About Melissa Braithwaite: Melissa Braithwaite is a Global Marketing Communications Manager at Becton, Dickinson and Company (BD), a medical technology company with offices around the world. In this role, she works with medical device product managers on integrated marketing communications plans, researching, developing, and implementing communications strategies for new and existing products. Before joining BD, Ms. Braithwaite spent nearly six years with Bard Access Systems, starting as a Marketing Coordinator before moving into the role of Associate Digital Marketing Communications Manager.
Ms. Braithwaite holds two undergraduate degrees from Utah State University, a bachelor’s in Marketing and bachelor’s in Fine Art and Design. She completed her master’s degree through the Master of Strategic Communication program at Westminster College.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we please have a brief description of your educational and professional background?
[Melissa Braithwaite] I completed two bachelor’s degrees, one in marketing and one in fine art, at Utah State University. I received a master’s in strategic communications (MSC) from Westminster as well. I currently work in marketing communications for a large medical device company, Becton, Dickinson and Company (BD).
My current role includes working directly with teams of product managers to develop the communications strategy for new and existing products. I’m lucky enough to get to be involved in a lot of aspects of communications. I work on research, positioning, communications plans, and plan execution. In the research phase, I’m often involved in the questionnaire development, participant interviews, and findings reports. I use this information for various purposes, including product positioning, persona building, audience targeting, message crafting, and channel strategizing.
I guide my teams through positioning workshops to help the sales force understand who to target and why. Positioning contributes tremendously to the integrated marketing communications (IMC) planning process, which I implemented and lead. In the IMC process, I work with my product teams to develop strategies and tactics tied directly to the objectives determined in the marketing plan. I research and determine appropriate tactics based on the audience, message, and approach.
Once a plan is completed and budget has been approved, I work with agencies to execute the creative and purchase media for ad space. I also collect and report any metrics derived from campaigns to report to leadership how successful the plan was in fulfilling the outlined objectives.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Why did you decide to pursue a master’s degree in communication, and why did you ultimately choose Westminster College’s Master of Strategic Communication?
[Melissa Braithwaite] My path to deciding on pursing a master’s degree in communications was somewhat unique. I was working within a large corporation that had recently created a marketing communications department, which, at the time, included me and my manager. I had a background in marketing and art, which was very helpful, but I knew I needed more to help me be really successful.
The corporation placed a high value on MBAs, so it seemed like a logical choice, despite already having a marketing degree. After talking to a lot of people about their experience in an MBA program, I decided it could be a good fit. I enrolled in the University of Utah’s professional MBA program, hoping it would prove valuable. After two semesters of essentially repeating classes from my undergraduate degree, I felt like the program wasn’t teaching me how to build strategic plans with measurable outcomes or apply what I was learning to today’s marketing landscape. I was becoming very miserable spending hours and hours every week sitting through lectures and memorizing answers for quizzes and tests. I don’t feel like textbooks, lectures, and tests are conducive to helping a student genuinely understand and apply concepts, so I was thrilled when I learned about Westminster’s approach to learning.
Westminster’s master’s in strategic communications program is competency based, which provides a hands-on approach to learning. I learned about the program by first researching multiple communications programs online, and then attended an open house at Westminster to learn more about its program. I was able to meet current professors and others who were interested. The open house was small and allowed me to ask any questions I had.
I determined it was the right program for me because it was hands on, which was a high priority for me. I also appreciated the idea of small cohorts, easy access to my professors, and the ability to learn through working within a team on real projects with real companies.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of your experience completing the curriculum for this program? What key concepts did the program emphasize, and how did the five specific content areas (Rhetoric and Strategic Public Relations, Visual Communication and Brand Strategy, Organizational Communication and Culture, Integrated Marketing Communication, and Instructional Design) inform your learning outcomes? What skills and strategies did you learn in your classes, and how did you apply them to course assignments?
[Melissa Braithwaite] I had a great experience as a student in the strategic communications program. Each semester provided two opportunities to understand the emphasis for that semester: individual and group projects. For individual projects, we each worked with our professor and chose a project to work on that would fulfill the learning objectives. I typically chose to find projects at my company to work on because it gave me the opportunity to work with teams I didn’t typically work with and provide value to those teams. For group projects, the group worked with our professor and reached out to organizations that needed help. We often worked with smaller companies or non-profits because they typically are under resourced and really appreciated the help we could provide.
Spending a semester focusing on one of the five key concepts really helped me understand that concept and how I could apply it at work.
- Rhetoric has helped me think critically and understand the messages competitive companies are sending out, how audiences might receive those messages, and how to construct narratives within the messages my company needs to relay to audiences.
- Technical writing (now replaced by visual communications and brand strategy) helped me learn how to better articulate my message in writing and build more persuasive arguments. I often help my coworkers with reports and internal messages.
- Organization communications and culture became meaningful as my company began to rebrand itself internally. I was able to use an individual project to work with the corporate brand team on employer branding. Also, last year, the company was acquired. The concepts I learned in that semester have given me an interesting lens to view the restructuring activities through.
- Integrated marketing communications (IMC) was definitely invaluable for me and my company. The marketing team was struggling at achieving objectives through strategic communications. We were often reactive in our approach, rather than using thoughtful planning. I was able to implement the IMC principles and structure I learned and have been very successful. Our marketing team rarely received the funds needed to execute a solid communications strategy. After I began working with the teams to help them build IMC plans, we were able to prove to leadership that our plans were based on solid goals, objectives, and strategies. We now had plans worth the money and began receiving much larger budgets to work within. Being able to structure a plan that ties strategies to objectives with measureable outcomes is a skill that no one at work has learned in an MBA program, which always tells me, I made the right decision in changing programs.
- Instructional design is something I use now at work quite a bit. Getting a good look into this concept through school has been helpful in thinking about how our customers might interact with our education programs. We learned this concept by putting it straight to use. We developed a short course to teach a non-profit company how to identify and communicate with target markets and why that’s so important.
[MastersinCommunications.com] As a student of Westminster College’s online/hybrid program format, what were your experiences interacting with course faculty and peers both in and outside of classes? What learning technologies did this program use, and were they effective in helping you feel connected to your professors and class cohort?
[Melissa Braithwaite] I honestly never felt like this was an online program. We accessed materials and submitted assignments via an online portal, but the format was so different from other online classes I’ve taken. We didn’t view lectures online and we weren’t required to post to a class forum, like so many online classes. Instead, I always felt like I was simply part of a live team. I was fortunate enough to have everyone in my cohort live relatively close to Westminster campus, so we met as a team every Thursday night, more often if necessary. If someone was traveling or had a tight schedule, that person called in via Google Hangout. We were able to choose any technology that worked best for us. After trying out a couple of other conferencing options, we felt Hangout worked the best for us.
I always felt very connected to my professors and cohort. We spent one whole Saturday together at the beginning of each semester to go over course objectives and discuss concepts. It was always a great way to get to know a professor if we didn’t know him or her already.
Each semester we typically had only one professor to work with. He or she acted more as a mentor than a professor, which was one of the best things about the program. Throughout the semester, I typically had a weekly call with my professor to check in and discuss the current status of my individual project. Outside of that, our professors kept themselves pretty available to us. We were able to call, email, text, video chat, or visit in person with our professors.
Our professors also reviewed our projects with comments for improvement, rather than simply handing out grades. Each project had milestones throughout the semester, which required us to turn in what we had accomplished for that milestone. Our professor would review our submissions within a timely manner and provide comments that were always very helpful. We were not allowed to move onto the next section of work until our current work was approved by the professor. I always really appreciated having their feedback. I learned so much by going through the process of implementing feedback. I think it definitely helped me become so much better at achieving the skills we were focused on learning each semester. The professors were all great to work with and definitely held the attitude that they were there to help us succeed. I always felt very supported.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Westminster College’s program is unique in that it includes a fully funded international trip during which students work collaboratively on a field project for a non-profit or other organization. Could you describe your experiences on this trip, and what learning outcomes, professional connections, and hands-on experience you gained from it?
[Melissa Braithwaite] The international trip was definitely the highlight of the program. My cohort traveled to Cape Town, South Africa to work with the Desmond Tutu Foundation’s youth program. Our objective was to help the program develop PSA spots to help destigmatize receiving medical help for HIV. Many myths persist around how to treat or cure HIV, which sometimes contributes to the spread of HIV.
We attended meetings prior to leaving for South Africa to work on ideas for the campaign and filming technique. Once we were in Cape Town, multiple visits were made to the youth center to meet with the kids enrolled in the program. We held multiple activities to learn more about them and understand their culture and thoughts on HIV stigmas.
Being able to meet and talk with South African youth was a great experience. I loved seeing their spirit, despite the difficult circumstances they were facing. I also like that my understanding of the world has been broadened through visiting the youth center and hearing each student’s past and current experiences.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please describe your experience completing your Corporate Training and Capstone Project? Which client did you work with, and how did you collaborate with your team of peers on a strategic communication project? How did your faculty advisor(s) support you in your research and work?
[Melissa Braithwaite] We completed the Corporate Training piece and Capstone Project in our last semester. For the Corporate Training piece, we worked with a non-profit organization in Cincinnati, Ohio that connects families looking to adopt children with Down syndrome with adoption agencies with children with Down syndrome. The organization was small and needed help growing its awareness. Having just completed the integrated marketing communications semester, we knew the agency could benefit from understanding its target audience and determining ways to reach those organizations or people. We also understood that the agency was small and had limited resources to commit to marketing and communications, so being able to narrow down those efforts to specific targets would help the team be most effective.
We developed a training course using the instructional design principles we were learning that semester. We worked very closely with our professors to ensure our training would be useful, as we really wanted to do our best in helping the organization. Our professors were great at helping us understand the principles of instructional design and what kind of training would be most helpful and easy to implement.
Ultimately, due to distance, we chose to hold a webinar with the organization. The program administrator helped us secure a room at Westminster to hold the webinar. We were able to provide the content and suggestions for implementation and have time at the end for discussion and questions. The organization staff in attendance were very engaged and asked lots of questions to understand how they could use this new information to achieve their goals.
While working on creating the training course, we were also working on individual capstone projects. We each created a portfolio website. We built our sites using WordPress. A professor in the program scheduled a one-day training to help us get started purchasing a domain name and linking it to a host and our WordPress site. Although my employer has an entire team dedicated to building websites and landing pages, learning how to do this on my own was a great experience. It has helped me as I work with the product and digital teams at work. I now know that mapping out content and structure prior to building a site is extremely important and understand the tremendous amount of work that goes into building a site.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What key takeaways, experiences, or connections from Westminster College’s Master of Strategic Communication have you found to be the most helpful for you in your career path?
[Melissa Braithwaite] I think the entire program was extremely beneficial to my career path. The program gave me skills in critical areas that many companies look for. Overall, it definitely gave me the ability to think more broadly in an approach to marketing communications and the ability to structure those ideas into an executable plan. We learned skills in strategic thinking and how to tie those strategies to measurable outcomes, which is something I find many people think they can do but struggle to articulate how they’re going to make those connections. I apply a lot of these learnings through integrated marketing communications planning. This by far has been tremendously valuable to me since I have been able to implement the practice at work and teach others how to create IMC plans as well, which has in turn helped those people grow and become more successful.
The program gave me a lot of valuable constructive feedback related to my writing style, writing structure, and presentation skills. I really appreciate the way the professors choose to be more of a mentor than a teacher. This created a really positive learning environment that helped me feel a lot more confident in the skills I was gaining and being able to implement them at work.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What advice would you give students just starting Westminster College’s Master of 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 is at Westminster College or another university?
[Melissa Braithwaite] If I were looking into going to a graduate program again, I would definitely look for programs that use a competency-based, hands-on program. This approach to learning was critical to my learning. If I had to learn the concepts we learned in the MSC program through lectures, textbooks, and tests, I wouldn’t have gained the in-depth understanding I acquired. Learning the concepts through real projects with the support, experience, and knowledge of my cohort and mentors gave me the confidence to feel like I understood the material enough to implement what I was learning into my job. I knew from first-hand experience that what I learned at school worked.
Thank you, Ms. Braithwaite, for your excellent insights on Westminster College’s Master of Strategic Communication program!