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Do You Need an MBA or a Master's in Strategic Communication?

Three businesswomen have a conversation.

When businesses evolve, their communication strategies should, too. Where companies across sectors once relied on brick-and-mortar offices and shopfronts, many now exist in a wholly digital sphere, with remote employees catering to consumers all around the globe. Nonprofits that once leveraged mailers and phone calls in their fundraising efforts now use social media and email blasts to spread their message. Political groups and public health organizations have to be 'always on.' With all the available channels, communication strategy development is a full-time job and a team sport. It's also increasingly data-driven and precise.

“Strategic communication is much more than writing a press release or posting to social media,” according to Chris Gall, Butler University alumnus and Senior Vice President of Marketing & Communications at Visit Indy. “It’s a science into understanding how to cut through the clutter and deliver a specific message to a specific audience at a specific time.”

Growing a career in an evolving communications landscape means seeking professional development necessary to align skillsets with market demands. Master's degree programs let communication specialists hone new skills before applying them broadly in the real world. The question professionals must ask themselves before embarking on the development journey is: Which graduate program is best? 

The Master of Business Administration has been the most popular advanced degree for many years due in part to its broad applicability and healthy ROI. According to the GMAC 2021 Corporate Recruiters Survey, the $115,000 median salary of MBA graduates is 77 percent more than bachelor’s degree salaries. 

However, traditional MBA programs don't necessarily teach the specific skills strategic communication specialists need. While most include coursework on marketing, they don’t typically delve into public relations, advertising, or organizational communication skills. They also tend to cater more narrowly to the operational needs of for-profit businesses versus organizations more broadly.  

In contrast, strategic communication master's programs such as the Butler University Master of Science in Strategic Communication (MSSC) focus on leading communication strategy on multiple media platforms to engage internal and external audiences and meet diverse organizational objectives. 

What Is a Master's in Strategic Communication?

Master's in strategic communication programs focus on the models and theories of persuasive, educational, and informational communication at the mass, group, and interpersonal levels. Strategic communication is inclusive of public relations, advertising, organizational communication, social media and traditional and digital marketing communication. 

Master's in strategic communication programs teach strategic practices and analytical processes used to research and create informed audience-based communication initiatives. Competencies covered in a master's in strategic communication program curriculum typically include:

  • Campaign planning and evaluation

  • Communication theory application

  • Digital and social media skills

  • The complementary nature of paid, earned, shared, and owned media 

  • Qualitative and quantitative primary and secondary research

  • Storytelling and audience engagement

Graduates of strategic communication master’s programs enjoy many of the same benefits as MBA graduates, including higher earning potential. Roles such as strategic organizational communications manager, public relations manager, internal communication director, marketing communications director, and executive communications manager can pay more than $100,000. 

Why You Might Choose Between an MBA and Master's in Strategic Communication

The world is changing. The explosion of new communication channels has radically transformed how people interact with each other and with organizations. As the pandemic forced workplaces in every sector to change the way they did business in 2020, executives began leaning more heavily on their communications teams to explain how they responded to the crisis and what changes internal and external stakeholders could expect. Today's organizations also need to focus more time and energy on communicating the impact of their health, sustainability and diversity, equity, and inclusion philosophies and initiatives. 

Edelman's Future of Corporate Communications report found that 77 percent of participants felt that "perceptions of the role of communications as a strategic business driver changed within their organization during 2020," and 51 percent reported "an elevated or altered importance of communications." Many surveys reported increased investment in communication technology, internal employee communication, and partnership communication. According to the report, more organizations are looking to communication professionals to lead organizational transformation. 

Where the MBA was once a cover-all degree for professionals who wanted to advance in their careers, specialized master’s degrees such as the master's in strategic communication have grown out of the need to build skills specific to a continuum of organizational strategies. Some professionals find themselves choosing between the MBA and master's in strategic communication because they want to advance into or excel in newly created senior-level communication positions. Others come from marketing and want to develop a broader skillset. Still others because they recognize the power of strategic communication to drive change.

How Do Master's in Strategic Communication and MBA Programs Differ?

Both are geared toward mid-career professionals looking to grow their knowledge and skills to tackle new challenges and advance in their organizations. 

MBA programs typically attract professionals seeking broad business management skills and touch on communication as part of marketing, focusing primarily on company-customer (or potential customer) relationships. Courses hone skills related to effective decision-making across all areas of business. 

Master's in strategic communication programs teach skills related to data-informed communication strategy development, communication leadership across existing and emerging platforms, strategic communication in global and cross-cultural contexts, and more. Programs such as Butler's MS in Strategic Communication develop industry leaders capable of thinking critically, solving problems, and adapting to rapidly changing conditions.  

The coursework in these programs differs substantially as a result. The traditional MBA curriculum typically covers people management, operations management, leadership, managerial accounting, economics, and other subject areas related to how business gets done. Master's in strategic communication programs, in contrast, are laser-focused on teaching students how to apply communication theory and practice to a broad range of challenges in sectors as diverse as philanthropy, sports, entertainment, hospitality, politics, technology, and public health.

What Sets the Master's in Strategic Communication Curriculum Apart

The essential difference between the master’s in strategic communication and the MBA is the potential for customization. Most MBA programs follow a relatively homogeneous curriculum no matter the industry each student plans to enter after graduation. In contrast, Butler’s MSSC utilizes a flexible curriculum that allows students to tailor their educational experiences to their personal and professional goals. 

Butler’s MS in Strategic Communication program addresses the new reality of communication, blending time-tested communication theory with emerging trends. In addition to five required courses in strategic communication fundamentals and a capstone experience, students have five elective options. Because Butler students are working on building their professional portfolios, they also can select which clients they want to work with on projects to tailor their portfolio to their industry of interest.

Some of the critical skills students can choose to study in Butler University’s Master of Science in Strategic Communication program curriculum include: 

Communication Strategy Development

Organizations should not take a fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants approach to communication. Strategizing is essential in ensuring that an organization's or individual’s message and values come across clearly and consistently. 

A comprehensive external communications strategy is a thoroughly considered plan that includes a breakdown of the target audiences (often called “personas”), a breakdown of the channels best suited to reach that audience, and a consistent brand voice. 

Strategic communication professionals also develop internal communication, deciding how best executives should interact with employees to set and reach organizational goals. They may oversee internal memos, have final approval on training materials, and develop plans for public messaging. 

A strategic communication expert working with politicians will help them identify key voters and narrow in on the communication channels most effective in their communities—all of this takes place before the candidate even approaches a podium. Political communication strategists may also be responsible for communicating with campaign staff and volunteers, ensuring a candidate’s tone corresponds with the values they promote. 

With a strong communication strategy, responding to events as they happen, pushing out promotional efforts, and maintaining an organization’s tone becomes much more efficient.

Social Media Strategy Design 

How you use social media is more important than how often, writes Jennifer Abohosh, Chief Strategist at Dunham+Company. In its ​​Nonprofits & Social Media: A Missed Connection report, Dunham found that most nonprofit organizations don't use social media effectively. That’s where strategic communication experts come in. When a strategic social media strategy is in place, 64 percent of marketers say it’s their most effective paid channel, according to Nielsen’s Global Annual Marketing Report. 

Butler’s Social Media Strategy course familiarizes students with various social tools to help them plan their organizations’ online presence and analyze social channel performance. The course also covers the history of social media, privacy issues and concerns, and how to use social media in moments of organizational crisis.

Crisis Response and Messaging Management

If 2020 taught communication specialists anything, it’s that they need to be prepared to respond swiftly to chaos. As technology continues to create new communication channels, the potential for mis- and dis-information about public health, politics, and global affairs becomes more dangerous. The United Nations has even said that strategic communication is now essential for international peacekeeping missions. 

Crisis response means planning for the unknown. During the first year of the pandemic, federal guidelines on quarantining, masking, and social distancing were changing by the day. Clear communication became paramount for nearly every organization. Healthcare facilities needed to engage not only with their communities but also with employees working around the clock to respond to immense need. Educational institutions used every communication channel in their reach to update students, parents, and employees on plans for remote learning. City and state governments suddenly needed to shift from other priorities to widespread public health messaging. Butler’s Crisis Communication course explores the theories and research related to organizational communication before, during, and after a crisis.

Brand Awareness and Strategy Development

Brand awareness is more critical than ever, marketers told Nielsen. Now that consumers are shopping less frequently in person, companies need to ensure they build a recognizable presence in the digital media space. Strategic communications degree programs help graduate students identify the qualities that make brands distinct and learn to market them effectively. Think about the brands you would recognize in a heartbeat, just based on a logo or slogan—developing those trademarks may seem simple but takes a lot of critical thinking.

Who Applies for MBA programs vs. Master's in Strategic Communication Programs?

Though they share similarities, there are differences between students in business programs and students in communication programs. Both programs attract degree candidates with professional experience—typically two to five years—but those in Butler’s MS in Strategic Communication program tend to pursue the degree after accruing significant work experience in advertising, PR, and the nonprofit sector. After spending time as individual contributors, they have well-developed career goals and are ready to move into managerial roles. 

Other prospective Butler students pursue graduate study because they want to make a career change. Some find themselves juggling multiple responsibilities at work and want to hone in on one communication-related skill. Some students identify a communication specialization, such as social media, that will help them advance in their organizations or move to new fields. They may want to learn more about how mass media works or how to leverage research and data into effective presentations, reports, and strategies, making the customizable nature of a Master of Strategic Communication degree appealing.

The MBA curriculum is more general. Applicants may be less focused on a specific course subject and more interested in the broader experience. Students in MBA programs are also increasingly interested in entrepreneurship. They may seek an advanced education because they have a start-up idea and want to learn how to make it successful. 

Finally, strategic communications students are motivated by the opportunity to inspire audiences into action. Some enter the field because they are interested in spreading awareness about specific issues, such as climate change, prison reform, political messaging, or social justice. They may want to advance their communications skills to further a message or political platform they stand behind. 

What are the Career Options for Master's in Strategic Communication Graduates?

Both the MBA and the MSSC are respected, but what you do with your degree matters more than the credential itself. Assess your career goals. Do you see yourself managing a company’s budget or its messaging?  Do you relish the opportunity to interact with audiences? Do you want to move up in the world of corporate communication to take on executive-level responsibilities?

A graduate degree in strategic communication opens doors at the highest level for employment in politics, advertising, consulting, global public relations and marketing, healthcare, higher education, and countless other fields. MSSC holders are managers, directors, and executives with a diverse range of titles and responsibilities. In contrast, familiar career paths for MBA graduates include business operations manager, financial consultant, entrepreneur, CEO, financial manager, or COO–all roles focused squarely on serving an organization’s bottom line. 

If you have a passion for the power of language and communication, then earning a master’s in strategic communication can give you the skills and credentials you need to turn your passion into a fulfilling, lucrative career. Career options for MSSC graduates include:

Advertising and Promotions Manager

Advertising and promotions managers identify opportunities to nurture brand awareness and oversee the development of strategic advertising campaigns across multiple channels. Many work in agency settings, managing internal creative teams and campaign budgets, though some do more client-facing work than campaign development and planning. Most professionals in this role earn about $133,000 annually, according to Lightcast data. 

Public Relations 

The public relations manager helps organizations raise funds and support for their mission. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), job growth for this role will increase faster than the average for all occupations over the next decade. The average yearly salary for PR and fundraising managers is about $120,000.

Chief Marketing Officer

Chief Marketing Officer, or CMO, is the terminal senior-level position in marketing. CMOs oversee communication and advertising strategy development and implementation across several channels and platforms–and for several distinct audiences. According to PayScale, Chief Marketing Officers earn an average base salary of about $175,000

Director of Communications

Communications directors guide high-level strategy for their organizations. They oversee internal and external communication campaigns and often manage teams that handle different arms of communications, e.g., PR, social media, or grant writing. They may be responsible for responding to press inquiries–or deciding who will–and helping stories related to their organizations get placed in publications. PayScale reports the average base salary for this position is about $86,000, but communications directors can earn well over $100,000, depending on where they work.

VP of Corporate Communications

Corporate communications experts work for brands and companies, overseeing their advertising campaigns, messaging across platforms, and employee engagement initiatives. Large companies like Twitter often have multiple strategic communications positions, with the VP at the head. As such, this position requires juggling multiple priorities, delegating tasks, and having a firm understanding of brand positioning and reputation management, as well as a grasp of how an organization fits into the larger cultural framework. The salary range for this position varies greatly depending on organization size. According to PayScale, the median salary is roughly $170,000, though some VPs earn close to $240,000 per year.

Should You Get a Master's in Strategic Communication or an MBA?

The MBA is a solid choice for aspiring business professionals. If you’re primarily interested in driving profits and earning a high salary, it may be the right graduate degree pathway. But the MBA is no longer the only option for those who want to advance into leadership roles. Communication has become an essential functional area in upper management and the C-Suite–one that's now increasingly recognized for its contribution to organizational success. Respondents to Ragan Communications' annual benchmark report of more than 700 C-Suite executives said that an increased focus on workplace wellness, social media, and remote worker engagement will boost the importance of communications professionals over the next three to five years. 

Organizations across industries are elevating communication professionals so opportunity abounds for master's in strategic communication program graduates who learn from experts. Butler School of Communication faculty members bring real-world experience in corporate communications to the program. Lecturer Rob Norris, for example, spent 30 years working in corporate communications for Duke Energy Indiana, where he responded to environmental crises, nuclear issues, strikes, extended power outages, a financial crisis, and two mergers. And Dr. Abbey Levenshus worked as a communication staff member on Capitol Hill–experience that serves her well while helping students understand the complex issues surrounding crisis communication. Experts and guest speakers also add their experiences to the MSSC curriculum, providing further insight into what’s possible post-graduation. This holistic educational experience helps students passionate about communication chart a successful path forward in this evolving discipline.

Bob Schultz, alumnus and Sr. VP of Marketing/Events for Downtown Indianapolis Inc., put the value of the MSSC degree this way: "By acquiring the ability to objectively see an organization as a whole and apply not just communication tools but also business and critical thinking skills, graduates become highly sought-after assets to any company or organization."

Attend a webinar or online event to learn more about the strategic communication master's admissions requirements and student outcomes for this impactful program.