About Candace Parrish, Ph.D.: Candace Parrish is an Assistant Professor and the Director of Sacred Heart University’s (SHU) Online Master of Arts in Strategic Communication and Public Relations. As Director, she designed the entire program’s curriculum, and works with industry experts and communication scholars to ensure that the program’s courses are up-to-date and balanced between theory and practice. She also forms partnerships with external organizations to facilitate students’ professional development, and works with other departments at SHU to expand students’ course options within the program. In addition, Dr. Parrish serves as students’ primary academic advisor in the program and connects them with faculty members, online and campus-based university resources, and prominent figures in strategic communication and public relations.

Prior to her role at SHU, Dr. Parrish was an Assistant Professor of Communication at Rollins College and an Adjunct Professor of online courses in public relations at Indiana University East. She also worked as an Assistant Professor of Mass Communication at North Carolina Central University. She received her Bachelor of Science in Mass Communications and Public Relations, her Master of Science in Mass Communications and Strategic Public Relations, and her Ph.D. in Media, Art, & Text and Digital Health Communications from Virginia Commonwealth University.

Interview Questions

[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of Sacred Heart University’s Online Master of Arts in Strategic Communication and Public Relations program, and how it is structured? How does this program blend theory and hands-on practice to prepare students for leading PR strategy and campaigns across diverse organizational settings? During your time leading the development and implementation of this program, how have you seen its curriculum evolve?

[Dr. Parrish] This is a new program, and I am very grateful to Sacred Heart University for allowing me to be part of the process of its development when I was hired. They also gave me a great deal of flexibility in terms of shaping the curriculum in the ways I felt were necessary. About three years ago, I conducted research on strategic communication and public relations in master’s programs, and since then I’ve had an interest in the way masters programs were developing and growing. When I got the role at SHU, I already knew exactly where I wanted to take the curriculum–I already knew the gaps in the field, and the challenges and opportunities of offering a program online.

To walk you through the curriculum, students begin with CM-502, Strategic Communication in the Digital Age. This course helps students transition back into a school environment, and also provides an overview of the field of strategic communication and public relations. We talk about the different areas in the field–health, crisis, and corporate communication, as well as the different media for strategic communication and PR, such as print vs. web-based content, and social media. During this course, we also bring students up to speed on the different types of technologies that we are going to be using in the program, and the many resources they can access through our learning management system, campus facilities, faculty members, and staff. The second course that students take is CM-646, which is Advertising, PR and Consumer Culture, where they learn about advertising and public relations as they relate to strategic communication. Strategic communication is really an umbrella term that encompasses public relations, advertising, and marketing, so this course talks about how these disciplines merge and complement each other in strategic communication scenarios.

With this knowledge, students then flow into CM-597, which is PR Agency in the Digital Age. In this course, students will build and manage a strategic communication and public relations firm. They will learn branding, concepting, strategy for business development, and all the other types of processes that go into building a firm. We developed this course because I felt it was important for students to understand how to build out an agency just in case they either wind up in agency life or want to build their own agency at some point after they graduate. There is a social entrepreneurship standpoint there too: students learn how to start something from the ground up, and how to facilitate strong internal communication within an organization. For example, we have our students look at different HR platforms, and also give them case studies so that they can have a really well-rounded view of what agency life is.

After that, students go into CM-503, which is Ethics and Professionalism. Public relations is built on ethics, and the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) has a code of ethics that we follow. This class is an overview and analysis of ethics in the field. Students read case studies and engage in activities that really make them think about what the true values and ethics are that need to be in strategic communications and public relations practice. Students subsequently take CM-649, which is Strategic Communication Research, where they learn how to conduct primarily practical research, but will also learn how to conduct academic research. In this research course, students learn the four-step process that we have–research, planning, implementation, and evaluation–and learn how to go in-depth with conducting research, whether it’s qualitative or quantitative. They learn how to conduct interviews or surveys, and what the different elements of good research are, how to analyze data, and use it for storytelling.

Some of our students want to get their Ph.D. one day, so we make sure to have an introduction to that kind of academic research. While our focus is more on professional research in strategic communication and PR, we work to support those who wish to pursue an academic track. After taking CM-649, students who want to apply to a Ph.D. program later on can take Mentorship and Portfolio, or CM-698, with me and work on an independent research project.

Following the research course, students take CM-640, which is Social Media Strategy and Strategic Communication. This course is about social media campaigns, and students leverage the knowledge they have gained from previous classes to build a campaign. They will use the same four-step process that they learned in their research course: research, planning, implementation, evaluation. Students also learn to apply the process of goals, objectives, tactics, activities, budget, and timeline to their social media campaign strategy. Students learn to build out each of those steps from scratch, from establishing goals to planning a budget and finalizing their timeline, and they will use this model in later courses. By the time they graduate, students will have applied this model to numerous projects, and will know how to build out a complete campaign.

I also want to note that I’m planning to add virtual reality (VR) to our social media course. I am teaching a social media and VR course at the end of summer for undergraduates, and I hope to bring VR into the master’s social media course so that students can meet in VR, present their projects in VR, and explore how VR has impacted the field of social media–the use of Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, for example. To my knowledge, no other SCPR master’s program is using VR for strategic communication and public relations right now. It would be great to give students the opportunity to present and flex their social media and strategic communication skills in a setting that allows for greater interactivity and connection.

After the social media course, students take a class that is a special module that changes from year to year, but which is always focused on advanced strategic communication concepts and skill building. There are four elective classes that rotate. There is Law and Strategic Communication, which I added to the program because I really felt like it was important not only to learn communication ethics but also to learn about the law as it stands and what we can and cannot do as professionals of communication: what we can say to the media, what we cannot, how to handle certain scenarios, etc. For students who are interested in political communication, there is also an introduction to this sub-discipline in this course. The second course module is Health Communication, which covers the strategies of communicating health concepts, advice, and directives to patients and the public at large, as well as maintaining transparency and truthfulness to build trust with stakeholders. There is also Crisis Communication, which covers the theories and practices of how to communicate in a crisis using ethical and effective communication strategies. We are seeing right now in the world how important both health and crisis communication are. Finally, there is a Data Visualization course, which goes into the theories, concepts, technologies, and skills around using data visualizations for digital storytelling–the idea of, “How do we work with data and numbers in a way to ethically yet compellingly tell stories and build content that connects to our audiences?”

Following this module, students take two multimedia courses, which is something I love about this program–students are empowered with knowledge of graphic design and how it enhances public relations and strategic communication. They learn how to engage in the creative process on multiple levels, from writing to design and multi-channel content development. In the first multimedia course, they will learn the Adobe Creative Suite, including Adobe Illustrator, Adobe Photoshop, and Adobe InDesign. They will learn how to create logos, how to develop e-newsletters, create ad concepts, and actually design those ads from start to finish. Once students are introduced to and familiar with Adobe Creative Suite, we will move onto some more advanced skills and projects in the second multimedia class. Students create infographics, and also do wire framing, which is when you design a website from scratch and then later have it coded up. They won’t actually do the coding, but they will learn how that process works so they have the knowledge, context, and skills to design a website from scratch. Students will also do video for PR objectives.

The goal of these two multimedia courses is not to have students become masters of Adobe Creative Suite, but rather to train them to become jacks of all trades. In the PR and strategic communication industry, you typically need to know a little bit of everything so that you can jump into any project. Individuals who are able to jump in like that can be very competitive, because they save their agencies or organizations time and money. With your skills, your agency might not have to hire a contractor to design their website or edit a promotional video, because you can jump in there and handle those responsibilities. Nowadays, strategic communication professionals need to develop so much content, especially for social media. Learning how to create videos for social media, learning what platforms are out there as a resource, can be invaluable to your career.

After these two multimedia courses, students will take a new course that I developed that you will not find at any other strategic communication or public relation master’s program. Strategic Communication for Diverse Populations is a course that I developed from my research. Clearly we can see there are a lot of crises currently, some of which are rooted in communication issues and challenges when communicating with diverse populations. This course will provide an overview of some of these critical issues. Our students will then have to build out a campaign that is inclusive of all diverse populations. Students are broken up into small teams and are assigned an audience demographic that they must empathize with and appeal to in their campaign. This course is absolutely vital. You would not believe the blind spots that companies can have with regards to their audience members. For example, for a company to say, “Stand with me,” when some of their patrons or stakeholders are disabled, is not appropriate. Even if a message is well-meaning, if it is not inclusive or has blind spots that then reinforce certain social or political inequalities or stereotypes, it can be highly detrimental. We explore all of that and more in this course.

After Strategic Communication for Diverse Populations, students progress to a Strategic Communication for Marketing course. In this course we talk about advertising and its relationship to PR. We discuss how marketing can work for PR and vice versa. Marketing, advertising, and PR are all distinct areas, even though they impact each other in profound ways. There is sometimes a misperception that they are blended together, and in this course we make clear the distinctions between them as well as the overlaps and significant connections. With this knowledge, students can think, design, plan, and strategize across all three disciplines. For example, they can utilize a marketing campaign to achieve a positive ethical objective that then makes for a solid PR strategy by reinforcing the public’s trust in the organization.

The last class is a Global Capstone in Strategic Communication and Public Relations. My goal with this capstone course is to have it be a dual option course so that students can travel to an international location for part of the class, or take it fully online. Prior to COVID-19, I was actually supposed to fly to Australia, and after a week there, I was set to go to Milan. My next research grant was focused on South Africa. Based upon where I am for that year, the global capstone course will focus on that region and a campaign specific to an organization in that region. Regardless of whether students travel to take the course in-person or complete it entirely online, there will be a focus on how communication is crafted and delivered from diverse global perspectives.

A global experience was the focus of my own capstone in graduate school. My class and I spent two weeks in China, and it was incredibly eye-opening, and I’d argue it was crucial to my professional development. It showed us that other regions, other societies and cultures can be fundamentally different in how they communicate. We have to work with different government structures, different policymakers, and different social norms and expectations. In our global capstone course, we talk to different agencies in the global region that is our focus, and we have discussions around their current strategic communication needs, concerns, and practices. Students then must develop their own campaign focused on that area.

[MastersinCommunications.com] May we have more information on the Capstone project that students complete? What are some examples of campaigns that students have completed?

[Dr. Parrish] In the Global Capstone course, students will come together as though they were a public relations agency, with students applying or auditioning for their roles in the firm. Students explain to me what positions in the firm they would want to take, and what relevant experience they have that would lend themselves well to that role. Once I have assigned students their roles and divided them into groups, there will be two account executives, a graphic team, a writing team, and a research team. After the assignment of teams, we do a client reveal, and the client will be specific to the region I am working in. For the next cohort it will very likely be South Africa as I will be traveling there to conduct research. My plan is to partner with a health communication organization in South Africa. Students will create a campaign as a group in this class, tackling the many tasks and challenges that come with the comprehensive development of an effective campaign. They’ll have to conduct research, determine best practices, write copy, create graphic designs, and also plan and execute other forms of multimedia content as part of the project, such as videos. They then present their campaign to me and to the client. Presentations usually last about 45 minutes to an hour.

For the capstone, we want students to not only outline the plan for their campaign, but to also create concrete deliverables as they would at a real agency. Students don’t just say, “A video featuring XYZ would be good.” They actually produce and edit that video. They don’t just say, “We need T-shirts or other branded merchandise.” They develop those T-shirts. By the end of the Global Capstone course, the presentation at the end will be a culmination and an application of everything they have learned in the program, and it will be a great accomplishment for them to see how what they learned can actually be implemented.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please elaborate on the online learning technologies that Sacred Heart University uses to deliver course materials and facilitate interactions between students and faculty for its Online Master of Arts in Strategic Communication and Public Relations? How did Sacred Heart transition the curriculum into a fully online format while ensuring there were multiple avenues for faculty-student mentorship?

[Dr. Parrish] We currently use Blackboard to house our program, and we set up students’ online experience very well, to make it not only easy but also enjoyable for students to engage with our online learning platform. I like to prioritize practical platforms in the program, especially ones that they will be using when going into the field. I have students meet up for discussions on social media a lot. For example, I’ll have Instagram chats for my students instead of discussion boards, so that students use the very technologies they’ll be expected to use to engage with their own audiences in the future.

As mentioned previously, VR will be a part of our program. My goal is to have it not only be used in the social media course, but also throughout several of our other courses. Students also work with the whole Adobe Creative Suite, as mentioned earlier, and have access to the online versions of all the resources available to our campus-based students, such as online library databases and librarian assistance, online tutoring and career mentorship, LexisNexis for the communication law course, and more.

In the future, with the hopeful resolution of the COVID-19 crisis, we will be able to have campus-based immersions. This summer I was planning a weekend-long immersion at Sacred Heart University so that students could come and experience the great media facilities we have here. During this immersion I was planning on students engaging in a public relations and media development bootcamp. But until such an event can take place, we have virtual office hours, discussion sessions, and even happy hours to facilitate those social connections. Students can reach out to us any time and we can meet them using a multitude of platforms, from Zoom to WebEx and Teams. We will also be having virtual events such as guest presentations and speakers.

Before the quarantine, we were going to bring several prominent media people to our studio to film guest lectures that we would integrate into our courses. Since we cannot do that at the moment, I’m developing a podcast that only SCPR master’s students at SHU will have access to, and which features guest speakers covering important industry topics. We have what is known as a Blackboard Shelf containing a wealth of resources like PowerPoints and other presentations, top PR books, and informational videos, and this podcast will be included on this virtual Shelf.

With the fast pace of our eight-week classes, I am very invested in providing students with as much information and as many resources as possible that can support their learning during their enrollment and beyond. For example, one of my podcasts centers on learning how to draft contracts with a client. That is something we might not be able to spend a lot of time on in-class, but it is something I can put on the podcast, where I talk to people who have clients and frequently draft contracts.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What role does faculty mentorship play in Sacred Heart University’s Online Master of Arts in Strategic Communication and Public Relations? Independent of faculty instruction and support, what career development resources and academic services are available to students, and how can they make the most of these mentorship opportunities and support systems?

[Dr. Parrish] As Director of the program, I serve as students’ primary advisor, in collaboration with Debbie Danowski, Ph.D. We both have a very close relationship with the students. They know they can reach out at any time. As this program is new, I’m currently in the process of handpicking more professors for the program who not only have expertise in certain areas, but who are also awesome at connecting with students on a personal level, and are enthusiastic about networking and connecting and inspiring.

Our students will have a very accomplished and inspiring set of professors with a diversity of specialty areas and a network that can connect them with different people. For example, one of our professors is Jill Collen Jefferson, who was a speech writer and the Communications and Issues Manager for Obama’s Organizing for Action platform. During that time, she developed and hosted media campaigns and wrote speeches for President Obama, Michelle Obama, and the Executive Director for Organizing for Action. Prior to that, she was a Surrogate Speechwriter for Obama for America, where she wrote speeches and remarks for numerous Cabinet secretaries, White House officials, campaign officers, and celebrities advocating for Obama’s second term. Afterwards, she got her law degree from Harvard. She is going to be the person who teaches Law and Strategic Communication in our program because she has that precise expertise. She not only has the advanced legal training, but also is someone who has been on ground, been in the field, knows exactly what’s going on and can give the students the most hands-on experience. She’s also helping to develop that course, and she will serve as an excellent mentor for students who are interested in political communication, as she has an outstanding network.

The other professors whom I am getting onboard are also persons who are very accomplished in their field, but who are also highly approachable and who genuinely love working with and mentoring students. One distinctive aspect of our program is how invested our faculty members are in students, and how we also are committed to connecting them with the best resources and connections available to us. If students express an interest in an area that intersects with but is distinct from our department, we will happily connect them with faculty from other departments and other areas so that they can get the multidisciplinary support they need.

[MastersinCommunications.com] For students interested in Sacred Heart University’s Online Master of Arts in Strategic Communication and Public Relations, what advice do you have for submitting a competitive application?

[Dr. Parrish] My advice would be to keep your application simple yet specific. Explain to me why this program interests you and would work well for you. Don’t simply say that you want to learn how to communicate more strategically. Tell us what your personal and professional goals are as they relate to strategic communication. Also, tell us what about the curriculum appeals to you specifically, and mention professors you are particularly excited to meet and learn from. Explaining why certain courses will be particularly useful to you and your career goals will make a compelling case as well, because it shows you have done your research. I’m not saying go down the list of courses, but rather show us that you know what our program is about and what we are committed to, and how you align with that. Don’t submit an application that could be submitted to any master’s program in PR, because it will be apparent that you didn’t really put a lot of thought and effort into your application.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes Sacred Heart University’s Online Master of Arts in Strategic Communication and Public Relations unique, and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students? Can you elaborate briefly on the faculty, their research expertise and professional experiences, and how their unique strengths benefit students in the program?

[Dr. Parrish] I think first and foremost our location makes us an excellent and unique choice. Even though students won’t be on campus, it is very important to know that we are there–we have connections with the New York media scene. If you are interested in PR, marketing, advertising and PR agencies, and other types of media, we have excellent professors with experience in those fields and more. Some of our professors went on to get their Ph.D. afterwards in theater, film, or sports communication. We have one full-time professor, Brian Thorne, whose second job is as an Executive Producer for ESPN. So we have professors who have that industry experience and academic research expertise to ideally support our students and to be very hands-on with their classes. We have great industry connections–for example, we have Katie Burke—a highly revered practitioner, who worked at Edelman, one of the top PR agencies in the world, as a member of our Board of Directors for the School. She is very invested and involved; she looked over the curriculum after I designed it, and gave it her thumbs-up. Having prominent people such as Ms. Burke invested in the direction of our program helps ensure that our students have the best experience. Much of that is made possible through our location and the work we have put into fostering those connections.

Our facilities also make Sacred Heart’s program a true standout amongst graduate programs in public relations and strategic communication. I’ve taught at a number of schools that just didn’t have these facilities, and it very much impacts the curriculum. Here, we can be as innovative as we want, the inclusion of VR into our classes that I mentioned earlier just being one example of this. We have an incredible faculty member, Professor Shanshan Wang, who developed the NeXReality VR lab that belongs to our School of Communication. Even when our students are online, and independent of campus-based immersions and the global travel element that will be an option for their capstone, the quality of the facilities we have on-campus ensures that our online students have access to the best resources available.

The energy and focus on innovation that our faculty members have are also what makes this program distinctive and a great choice for students who want to learn from and be connected to individuals working at the cutting edge. We have selected faculty members who have recent experiences in a wide array of strategic communication contexts, and who are excited and energized to connect with students, to have discussions with them, to host virtual happy hours, and to inspire students with their research and industry insights.

Thank you, Dr. Candace Parrish, for your excellent insight into Sacred Heart University’s Online Master of Arts in Strategic Communication and Public Relations program!