Answer: Master’s degree programs in strategic communication generally provide students with a broader education that includes coursework in organizational communication, marketing, and public relations. In contrast, public relations programs tend to focus more specifically on public relations and developing media relationships. There can be overlap between the two degrees, however, so students researching master’s programs should compare specific curricula to determine which will better help them meet their academic and professional goals.

Students earning a master’s in strategic communication learn how to plan and implement messaging with the goal of growing an organization and furthering its mission. Those who pursue a master’s in public relations, on the other hand, study how to influence audience perceptions of a brand, product, or service, often through media relationships. The primary differences between these two degrees relate to the breadth of each program and its focus on media relationships.

Master’s in strategic communication programs generally cover a wide variety of topics, including public relations, while the goal of a master’s in public relations program is to produce experts in public relations who are more specialized in nature. Furthermore, media relations are crucial for public relations professionals, whereas many practitioners of strategic communication never need to curate and develop media relationships — they simply use other channels to disseminate their message.

Despite these differences, practitioners in either field share a similar goal: to influence audience perception and behavior. As a result, many programs combine the two topics in one degree, or offer the degrees individually with a specialization in the other (e.g., a master’s in public relations with a specialization in strategic communication).

Master’s in Strategic Communication Programs

Strategic communication is the practice of planning and implementing messaging in order to help an organization achieve its goals. This requires a knowledge of public relations, internal communication, marketing, digital strategy, content strategy, and more. Students who earn a master’s in strategic communication often work at for-profit companies, but they can also work for non-profits and government entities.

Graduates of strategic communication master’s programs often pursue positions like marketing manager, communications director, events coordinator, marketing account executive, creative director, campaign manager, or director of organizational development.

Courses in these programs cover topics like digital media management, organizational change, analytics, strategic messaging, promotional strategy, branding, sports communication, ethics in strategic communication, and much more. Below is a list of sample courses students might take while pursuing a master’s in strategic communication, to illustrate the breadth of instruction a program can offer. Some programs even offer specializations in certain areas, such as healthcare, politics, or social advocacy.

Example Courses in a Master’s in Strategic Communication Program
Communication TheoriesWriting for Strategic Communication
Communication ResearchOrganizational Leadership and Change Management
Communication Law and EthicsCorporate Communication
Media StrategiesDigital Design
Communication and New MediaDigital Marketing Analytics
Strategic Organizational CommunicationSocial Media Advertising
Global CommunicationStrategic Brand Communication
Public Relations and Strategic CommunicationEssentials of Business Management
Consumer InsightsPromotional Strategy
Political AdvertisingWeb Development
Dynamic ContentCrisis Communication
Video for Social Media

Master’s in Public Relations Programs

Public relations professionals work to shape public perception of brands and products. This primarily involves building relationships with the media to earn story placements while managing brand reputation. However, graduates often have varying duties that go beyond this core set of responsibilities.

Students graduating with a master’s in public relations might go on to work as communications consultants, press agents, public relations managers, social media managers, or more. These positions can be found across many industries, in a wide range of agencies, corporations, non-profits, and other organizations.

While pursuing a master’s in public relations, students can expect to take courses in public relations ethics, public relations management, media relations, business foundations for public relations, design for public relations, crisis communication, investor relations, and much more. These courses often focus on planning public relations campaigns, public relations research, and public relations case studies. Check out the sample courses below for a better look at the type of coursework typically offered in a public relations master’s degree program.

Example Courses in a Master’s in Public Relations Program
Principles and Theories of Public RelationsCrisis Management
Strategic Public Relations ResearchCorporate Public Affairs
Legal, Ethical and Social Foundations of Public RelationsPublic Relations in Nonprofits
Media RelationsCommunity Relations
Multimedia Content for Public RelationsInternational Public Relations
Public Relations WritingNew Media and Public Relations
Public Relations ManagementSports, Publicity, and Promotions
Strategic Planning in Public RelationsStrategic Communication in Health Care
Investor RelationsPolitical Campaigning

Master’s in Strategic Communication vs. Master’s in Public Relations Programs

There are similarities between a master’s in strategic communication and a master’s in public relations. They both prepare students to influence audience perception of brands, products, and services. However, the careers they prepare students for are somewhat different. Students graduating with a master’s in strategic communication are more likely to take a broad approach to communication in their career, with public relations being one way they help organizations achieve their goals. Graduates with a master’s degree in public relations, on the other hand, tend to take on careers that focus solely on public relations.

This difference is reflected in the coursework detailed above. Earning a master’s degree in strategic communication involves coursework across different focus areas, including topics like writing for strategic communication, organizational communication, digital marketing analytics, social media advertising, and web development. Conversely, students pursuing a master’s in public relations tend to have much more focused programs where each course has an emphasis on a different area of public relations. A graduate with a master’s in strategic communication has public relations as one tactic among many, while a graduate with a master’s in public relations is a specialist in that specific tactic.

Additionally, because media relations is such an important component of public relations, graduates with a master’s degree in public relations tend to have roles where this is a large part of their responsibilities, or even the core of what they do. However, graduates with a degree in strategic communication will often assume roles that do not require media relations. A marketing strategist, for example, rarely needs this skillset, and it is a common position earned by those with a master’s in strategic communication.

With these key differences in mind, it is important for students to research programs in depth before making a selection. There are some programs that combine the two fields into one comprehensive course of study, where students can earn a master’s of strategic communication and public relations. Others offer a master’s of strategic communication with a focus in public relations, or vice-versa. Students also have the option to earn a general master’s degree in communication with a specialization in either area. Ultimately, students should consider the type of career they wish to pursue and select a program that will best help them achieve those goals.