About Dr. Paula Weissman, PhD: Paula Weissman has three degrees in communication: a bachelor of arts from the University of Massachusetts, a master of arts from the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, and a PhD from the University of Maryland. Her doctoral studies focused on public relations and strategic communication in the context of health communication efforts. Dr. Weissman’s interest in health communication was inspired by professors she worked with while earning her master’s degree. She then worked in Washington, DC for several years conducting research to guide health and social change campaigns and initiatives. Dr. Weissman discovered her passion for teaching when given a chance to teach courses in research methods and health communication as an adjunct faculty member for Johns Hopkins University’s (JHU) MA in Communication program. This experience motivated her to go back to school to earn her doctorate.

While earning her doctorate, she continued to teach and eventually became Assistant Director of the JHU program. She joined American University’s Public Communication Division as a full-time faculty member in 2013, and was named Program Director for the online MA in Strategic Communication in 2016. Dr. Weissman has developed considerable expertise in higher education management and program delivery over the years, particularly around online education. She holds a certificate in online teaching from the Online Learning Consortium and has developed several online courses. Her current research projects focus on ethics and social responsibility in health communication and online learning.

Interview Questions

[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of American University’s campus-based Master of Arts in Strategic Communication program, and how it is structured? What core topics are covered in the core curriculum, and what concentration options do students have?

[Dr. Paula Weissman] Strategic communication refers to the intentional use of communication by an individual or an organization, such as a corporation, nonprofit, government agency, politician, or celebrity, to achieve its mission and goals. Strategic communication efforts share the common goal of changing target audiences’ knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors to achieve some desired outcome – whether that be enticing customers to purchase a product, improving an organization’s or celebrity’s reputation with the public, encouraging individuals to engage in a new health behavior, getting out the vote for a political candidate, or persuading policymakers to support funding for a new initiative.

Our MA in Strategic Communication program is a 30-credit hour, 10- course program with five core courses and five electives. The core courses focus on high-level strategies and techniques that cut across all types of strategic communication efforts. Students learn critical strategic planning, research, and writing skills, along with theoretical concepts that develop them into flexible thinking practitioners who can design, manage, and launch communication campaigns that integrate a variety of public relations, advertising, and marketing techniques for success in today’s dynamic media environment. The five electives allow students to tailor their degree by choosing from a wide array of courses in the School of Communication or across the broader American University. If they wish, students may also elect to pursue a concentration in the following concentrations:

  • Advocacy and Social Impact
  • Digital Strategies and Analytics
  • Corporate Communication and Reputation Management
  • Public Diplomacy and Global Affairs

Finally, all students top off their studies with a capstone project in their own passion area. The capstone is a highly tailored experience developed in consultation with a faculty advisor that allows students to do research, gain expertise, and develop a long-form paper or project in an area of strategic communication of their choosing that they can leverage in their careers.

Many of our campus-based students take advantage of our program’s Washington, DC location. Our strong connections allow students to network and complete internships at top-tier agencies and organizations in one of the world’s most influential capitals for media and public relations.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of American University’s Online Master of Arts in Strategic Communication with an optional concentration in Advocacy and Social Impact? What topics are covered in the core curriculum, and how does the theme of strategic communication carry over into the specialization courses on advocacy and social change?

[Dr. Paula Weissman] Students in our online program earn the same degree that students in our campus-based program earn. For this reason, the online curriculum follows the same general model to achieve equivalent learning outcomes. Students complete the same core course and capstone requirements. The major differences are that the online electives are more limited than what we currently offer on campus, and we do not offer credit-bearing internship opportunities for online students. Students who live in the local area, however, can request permission to take a limited number of on-campus electives. Similarly, our campus-based students may also request permission to participate in some of our online electives.

Students who pursue their five electives completely online choose from a total of nine available options. These nine electives have been selected carefully to provide graduates with a solid skill set in high-demand areas, such as crisis communication, international communication, and social media. Students may pick and choose from any of these nine electives to customize their degree and pursue their key interests.

We are now pleased to offer our first, optional concentration for online students in Advocacy and Social Impact. Students who wish to purse this concentration focus their electives in this area. The concentration builds upon the core curriculum to develop students’ social marketing, political communication, and grassroots organizing skills to achieve social change at the individual and/or public policy levels.

[MastersinCommunications.com] How does American University structure its online program? How are course lectures and materials delivered, and how do students interact with each other and with faculty?

[Dr. Paula Weissman] All courses in the program are asynchronous; students are not required to be online at a specific time. This flexible format was selected to accommodate the busy lifestyles of our students, who are often working, raising families, or joining us from different time zones. We use an interactive learning management system (LMS) called Engage to host our courses. The Engage platform contains its own internal discussion forums and interactive workspaces and seamlessly integrates with other social media and online community spaces.

Students engage with course content in multiple ways, including readings, podcasts, videos, and other multimedia content. Our courses are highly interactive; students engage with faculty and peers through weekly discussion forums. Course content is kept current, and students are frequently asked to work together to apply concepts to real-world cases and scenarios. Some courses require students to collaborate on presentations and other team activities via technologies like Google Hangouts and YouTube On Air. Faculty are always available to students through virtual office hours hosted through platforms like Adobe Connect, and individual phone or Skype appointments. A 24-7 technical support line is always available to assist students who experience any difficulties in a course site.

[MastersinCommunications.com] After they complete their coursework, students of AU’s Master’s in Strategic Communication program complete a project that applies their knowledge to a concrete issue in communication. Could you please elaborate on the requirements and general timeline for this project?

[Dr. Paula Weissman] All students in our MA in Strategic Communication program–whether on campus or online–complete a capstone project. The capstone experience is highly tailored to students’ interests and career goals. Each student works closely with a faculty advisor in the format of an 8-week course to conceptualize, complete, and polish their capstone.

The purpose of the capstone is to develop students’ expertise in a specific topic area. We encourage students to select a topic that they are passionate about. The capstone can take the form of a research study or a long-form, focused paper. Students often develop projects around ideas they encountered and began to pursue in earlier courses.

Capstone projects are incredibly diverse, reflecting the many interests our students bring to the program. Students have studied how corporations use social media to build and maintain relationships with key publics; how public schools are using text messaging to stimulate parental involvement; how nonprofits are adapting their fundraising efforts for the digital media environment; how celebrities use integrated marketing communication strategies to build their brand; and how nonverbal communication behaviors of CEOs and politicians influence public acceptance of apologies in crisis situations. These are just a few examples of student interests that have been pursued.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What career development resources and academic support services are available to students of both the campus-based and online Master’s in Strategic Communication program at AU?

[Dr. Paula Weissman] AU prides itself on the extensive array of services we offer our students. Faculty and staff are ready to meet with students face-to-face, via phone, or virtually to make sure every student receives the same level of service regardless of whether they study with us on campus or online. For example, all students have full access to services provided by our Career Center, Academic Support and Access Center, Writing Center, and library. Students who study online receive a student identification card, which allows them to attend any campus-based events they wish.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What advice do you have for students who are interested in your program, in terms of submitting an optimal application?

[Dr. Paula Weissman] We take a holistic approach to reviewing applications. All factors, including previous academic experience, professional experience, letters of recommendation, and the personal essay are considered. Some students already have substantial experience in the communications industry; others are experienced in other areas, but looking to make a career switch; and a smaller number are still quite early on in their careers. We look for strong students who have a demonstrated passion for learning more about strategic communication and clear career goals that align with our degree program.

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

[Dr. Paula Weissman] AU’s MA in Strategic Communication is unique in how it blends academic with more applied content. Some master’s programs are more academic and focus primarily on theory and research; others are much more applied with almost a singular focus on skills training. We believe students need a mix of both to be successful. This allows us to provide students with a first-class education that provides a solid foundation that is grounded in the academic discipline while staying current with industry trends.

This philosophy can be seen in the way we have designed our curriculum and by the diverse faculty who teach in the program. Some are leading scholars in the discipline; others have reached the highest levels in the corporate, government, and nonprofit sectors; and many have realized success in both worlds. Our strategic communications programs are delivered by the university’s School of Communication (SOC), which has a long history of delivering high-quality communication programs to undergraduates, masters, and doctoral students. We have 23 dedicated, full-time faculty who teach in the program to ensure continuity across the curriculum. Unlike many online programs that are staffed primarily by adjunct faculty, approximately 50 percent of our online course sections are taught by the same full-time faculty who teach on campus.

As the longest standing public relations and strategic communication program in DC, we have deep connections throughout the city and across the country. Our reputation has earned us many accolades, including being named a top-five “Outstanding Education Program” in the nation by PRWeek magazine. Students leverage this reputation and strong network in their careers. In addition to being exposed to outstanding internship opportunities, events, and guest lectures, we operate an exclusive LinkedIn network for our strategic communication faculty, alumni, and students that currently has over 1,800 members.

Thank you, Dr. Weissman, for your insight into American University’s Master of Arts in Strategic Communication program!