About Heather Cotton, M.S.: Heather Cotton is an independent Strategic Communications Consultant who assists companies with matters related to internal and external communications, public relations, social media training and marketing, employee engagement, crisis communications, and reputation management to include the creation of crisis communications plans, social media policies, and media relations plans. She manages the public profiles for senior-level executives and social media advertising for several companies. Prior to her current work, Ms. Cotton worked in marketing and media with experience in public relations, media relations, brand management, project management, inbound marketing, copy writing, editing, and agency and corporate communications with clients in multiple industries.
Ms. Cotton has a Bachelor of Liberal Arts with a minor in English from Armstrong Atlantic State University, Savannah, GA, and earned her Master of Science in Strategic Communications from Troy University in 2016.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Why did you decide to pursue a Master’s in Communication and why did you ultimately choose Troy’s Master of Science in Strategic Communication program?
[Heather Cotton] Most of my adult life, I have worked in roles related to communications either directly or indirectly. As I navigated between positions in Management to Marketing and Media Relations to teaching High School English and, ultimately, to corporate communications, I observed that organizations with efficient communication techniques, that knew how to address their audience, and that accurately anticipated the needs of their audience were the most successful.
I remember that I was watching the Super Bowl when I made the decision. As a child, many of us had the same assignment for our English classes. “Watch the Super Bowl advertisements this weekend and analyze them for (fill in the blank).” I used the same assignment with my former students to teach persuasive techniques. Every year, the same company grabbed my attention, and I am certainly not their target audience. With a horse, a dog, and a song about letting go, I bought the message. I decided then that I wanted to be a part of helping businesses find their voice and reach not only their target audience, but also potential consumers who may be on the fence about their product or brand.
Troy University has a small office in Brunswick, Georgia. Their Enrollment Coordinator and recruiters are visible in the local business community and knowledgeable of industry trends as they relate to degree programs. When I decided to take a break from teaching and return to corporate communications, I wasn’t sure which path to take or how to begin. One afternoon, I stopped by the office after work, and the staff walked me through my options, signed me up to take the graduate entrance exam, and requested my transcripts.
Once I was accepted to Troy University, the Enrollment Coordinator gave me the email address for the Director of the Hall School of Journalism so that I could ask him specific questions about the program. Not only did he respond by email, he called me to discuss the program and the future purpose of Strategic Communications in American Corporations. I was sold.
[MastersinCommunications.com] How is Troy University’s program structured, and what concepts did the program emphasize? What skills and strategies did you learn in your classes, and how did you apply them to course assignments?
[Heather Cotton] Troy University’s Master of Science in Strategic Communications is offered through the Hall School of Journalism and has a 15:1 student-to-faculty ratio. This is a 30-semester-hour program, and it requires a capstone project upon completion of those hours. The courses are generally offered in order so that students can take two classes each term and benefit from the prerequisite knowledge before moving on to the next term.
Courses were interesting and varied in both content and approach. Overall, the program emphasized several topics and transferrable skills: creating communications plans, public relations, legal and ethical issues as they relate to communications, crisis communications, advertising, market research and analysis, utilizing emerging technology to reach a target audience, and leadership. Professors offered timely, direct, thoughtful feedback to assignments, often prompting more discussion. Though the platform was digital, the learning environment was engaging and warm, respectful and enlightened. The balance between flexible class times and accessible professors was a definite benefit of the program.
Troy University’s Master of Science in Strategic Communications online program allowed me the freedom to work my full-time job during the day while completing the degree in a little over a year by attending 1-2 classes per 9-week term.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What online platform did Troy University use to facilitate interactions and collaborations between course peers and faculty? And how much interaction did you have with classmates and instructors both during and outside of classes?
[Heather Cotton] Blackboard was the online platform used to facilitate the coursework and discussions while I was in the program. We were also able to use email, and professors had office hours during which they were accessible by telephone as well. Our discussion boards had a lively, chatty feel where students posted not only the required content but also nearly anything related to the class from related questions to witticisms. It was through the Blackboard discussion posts that many of us became friends on other platforms both social and professional.
Technology made group projects so much easier than the days of having to plan to meet at the library. Being able to contribute to a project with members who may reside in remote locations closely mirrors today’s work environment. We were able to enjoy having independent think space and also utilize a common collaborative medium that held everyone accountable for their product and participation.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please elaborate on the capstone project that Troy University’s Master of Science in Strategic Communication program requires as your final graduation requirement? What was the process of completing this project, and what research question did you investigate?
[Heather Cotton] The Strategic Communications Capstone is taken as separate class worth three semester hours, and it is intended to be the final class of the program. While I did not have to present my project to a panel of peers or faculty, the topic of the paper had to be approved by the supervising professor, and the project and research paper were subject to review by the department. The research included identification and analysis of a communication plan used by an existing corporation during a crisis or potential crisis. With multiple and varied resources, the objective of the capstone project was to compare the corporation’s communications plan and practice to the common theories studied in the Strategic Communications program. Ultimately, an extensive research paper is written, and a comprehensive communications campaign is developed to prove competency.
Throughout the capstone project, the supervising professor was available to answer questions, offer guidance, and give feedback on content, resources, and the research process. Also, because all of our projects were inherently different, students were able to openly discuss and troubleshoot any challenges we had with our peers.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What advice would you give students just starting Troy University’s Master of Science in Strategic Communication program? More broadly, what advice would you give students who are either considering or starting a Master’s in Communication program, whether it be at Troy or another university?
[Heather Cotton] I encourage students who are considering a graduate program in communications to choose one that is innovative and examines the broader field of communications with a holistic approach such as the Master of Science in Strategic Communication instead of a program that seeks to isolate one specific category of the field of communications like as public relations. I would also look specifically for a program with professors who take time to offer feedback and real-world experience.
Thank you, Ms. Cotton, for your insight into Troy University’s Master of Science in Strategic Communication program!