in a deck, submitted a full paper along with that deck and presented to her board of directors. That was her capstone project and the company is implementing it.

So that is a perfect example of how we try to make a practical application of what you do. We don’t sit around and study the Tylenol case. Instead, we say what is it you’re working on that might apply itself to this class, let’s design a program to do it. The value for that is obvious, your company benefits, you benefit and the program looks good because we’re helping organizations do a better job at communications. I hope that answers your question.

Angela: Thanks, Larry. The next question is for Elizabeth. It’s, “What is the cost of the program?”

Elizabeth Alouche: The tuition for this program is 38,610.00 for the complete two-year program.

Angela: This next question is open to all panelists. It’s, “How many hours a week on average are dedicated to studying for this program?”

Elizabeth Alouche: Larry, is it okay if I address that?

Larry Parnell: Why don’t you start with that, sure.

Elizabeth Alouche: Okay. Approximately, on average, with the students that I’ve spoken to, they’re spending about fifteen hours per week for successful completion of the degree. But, of course, it does vary on the individual but, on average, that’s the number that we have heard.

Larry Parnell: And I would support that. I think … this is graduate school, you are expected to do a lot of reading, you are expected to be involved in weekly discussions with your professors, you are involved in projects. So it is a time commitment but, as I mentioned before, we try to tailor the assignments and the activities to where you might be able to use them in your current work. So it’s not necessarily, you know, just extra work. You may be able to leverage it in the office with your colleagues.

Angela: The next question is for you, Larry. It’s, “Are the students in the program mostly experienced PR professionals or are there a broader range of students?”

Larry Parnell: I would say … there’s a difference really … the online programs tends to skew towards more experienced people, I would say, three to five years PR experience on average, some more, a few less. We don’t have a lot of direct from undergraduate, though there are some? Given the economy, that’s happening a lot.

The on-campus program tends to have more direct from undergraduate or fairly new people to the profession. And so the online environment really … I would even say it’s in the high-end of that five. And but the opportunity is in an academic environment, for someone who doesn’t have as much experience as one of your peers in the program, you learn from them as much as you learn from the professors. So that’s part of the benefit.

Angela: Great. Thank you. The next question is for Elizabeth. It’s, “Do you accept VA and GI bill payments?”

Elizabeth Alouche: Yeah, we do have a Veterans Affairs representative at GW that once you’re speaking with your advisor and going over the information we … I will provide you … or I, myself, if I was your advisor, would provide you the necessary contact information and there’s also a link to Colonial Central that we would send off to you and assist you with that.

Larry Parnell: Let me add to that, if I might.

Elizabeth Alouche: Of course.

Larry Parnell: I’m saying, first of all, that we welcome that. We have many members of the military, or current or retired, so to speak, who are in our program. And that’s one of the benefits of this program, we have individuals who are posted in the Pentagon, or the Washington, DC area or elsewhere in the world and they move around but the online environment allows them to be able to keep up with the program. And they also add a lot to our classes because when we start talking about political issues and business issues that have an impact on the military and vice versa they really inform the discussion. So we’re very much in that favor.

We also as you might … if you see when you check on the website, GW is part of the Yellow Ribbon Program where we provide support and assistance for veterans who are interested in our graduate school program.

Angela: Great. Thank you. The next question is for Elizabeth. It’s, “I’ve been out of school for several years now and I have not kept in touch with any of my professors. Could all three letters of recommendations be professional?”

Elizabeth Alouche: Oh, absolutely. And majority of the students that are coming into the online program are mature students, either well established in their career, looking for personal development or even career advancement and they’ve been out of school for quite some time. So this does come up a lot. Three professional recommendations are fine.

Angela: Perfect. Thank you. The next question is for Larry. It’s, “I’m a former journalist and have no relevant experience in public relations. I am, however, quite familiar with the field. How could a master’s degree help me?”

Larry Parnell: It would depend on what your career goals are but there are a number of people in your situation, both in our on-campus and online program who are former journalists who because of the state of the industry are looking for a way to leverage their communication skills elsewhere. So you would not be alone in that regard.

Certainly, we would welcome you because you’re probably one our better writers and that’s one of our key factors. I started out myself … my undergraduate degree is in journalism. Did that for a period of years, and got into politics and then got into communications. So there’s an understanding and appreciation for what a journalist brings to the program. We would also look forward to your contributions in the Media Relations class on how things work on the other side of the desk. You would not be, by any means, the only person in that situation.

It depends on your goals. If you’re looking to work in a campaign, if you’re looking to work for a company, if you’re looking to work for an organization you would learn certain things that you might not have had in your journalism program and your experience such as, you know, businesses, budgeting of public relations, such as how to do market research to support a public relations program, et cetera, et cetera. So there’s something there for you, no question.

Angela: Great. Thank you, Larry. The next question is for Elizabeth, “When does the program start?”

Elizabeth Alouche: When does the program start, I’m sorry?

Angela: Yes, when –

Elizabeth Alouche: Is that right?

Angela: “When does the program start?”

Elizabeth Alouche: Well, we do have six different start dates. We have two start dates per semester, two in the fall, two in the spring, two in the summer. And we’re currently accepting applications for our summer and fall start date.

Angela: Great. Thank you, Elizabeth. We have a couple of more questions. Larry, this question is for you, “How does this degree differ from a master’s in communication?”

Larry Parnell: It’s pretty much the same. I think the … there are different stripes, if you will, master’s of communication programs. It really depends on the school. Might be more of an academic research based kind of a program leading to a PhD. Our intent is this program, in name and in function, to be strategic and focus on being more effective in your career. So it is career focused as opposed to academic pathway to a PhD focused. And I don’t know that there’s much difference beyond that in terms of semantics, to tell you the truth.

Angela: Great. Thank you, Larry. This is our last question for today’s webinar. It’s, “Is the Master’s in Strategic Public Relations offered online or is it also offered in the classroom?”

Larry Parnell: The answer to that question is, yes, it’s offered in both cases but students can really … should apply to one or the other. It depends on your geography, it depends on your lifestyle. Students are able to make one switch between the two programs but that’s it, you can’t take both. You can’t be a DC-based student taking some classes online, some classes in the classroom. We have people that get transferred out of the Pentagon and they move to our online program in order to accommodate that. So it is in both settings, it’s the exact same degree. There’s no difference in the marketplace, there’s no asterisk next to it that says you took it online at all.

Angela: Great. I wanted to thank Larry and Elizabeth again for taking their time out today for today’s webinar. And I also wanted to thank everyone for participating in today’s live webinar with The George Washington University’s online Master of Professional Studies in Strategic Public Relations. A recording of this webinar will be available on our website in the next few days. And if you have any questions, please call us at 1-888-989-7068. Again, thank you very much and have a great day.