About Dionne C. Clemons, Ph.D.: Dionne Clemons is an Assistant Professor and the Director of the Strategic Communication and Public Relations program at Trinity Washington University’s School of Business and Graduate Studies. Dr. Clemons oversees curriculum development for the program, supports faculty, and serves as the primary advisor for graduate students. In previous roles she taught undergraduate and graduate courses in strategic public relations, public affairs planning and management, communication for policymaking, strategic communication management, organizational communication, and advanced research methods.

As a scholar of strategic communication in the government and non-profit arenas in particular, Dr. Clemons has published numerous research articles on female leadership in public relations, diversity in digital media, government and non-profit capacity building, and tactics for mobilizing the millennial generation in social service and other community-oriented ventures.

Dr. Clemons earned her Bachelor of Arts in Telecommunications from Morgan State University, her Master of Public Administration in Public Affairs from American University, and her Ph.D. in Mass Communication and Media Studies from Howard University.

Interview Questions

[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of Trinity Washington University’s Master of Arts in Strategic Communication and Public Relations, and how it is structured? What topics are covered in the core curricula and what are the key learning outcomes students can expect from this program?

[Dr. Clemons] Our program is a 36-credit program that is geared towards a wide variety of students. We serve students who are recent undergraduates, professionals who are in the communication space and wish to advance their careers, and those who are in career transition who are not in our field but who are interested in pivoting into strategic communication and/or public relations.

Students take twelve classes, comprised of six Core Courses (and one transitions seminar), three Professional Skills Courses, one Capstone Course, and two Electives. The core courses are Multicultural Media History, Media Law, Journalism and Public Relations Writing, Introduction to Research Design and Methods, Public Relations Campaigns, and Advanced Public Relations Writing Across Digital Platforms. These classes provide students with the foundation to understand different types of communication and media, and how different research methods and communication strategies apply to a variety of organizational and social needs. The Professional Skills courses are Digital and Visual Storytelling, Digital Analytics, Web Design, Visual Communications, Speechwriting, Social Media for Public Relations, Persuasive Writing, and Public Relations Practicum. Students choose three courses from this list, and these classes allow them to focus on specific types of skill sets so that they can gain expertise in their areas of interest.

Students then take their choice of a wide variety of electives that we offer, which range from special topics classes to advanced courses in areas such as gender, race, and class, the relationship between media and public opinion/psychology, political communications and campaigning, advocacy and non-profit communications, and strategic event planning. Students can also take classes from our MBA and MSA (master of science administration) programs, which include classes such as Leadership and Organizational Behavior, Entrepreneurial Marketing and Sales, Nonprofit Marketing and Public Relations, and Communication for Managers.

We are a small private Catholic university in Washington, DC, so this program serves about 50 students right now, but we enroll on a rolling basis, so we have new students enrolling all the time.

Rather than have formal tracks, we advise each student in charting their own personal course through the program. We meet with them and talk to them about their interests and goals. If a student wants to do more high level strategy work in crisis communication, reputation management, risk communication, or issues management, then we set up the 36 credits in that way so that their courses emphasize strategy and communication management. For students who are more interested in the technical aspect of public relations such as media relations, data analytics, outreach, or press release development, we steer them more towards those writing focused courses.

We do recommend students take a mix of courses so that they have a portfolio by the end of their program. Our program is designed so that students are building their portfolio with each course that they take. Students are required to produce a digital portfolio towards the end of their program, which is in addition to the capstone course that they take. The capstone course is the final requirement of the program, and it involves students engaging directly with clients in real time for the entire term in order to develop a strategic communication plan or campaign. While the capstone project is the largest project that students complete while in the program, each of our classes emphasizes project-based learning, in that students are typically required to produce an original piece of content that they can then include in their portfolio.

We teach following the RPIE method, which is short for the research, planning, implementation, and evaluation method. This method teaches students to align their PR efforts with an organization’s goals. Our goal is to prepare our students to become communication professionals in the C-suite, and so leadership/management and planning skills are emphasized. We heavily stress measurement of output and evidence-based strategic planning in the creation of campaigns, and we give students the opportunity to create a variety of campaigns so that they can see the depth and breadth of their options once they graduate.

Each course, even our applied courses, is grounded in theory, so that students understand the underlying principles that inform sound decision making in public relations and media management. For example, in our public relations, crisis communication, and mass communication courses, students not only learn specific tactics, but also the history of these disciplines and the communication theories that are central to each. We try to ensure that students cultivate the critical thinking, writing, and analytical skills they need to successfully navigate a job once they graduate.

We have several key program learning outcomes. They are:

  • To write and speak effectively in forms and styles appropriate for communication professionals.
  • To communicate professionally, in a way that audiences will pay attention to, understand, remember, and act upon.
  • To critique and justify the effective use of diversity in public relations and strategic communications in a global society by interviewing and using a variety of sources that reflect differences such as race, ethnicity, age, and religion.
  • To develop analytical skills that show an ability to think critically, independently, and creatively about issues, events, and trends in media and PR, locally, nationally, and internationally.
  • To apply strategic communication planning processes, problem solving strategies, and techniques for projects to work with actual clients, effectively applying current communication and media technologies.
  • To demonstrate an ability to communicate the legal, ethical, and social responsibilities of leaders as communicators by conducting sound research that generates solutions to problems related to the discipline.

The RPIE model of research, planning, implementation, and evaluation is built into our classes, and interwoven with that are our program learning outcomes. There are opportunities for students to research, write, speak/present, and consider diverse audiences when crafting and honing their messaging. We also incorporate new media technologies and creative writing principles into the processes we teach students.

Finally, we emphasize the PESO model in our classes, which stands for the paid, earned, shared, owned model representing the four different channels in which people can develop and disseminate content to achieve a goal. Students are required to consider new developments in digital media when deciding what to communicate to their target audiences, and through what channels.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please elaborate on the Capstone Project requirement for students of the Master of Arts in Strategic Communication and Public Relations program? What are the required deliverables of this project, what steps must students take in order to complete it, and do students have the support of an advisor and committee during their work?

[Dr. Clemons] The capstone course gives students the opportunity to apply all the principles and methods they have learned in their coursework to a real client project. We develop relationships with clients and assign students a client that has strategic communication/PR needs that match what we expect students to demonstrate in their final project. We assign clients depending on class size, meaning that students may work individually or in small groups of two or three depending on how large the capstone class is in a given year. As we are a small university, and therefore have small class sizes, I have been able to find a client for each one of my students. This may be more challenging for students as they have to produce more work, but that is the purpose of the capstone, and it really helps to solidify their learning outcomes.

We expect students to demonstrate numerous things through their capstone project. They must demonstrate that they have the ability to do “client facing,” meaning they know how to engage with the client, communicate with the client, give counsel, and give guidance and recommendations. Most clients that we align with are partners with Trinity, and they often represent the economy here in DC, meaning that they are management consulting, nonprofit, or government entities. Some of our clients are small businesses, but most of them are the three mentioned. These types of clients are often not as well versed in public relations, strategic communication, and communication management as they would like to be. And therefore it is the student’s job to educate them and counsel them on what they need. That is a skill that students have been taught throughout previous courses they have taken.

Once students are assigned a client, they must conduct the research, write the plan, get the plan approved by the client, execute the plan, and then create some kind of a measurement component to measure the outcome. As the project is done in a short time period, typically students execute maybe three to five tactics that they can measure, but they also provide primary qualitative research such as a communication audit or a media analysis, to help justify the campaign that they are recommending for the client. This way, clients also have the underlying reasoning behind the student’s suggested plan, which they can use for future initiatives. The capstone is one of the most important elements of our program, because it gives students valuable project management experience. For example, if a student recommends a website, he/she has to create the website, justify the website’s purpose and content, and present the product to the client. Managing each step of the process empowers students to demonstrate a wide range of their skills to not only the client, but also future employers as the capstone is often a central piece in our students’ portfolios. The client’s feedback is one component of the overall grading proves, and both professors and clients assess the quality of the campaign design and execution.

The nature of the project depends on what the client’s needs are. For example, this past term, a student worked with a nonprofit to plan and host a fundraising event. She developed the event management plan, and then executed some of her suggested tactics, which included crafting the press release, securing other media sources, completing all direct media outreach, and ensuring media coverage of several celebrities who attended the event. After the event, she developed an after-action report, which included best practices for how to execute the event moving forward. This particular nonprofit client did not have a process in place for how to replicate the event, so she wrote down this process, along with a lessons learned document for them around this event, so that they would have that once she was done.

Other students have created integrated marketing communications campaigns for corporations, government agencies, and nonprofits. One of our clients was a non-profit in D.C. that was looking to introduce a new program to a new target audience, and wanted to utilize a new digital media platform in the outreach. In this case, there were two students on that campaign, and they worked together to develop the integrated marketing communication campaign that had a mix of paid, earned, shared, and owned media, designed to reach out to philanthropists in the D.C. area who had an interest in that nonprofit.

I believe in public relations as activism, and this informs all of our curricular decisions, in particular the capstone. Many of the clients I’ve had the students work on since I’ve been here have been nonprofits because social justice is one of Trinity Washington University’s central values. I really try to partner with organizations whose mission and vision mirror what Trinity’s core mission and values are. This includes any organization that has a social justice component, or is working to improve the community through outreach, education, or philanthropic work. When we do have students work with corporations, we’ve often had them work on corporate social responsibility campaigns.

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

[Dr. Clemons] When students first come to the program, they are assigned an advisor who sets them up with the core courses. After they’ve earned 12 credits, they meet with me, and I create their plan for the rest of their time here. At this point, we decide what mix of classes they want to do over the next 18 months. We plan out the course schedule over a two-year period, so that the student is clear on what offerings are available and can be efficient about course scheduling to hit all of their learning goals.

In addition to the formal advising that I provide, our faculty members provide a great deal of mentorship both in their classes and through office hours. We have a great mix of PhDs and practitioners amongst our faculty team, which means that students benefit from their instructors’ wide range of academic and industry experience. We have practitioners who have worked for journalism outlets such as The Washington Post, as well as those who work for corporations in crisis communication, or who are consultants in their specialty. Many of our teaches bring in guest speakers and lecturers–I’ve done the same in my classes–so that students can establish relationships with real industry contacts early on in their academic career, as well as hear current insights on their field of interest. Our faculty also readily connect students with contacts that they have outside of classes, and provide advice on both industry and academic career paths. We have had a couple professors who have done experiential assignments, wherein students attend off-campus workshops or media related functions to network and meet with folks in the industry outside of Trinity.

We are a small school with small and intimate class sizes of no more than 15 students, which makes it easy for us to really get to know each student, to give them feedback, to give them edits on their writing, and to provide individualized networking connections and career advice. I really stress their writing skills because that is what the industry stresses, and so we really work with them to make sure that they are solid writers and can write in different forms and different tones and styles.

The capstone course is also a great opportunity for students to get advising and mentorship from both a faculty member and a client connection. As the class sizes are small, the professor who teaches the capstone course can work in concert with each client as well as each student. So even though the student is asked to counsel the client, the client also engages with that faculty member to make sure that they are getting the service they have signed up for—i.e. that the documents are created professionally, deadlines are met, and their specific needs are addressed in the final product. Students get excellent support both from their professor on how to navigate the relationship with the client, as well as from their client in terms of how to produce a quality product.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What advice do you have for prospective students in terms of submitting a competitive application for Trinity Washington University’s Master of Arts in Strategic Communication and Public Relations program?

[Dr. Clemons] Students should demonstrate that they are strong writers, have critical thinking abilities, know how to conduct research, have good project management skills, and also have a bit of business acumen in that they understand how the industry that they are currently working in works. This applies to our students who have been in the communication industry for a while, as well as students who have worked for years in a different industry and who wish to pivot into strategic communication and/or public relations. For example, if you are working in an engineering organization and you want to come to public relations, try to demonstrate that you understand the business trends of that industry, and also show us what you understand about how public relations or strategic communication operate in your field. On some level, it does not matter what industry you work in, as long as you understand that industry, how to navigate it, and how the concepts, theories, and methods presented in our program will help you achieve your specific goals.

Students do need to submit letters of recommendation. I would recommend asking people you have worked with, a supervisor or manager, as well as an academic reference such as a former or current professor. We are preparing students to be specialists in the field of public relations and strategic communication, so we strongly prefer to have recommendations from people who have a good idea of the applicant’s abilities, work ethic, and academic/professional background.

We regularly have information sessions here on campus, and prospective students are welcome to attend to learn more about our program and offerings. We recommend that potential applicants come and sit in on a class just to understand our format, and to speak with us about the expectations we have. Our classes are held at night, in person, and they are three hours once a week, so that is a sizeable time commitment. Students need to be clear about the rigor before they apply. Students can also sit in on courses if they schedule them with our recruitment department, just to get a feel for it, especially for those students who are returning to the classroom and may not have been in a classroom setting in a while.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes Trinity Washington University’s Master of Arts in Strategic Communication and Public Relations unique, and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students?

[Dr. Clemons] I think the quality of our faculty and the social service mission of our program are two things that really distinguish us. As mentioned previously, we have a good mix of faculty who are cutting edge scholars in their field, as well as advanced professionals in industry who are immersed in the very concepts, strategies, and issues they are teaching about. We also provide great support to our faculty, which translates into great learning outcomes for our students. I work with our faculty to make sure that they are professionally developed and are constantly learning and growing as well, and can communicate what they are learning to their students. As we are a small program, it is very intimate, and you really get one-on-one attention here. You are not a number. I know all of my students and I engage and speak to all of my students regularly, and the faculty here is committed to doing the same.

Because of our social justice value system, we impress upon students the mission to serve as what is called the ethical advocate for their organization. We are not teaching strategic communication just for an organization’s bottom line. And that distinction is quite important to us, and cultivates the kind of mindset in our students that leads organizations to long-term success. We position students to be ethical, to serve as the transparent voice for the organization and people they serve, and that is their charge. So if students want to come here to learn how to build and maintain relationships for the good of society through the use of public relations, this is the place for them. We teach advocacy. We teach social justice. We teach community outreach and engagement and activism. Even though we do introduce the concept of enacting public relations for corporations, we focus on how to use public relations to improve and contribute to society even in those contexts.

Thank you, Dr. Clemons, for your excellent insight into Trinity Washington University’s Master of Arts in Strategic Communication and Public Relations program!