Strategic public relations or communications: Which master’s degree is right for you?

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In today’s ultra-connected world, it’s more important than ever for brands, corporations, nonprofits, public agencies and organizations of all types and sizes to stay in contact with their audiences, as well as have meaningful interactions with their customers and stakeholders. The rise of social media and other technologies has fed a sometimes frenzied 24-hour news cycle and opened new doors for interaction between businesses and the public.

A man sitting at a table and speaking

All of these factors have increased demands for communications and public relations professionals across all types of organizations. The public’s increasing awareness of the social and environmental responsibility of brands has further heightened the value of those professionals most adept at strategizing responses and resonating with audiences.

While much of a publicist or communications director’s experience will be gained on the job, such advanced responsibilities will require the skills and knowledge that can be attained through earning a master’s degree.

There are different degree options, and would-be graduate students must decide which one to pursue. Often, the decision comes down getting a Master of Arts in Communication or a Master’s in Strategic Public Relations. Here’s what you need to know.

Master of Arts in Communication

Earning a communication master’s can prepare students for higher-level positions in a number of areas, including business, journalism, professional writing and public relations. The degree is attractive particularly because it can be applied in a number of settings and across different career paths. The skills learned in such programs can come in handy in a wide variety of professional scenarios.

You may be interested in obtaining a Master of Arts in Communication if you want to:

  • Improve your public speaking or professional presentation skills
  • Sharpen your writing skills to address formal audiences or research institutions
  • Enhance your interpersonal skills to more effectively resonate with listeners or resolve conflict
  • Polish your creative abilities to brainstorm and concept marketing, awareness or outreach campaign ideas more thoroughly

These are only some of the reasons why a student may pursue a communications master’s. Key learning outcomes include demonstrating mastery of:

  • Strategic communication and media theories, as well as ethics
  • Models, methodologies and practical applications of communications
  • Technical writing and rhetorical comprehension
  • Multimedia platforms including video, audio and emerging forums like social media

Graduate communication degrees are widely sought after because of the range of professions that benefit from them. Besides the clear relation to careers in the communications, media and public relations fields (like being a spokesperson for a brand or a communication staffer for a political campaign), a master’s in communications can have value for those in seemingly unconnected jobs. Those professionals may include:

  • Human resource managers, who need to communicate critical company policies and initiatives to employees
  • Educators, who must understand the best strategies for communicating with audiences to ensure learning goals are met
  • Executives or business leaders who can boost their management and engagement skills

In this way, a master’s of communication can be used as a resume booster by professionals outside typical career spheres.

Master’s in Strategic Public Relations  (SPR)

A master’s of communication, however, can sometimes fall short for professionals already deeply interested or embedded in the public relations field. Those students can sense growing opportunity in front of them and desire a focused education that can improve their competency in core PR disciplines. Indeed, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts public relations specialists will see 9 percent job growth between 2016 and 2026, which beats both the average for all occupations and the expectations for media and communications workers.

Students who enroll in an online Master’s in Strategic Public Relations degree can benefit from a high-level program designed to equip them with modern tools to keep pace with and excel in an evolving PR landscape. This is in part achieved by offering coursework that touches on subjects including:

  • Media relations in the new media world
  • Fundamentals of finance and management for PR professionals
  • Sustainability communication strategies
  • Political socialization and public opinion
  • Issues management and crisis communications

Curricula for Master’s in Strategic Public Relations programs are often constructed to offer students a contemporary and enriching experience that ensures they come away with the tools and knowledge to carry out core PR duties in an ever-changing world. The Information Age moves at a fast pace, and the PR world is carried along in that current.

Professionals with a graduate SPR degree can distinguish themselves in the field by deploying learned mechanisms and skills to deftly meet challenges and expectations, producing good outcomes all along the way.

Gaining hard skills aren’t the only impact an online SPR can have for a graduate student. Enrollment in an online program can also open public affairs officers, PR specialists and marketing professionals — among others — to benefits like:

  • A deep and diverse network of peers in different industries and trades to connect with
  • World-class faculty who can impart experience and expertise outside coursework
  • Immersion into the latest technology and trends that define PR and communications at-large

A busy woman working on notes and looking at a phone.

Contact GW for more information

Prospective graduate students don’t just face the choice between a master’s in communications or strategic public relations; they must also decide whether to learn on campus or online. Most professionals seeking these degrees already have full-time jobs and family responsibilities, which makes finding the most suitable program a high priority.

At George Washington University, we’re proud to offer an accredited and 100 percent online Master’s in Strategic Public Relations program. Coursework can be completed when it fits your schedule, and we ensure that you’ll have all the tools and means of support so that you get the most out of your education. Talk to an enrollment advisor today to learn more about our program requirements and other specifics.

The Muse
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics