Strategic Communication M.A. program celebrates five years
It was 1997 and University of Minnesota leadership anticipated the seismic shift in communications, targeting new media as one of five academic initiatives for institutional investment.
By Jen Keavy
The Professional M.A. in Strategic Communication program faculty. From left to right: John Rash, adjunct instructor and editorial board member, Star Tribune; John Eighmey, Mithun chair of advertising and academic director; Heather LaMarre, assistant professor; Gordon Leighton, lecturer and program coordinator; Michelle Wood, adjunct instructor; and Steve Wehrenberg, adjunct instructor and chief executive officer, Campbell Mithun.
(Photo: Tim Rummelhoff)
Power of the cohort model Unlike other academic graduate programs, the master's degree program in strategic communication draws a finite number of working professionals. Every fall, a new cohort of 20 students begins the rigorous and structured two-year academic program while maintaining their full-time jobs.
Everyone involved in the program agrees that the cohort model is integral to students' success and the program's accessibility and sustainability. "We thought the cohort model would be important in terms of a support structure and in terms of enrichment, since they all bring their own personal experiences to the program as well," Eighmey says. In fact, Eighmey and Leighton agree that the biggest surprise of the program has been the extent to which the cohort model has been powerful. Leighton adds, "We really underestimated how important that would be and what it adds to the effectiveness of their education."
Alumni of the program agree as well. Liz Bogut, who graduated with the second cohort in 2008 and works as chief of staff for the Saint Paul Chamber of Commerce, says that the cohort model was one of the keys to her success in the program. "You meet twice a week for two years and really get to know the people in your cohort," she remarks. "You learn to rely on them not only to be your study partners, but as professional colleagues. ... I can't say enough about the benefits of the cohort model, especially as a working professional."
When the SJMC launched the program, it expected to draw a large number of students from the advertising and public relations agencies in town. "The diversity of the cohort really surprised us," Eighmey says. "In the beginning, we expected the agency types would beat a path to our door, and while we've had several professionals from that industry, the diversity of the cohort has really been key to the program's success."
With one look at the program's alumni roster, that diversity of professional backgrounds is evident. The range of careers among the students includes communications managers for 3M and Medtronic; media sales professionals for the Star Tribune and Compass Point Media; Web developer for Wells Fargo; senior account manager for Periscope; communications specialist for Best Buy; and admissions counselor, development officer and marketing coordinator for various University of Minnesota colleges and departments.
Eighmey says this variety reflects the dynamics of the communications industry and the misimpression that all things communications-related exist in the agency realm. He describes it as a "wake-up call" to the extent to which communications functions are critical in every kind of organizational structure.
This range of professional backgrounds and interests, in addition to the diversity in age, race and gender, adds depth to students' classroom experience. Chris Campbell, an account manager with Fallon and a member of the second cohort, says collaborating and interfacing with different types of communications professionals gave him new perspective that was applicable to his job. "I'm an ad guy, but I work with a lot of PR people," he says. "Having gone through the program and worked with people from varying backgrounds, I can bridge things better."
Engaging Professionals, Engaging the Community
In 2007, Eighmey and Leighton established an advisory panel for the program consisting of accomplished Twin Cities communications professionals and alumni from each cohort. Leighton says the panel has proved invaluable. "They are a source of perspective for us and give us critical advice about how we could improve what we're doing or add new things to build and extend the program." He adds that panel members serve as "ombudsmen," helping to get out information about the program to their constituents and helping students find career opportunities. One of those advisory panel members, Mary Meehan, executive vice president and co-founder of Twin Cities global consumer research firm Iconoculture Inc., has employed a few of the program's graduates. She says of the program, "In a short five years, the program has graduated students who are well-equipped to tackle business issues, enhancing employers and colleagues with up-to-date skills and perspective."
The inaugural cohort of the Professional M.A. in Strategic Communication at commencement ceremonies in May, 2007.Since the program's inception, engaging the Twin Cities professional community has been top priority. Eighmey says the program's involvement with the community is twofold: It strengthens both the communications work force and the organizations whose employees complete the program. "The benefit is to the individuals and to the organizations in which they work," Eighmey says. "The students become stronger critical thinkers, are more engaged in the work of the organization and become individual impellers that help their companies and organizations move forward." Students in the program are engaged in the current problems facing communications professionals today and creating solutions for tomorrow. As brand communications and management become more complex with the explosion of electronic media platforms and the mobility of those platforms, communications professionals have to be nimble in their approach, developing communication strategies that speak to their organizations' myriad audiences and employ the communications vehicles those audiences use. A member of the third cohort, Michael Schommer, communications director for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, says the program helped him understand his audiences and what he needs to do to reach them effectively. Schommer specifically mentions Jour 5251, Psychology of Advertising, a supporting course in the program's curriculum, which focuses on underlying psychological theories and research that can explain how advertising affects people and examines methods for evaluating the effects of advertising and promotional communications.
"As a communicator," says Schommer. "you need to get at what you are trying to do when you motivate the audience to change their behavior. It's not enough to change their opinion--you have to help them overcome the barriers to change the behavior. ... Working in government, we have a lot of cases where we're trying to get people to change behavior." Schommer points to the work he does with food safety. "We give people a lot of information regarding food safety and expect them to do the right thing with that information. ... We need to deal with our approach in a more strategic way and really find ways to help them change their patterns," he says.
Jenny Max, also a member of the third cohort, concurs. Max is assistant manager, promotion marketing, for General Mills' snacks division. "Really understanding your consumer and how to best deliver the message is vitally important to a brand's success," she says. "It's so much more than the message--it's about how it's delivered, how your audience reacts to it--the whole exchange is critical."
From communicators to leaders
While some students' employers pay for part of the cost of the program, most of the students make their own financial sacrifices to participate. Eighmey says that it requires a financial and personal balancing act, and it's important to realize that these students see the value of their education and are willing to pay for it themselves. "These students want this," he says. "They want it and they stick with it. Since 2005, we've had only four students drop out of the more than 100 who have enrolled."
Eighmey says that the admissions process also has a lot to do with the success of the program. Applicants go through a competitive screening process, and the process is selective. Leighton adds, "Every fall, we know we've got 20 people who will be able to succeed in the program and are wholeheartedly committed to getting the most out of it."
When students leave the program, faculty and professionals alike say, they are clearly changed. They are smarter, have stronger analytical skills, are more confident and act as leaders, not just as communications professionals.
Advisory panel member Judy Kessel, president and founder of StoneArch Creative, says, "Strategic insight helps balance the science and art in the communications business. This program turns out students that can think deeper and broader to keep up with all of the changes we face in our business, especially now."
For Michael Hemmesch, director of media relations at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., and member of the second cohort, his role evolved while he was in the program. "I've been able to expand my responsibilities from just a media relations role to a more strategic, internal communications-type position," he says. "I've done some writing for the University's president, worked on some strategic advertising campaigns for the admissions office, and overall become more involved in some of the strategic decision making on campus." Hemmesch's capstone project was a comprehensive internal communications plan for St. John's, and he says he continues to follow elements of that plan today.
A member of the third cohort, Cecilia Mische, a senior communications specialist for Allianz Life, received a promotion a few months into the program. She says that her supervisors were supportive of her studies and soon recognized how the program was strengthening not just her communication skills but also her leadership capabilities. "As I went through the program and upon graduation, my supervisors saw something change in me," she says. "They have given me lots of opportunities to continue to grow and develop as a professional and have celebrated my newfound skills."
Liz Bogut agrees: "I think the program elevated me from a communications professional to part of the strategic management team in my office." She adds that people view her in a different light. "I was able to take the things I had learned and apply them in my job on a daily basis," she says. Bogut's colleagues remarked that no one in her role previously had thought strategically about communications the way that she did. "I had colleagues tell me that I raised the profile of the position and the role of communications in the organization. And that was definitely due in part to what I learned in the program," she says.
Schommer shares a similar experience. "I've really moved beyond the tactics and skills and have gotten to a point where the communications function is part of the management function of the organization." He says that instead of just "putting out fires," he's helping the Minnesota Department of Agriculture move toward realizing its goals.
Since 2005, the program has generated nearly 100 graduates for the Twin Cities market. In 10 years, that number will be 200--who will have an even greater impact on the communications profession in the region. Strategic communications and public relations consultant Margaret Ann Hennen, APR, Fellow PRSA, says, "This program changes public relations practitioners. It not only expands their knowledge, it hones their thinking skills by blending theory and practical application. They become strategists who help their organizations succeed. I can't wait to see their influence over time."