Your Guide to Organizational Leadership Degrees with a Focus in Strategic Communication

Written by Scott Wilson

strategic communication

There’s no question that communications matter a lot to modern organizations. For some leaders, acting as a conduit for information between different parts and pieces of their organization, or between their organization and the outside world, is most of what they do.

In the Information Age, strategic communication is a vital skill for leaders in all kinds of organizations.

Digital communication has made this process both easier and more fraught. A single email inadvertently copied to the wrong recipient can lead to court cases or marketing disasters. A mis-managed social media post can drop corporate stock value off a cliff.

But past the opportunities for miscommunication that leaders must avoid, the world of strategic communications opens up opportunities for them to excel. The same kinds of trends and patterns in information management that can cause disaster can also create success. A visionary leader can reach more people, more effectively, than ever before.

Putting strong strategic communication skills together with big ideas and well-designed plans leads to big dividends in the world of organizational leadership. So seeking out degrees or certificates to help hone your silver tongue and your understanding of when and where to make your case can be a golden investment for any leader.

How Strategy Turns General Communications Skills Into a Leadership Advantage

discussing business in meetingCommunication can seem like a pretty basic skill, and it is. You use it every day in every business environment to get even the most basic things done. Any kind of team or outside activity requires clarity and directness in either written or spoken communication to get the job done.

But that’s not necessarily strategic communication. Strategy is the process of planning for long-term outcomes and tying together different processes and actions to achieve them.

Employing communications strategically involves another level of thinking about the design and impact of messaging and how it’s delivered.

For example, the leader of a company that has been confronting issues with trust and miscommunication between departments might choose to institute a program of radical transparency across the board, ensuring equal access to all information to squash the perception of backroom dealings. Or in other cases, leaders might deliberately time the release of other information for maximum effect—say, waiting until a major corporate retreat to announce a new business deal has been closed or expansion plans are in the works.

The Everything Store Offers Strategic Communications Lessons for Leaders Everywhere

amazonAmazon seemed to come out of nowhere in the late 1990s to become what founder Jeff Bezos called “the everything store.” And sure enough, you can find just about everything at the mega-shopping site today… even lessons in strategic communications.

Bezos shaped Amazon’s corporate culture around a unique set of rules regarding internal communications. If the company has been successful, it’s in part because those rules have been effective, even if they seem a little unusual.

The two pizza rule, for example, governed team sizes during the early days at the company—no working group was allowed to have more staff than could be fed by two pizzas. That kept teams small and allowed quick and effective communication between team members.

Internal communications are usually kept short and to-the-point, under a hundred words in many cases. That keeps the flow of information manageable, even in an organization of nearly 1 million employees.

And every meeting begins in silence, as participants review a mandatory six-page memo that serves as an initial presentation and conversation-starter on the topic at hand. PowerPoint presentations aren’t allowed—meeting time is kept focused and linear, drilling down into shared information without distracting imagery or visuals.

While these techniques are used all the time by all kinds of people, leaders need to be able to align them with the goals and resources of their organization. Strategic communication is the large-scale way that organizations avoid putting their foot in their mouth, while influencing and enhancing their performance by managing the flow of information.

Evaluating the Degrees and Certificates That Can Polish Your Strategic Communications Skills

new graduatePretty much every organizational leadership degree available today will offer at least some coursework in the application and techniques of strategic communications. While that’s enough for many leadership roles, to really specialize in such an important skill also requires a dedicated degree.

For the most part, they are offered only at the master’s level. While you’ll find many, many degree options in communications and even strategic communications at all levels of college, programs that build organizational leadership into the package are usually aimed at more senior executives. These are people with a few years of experience under their belt, who have generally already earned a bachelor’s degree in leadership or another field but want to expand their skillset as a leader with strategic comms skills.

You can sometimes find degrees such as a Bachelor of Arts in Communication Leadership and Strategy or a BA in Strategic Communication, but these typically serve as advanced communication skills training, without the leadership foundations expected in an OL program.

So you’ll want to look for degrees such as:

Lasting a year or two, these offer expert-level training and usually come with small class sizes, a lot of individual attention from instructors, and a healthy helping of independent research and analysis that help you break down essential communication strategies from the inside out.

There are just as many options available in shorter, more focused, less expensive certificate programs in strategic communications. Offered primarily at the graduate level, you’ll find program like:

These drop the broad spectrum approach of full-fledged degrees to give you three or four highly-focused classes in strategic communications leadership skills. They may dive into even more specialized areas of strategic comms, like crisis management, digital media, or organizational communication. With the low-cost, fast turnaround, and tailored curriculum, they give experienced leaders and communicators options to quickly develop advanced expertise in a single critical area of strategic communications.

How Strategic Communications Degrees for Leaders Differ from Other Types of Strategic Communications Programs

presenting to groupYou’ll notice that some of those programs emphasize leadership, while others emphasize communications skills.

Communications is its own major and specialization, leading to professional roles in marketing, PR, or journalism. It has a deep body of expertise to offer in those areas, but by itself doesn’t necessarily address leadership concepts. Degrees that do put OL and communications together will usually have leadership somewhere in the title or specialty option, and they come at comms skills from the strategic and management angle.

A general communications degree, even in strategic communications, doesn’t offer the kind of leadership training that effective organizational leadership demands.

That leadership focus is important, and you shouldn’t forgo a full degree program that doesn’t offer it. On the other hand, depending on your background and other training, you might do just fine with a certificate program that exclusively focuses on strategic communications.

Even when you find degrees that do combine leadership and communications skills, they’ll usually lean in one direction or the other for their emphasis. Either choice can be fine, depending on exactly what your needs, experience, and previous education look like.

Why Online Programs in Strategic Communication are Often the Best Fit for Leaders

closeup laptopFor the sorts of students that are most likely to pursue these kinds of advanced degrees, online programs make a lot of sense. You’re not usually coming at this level of study right out of high-school and with a lot of flexibility and free time on your hands.

Instead, you’re more likely to be part-way into an exciting and fast-moving career that is taking you toward the top of your industry and delivering valuable experience along the way. You may already have bought a home or started a family.

And that all makes packing up and relocating halfway across the country or even just attending class during the day all but impossible.

Online studies give you a shot at advanced education without those hassles. With asynchronous courses, you can study any time of day or night, whatever fits into your schedule. And since everything is remote, it doesn’t matter if your ideal strategic communication and leadership program is on the wrong coast. You can still attend and get everything you need, without ever leaving the city limits.

What You Will Study in Strategic Communications Degree Programs Designed for Leaders

group analyzing conceptYou’ll find some differences in the curriculum offered between degrees that are primarily focused on communication, such as the MA in Strategic Communications with a leadership emphasis, and a traditional MAOL/MSOL that has a concentration in strategic communications. In either, you’ll find more of the coursework focused on the specific major that the degree covers, with fewer classes in the emphasis area.

But in general, you’ll find similar core courses in both kinds of programs, including:

Models and Systems of Strategic Communication

These courses offer the theoretical underpinnings of modern communication strategy. You’ll learn some of the psychology, review the research, and learn the established best practices for deploying effective strategic communication systems.

Global Communication and Multinational Organizations

Strategy today often stretches far past the horizon. Any understanding of communication has to take into account the cultural context in which it is viewed. That goes double for strategic communication, where apparently innocuous product names or communication styles can create catastrophe in cultures where the meaning is far from innocent. So coursework in these degrees will usually include at least an overview of considerations to make for cultural sensitivity or broadening the reach of your messages as a leader.

Organizational Communication

The information flow within your organization can be critical in today’s fast-paced market. You can hit or miss important opportunities just based on how well-informed your team is regarding other parts of the organization or regarding your overall strategies. So you will learn how efficient, effective, comprehensive organizational communication systems are designed and implemented.

Data Analysis

The ability to analyze the impact of communication offers a valuable feedback mechanism for leaders working to deliver information strategically. Like other questions of analytics and measurement, this has received a boost in the communication world from high technology. From evaluating clicks per million in marketing emails to looking at screen dwell time on corporate web pages, understanding how to review and tune the distribution and impact of your communications efforts is something you’ll be taught in these courses.

Ethics in Strategic Communication

There is no doubt that strategic communications skills can be used for good or evil; look no further than politics for many examples of artfully arranged but morally questionable communication campaigns. But leaders have to be forthright and fair to be seen as just and legitimate. So you’ll have coursework that takes you through the ethical implications of using strategic communication and discusses dark patterns in the field like fear, uncertainty, and doubt, or other forms of propaganda.

Language and Composition

There are many forms that communication can take, but the roots of them all lay in the use of language. Although strategic communications programs are more about the applications and alignment of comms with strategic and leadership functions, many of them will go back to the basics and include at least some coursework in the appreciation and use of language. You’ll study rhetoric, persuasive speech, and the elements of style that successful leaders have used through history to rouse their teams and accomplish great tasks.

Master’s studies typically also offer some real-world experience in strategic communication skills use through internships or projects undertaken with partner businesses outside the school. You’ll get a chance to see how experts in the field are working with information and using it to advance the strategic plans they have made. Even better, you’ll get a seat at the table, advancing your own ideas and seeing them polished and implemented.

Concentrations and Electives Allow Further Specialization in Strategic Communication Skills

Particularly in degrees like a Master’s of Strategic Communication and Leadership, you can also find even deeper concentration options in areas like Emerging and Digital Media. These tack on a specific set of additional classes to increase your expertise in those particular emphasis areas.

But even in fairly standard strategic communication programs, you will usually have a wealth of different elective options to choose from to customize your degree to your job goals or interests.

With the right advice from professors and advisors, and your own understanding of your strengths, weaknesses, and career goals, you can usually weave together a set of classes that will deliver the strategic comms training that gives you the skillset to get where you want to go.

Communications skills in all their forms are a powerful asset for leaders. You’ll find that just being able to articulate your ideas and explain concepts accurately to both staff and people outside your organization sets you apart from many executives. When you put that together strategically with the training that OL gives you in planning, creativity, and the psychology of organizational behavior, you’ll find you can move mountains.