Skip to main content


The Art of Untangling a Crisis

I was late to the party that is Scandal. Over the summer, I watched five episodes of Olivia Pope expertly turn crisis situations around before I gave up. All said and done, it pepped me up to learn about the world of crisis communication in my elective, Foundations of Strategic Communication Management.

There is a whole science to handling public crises completely unbeknownst to the average Joe.  It requires an intricate mix of strategic communication, audience vetting and medium management.  There are a myriad of concepts to consider: Instructing information, adjusting information, reputation repair, secondary crisis communication, crisis reaction, etc.  It’s no simple task, certainly, and it seems to take a special sort of skill. Of course, in line with all preconceptions about the communications and media field, you can’t help but wonder whether it is really for public pacification or for self-preservation. Perhaps, it varies under different circumstances but exploring the literature behind it definitely helps create a different perspective.

While we often connect crisis communication to corporates, the field also encapsulates other phenomena. For example, earlier this month, Bermuda—yes, the entire country—won four elite British awards for fighting to eliminate its label as a tax haven.  Similarly, Panama also hired a crisis communication firm to weather the storm in the aftermath of the Panama Papers leak.  Public information about natural disasters also comes under the umbrella of crisis communication–who would have thought?

While the work of crisis communicators naturally comes under scrutiny, it is fascinating to see the breadth of their work and the different opportunities that emerge. At the end of the day, whether it is self-preservation or genuinely public pacification, we all do rely on crisis communicators to let us know, in some small way, that everything will be okay.

Madhurya Manohar
MSC Class of 2017

MSC Elective: Foundations of Strategic Communication Management

“Strategic communication.” Eight weeks ago, my mental picture of this concept was some amusing hybrid of Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush impersonation (“strate…gery”) and that Seinfeld episode where George jbtdlzr-2
Costanza is forced by his boss to back up his mastery of “risk management” (and so turns to a book on tape for help). I’ve learned a lot since then,
but my Buzzfeedy brain hasn’t been completely rewired. Professor Randy Iden gets the inherent hilarity of the academic vocab—and loves Larry David enterprises, too. We talk Seinfeld. We talk Curb Your Enthusiasm.

So, what is strategic communication? In this writer’s opinion, strategic communication is not just a C-suite euphemism for pushy business talk, but a pervasive phenomenon you’ll see throughout your organization at every level. In fact, I guarantee you use it, too. If you’ve ever omitted information to spare feelings, hung your hat a bit con-ven-ient-ly on a company mission statement, or walked employees or colleagues through anything new or uncomfortable using really careful language—well, you’ve been a tad strategic, haven’t you? Don’t feel too guilty. Strategic communication, while it has an acknowledged dark side (commonly identified as bold-faced lying!), is often hugely necessary even when it’s a maybe little evil. It can often do a lot of good for an organization (or maybe just your own work welfare).

Now that I’ve convinced you that you need this product, stay tuned for my next blog entry: a list of concepts I’ve learned in class, translated into (basically) conversational language. If this week’s political climes have you dreading Thanksgiving dinner conversation as much as I am, then I hope these grab-and-go conversation-starters (like “so, what’s the deal with airplane peanuts…and boundaryless organizations?”) will serve us all well. Otherwise, just be strategic and bring really chewy stuffing.

Jennifer Lindner
MSC Class of 2017


What industries is the NU MSC program best suited for?

MSC students come from a variety of professional backgrounds. The diversity of their work experiences creates a vibrant class culture allowing lectures to draw upon that diversity.  Every industry needs strong, effective communicators. Whether you are interested in Health Communication or Finance, the ability to create messaging and connect with an audience is paramount in today’s competitive business environment.

The School of Communication understands that MSC students require a curriculum design that is flexible and adaptable.  That is one of this program’s biggest strengths. Time and again, employers mention that communication skills, and other “soft skills” are what they seek in employees and applicants. And this is across industries.

MSC’s curriculum design consistently stands the test of time. It challenges students to see themselves as communications experts. And since we communicate to stakeholders every day, the impact from your studies can be seen immediately. From health communication to consulting, crafting messages specifically honed for an intended audience, are vital in virtually every industry.  

As the program’s career coach, I meet with students frequently who are seeking to use the program as the catapult to enter a new field. Each coaching session draws upon a student’s unique background and the skills they’ve developed from the program. Each of the industries they are exploring are searching for many of the same qualities: someone who is seen as a leader, an effective communicator and has strategic vision.  As an MSC student, the course content is applicable to many industries and gives you the ability to propel your career forward. 

Michael Johnson
Associate Director
MSC External Programs, Internships, & Career Services

Northwestern MSC Spotlight: A Conversation with Michael Johnson

michaelMichael Johnson is the Associate Director of External Programs, Internships and Career Services (EPICS) for the MSC program.  In this role Michael provides career coaching for students and alumni of the MSC program.  He also provides specific programming for students throughout the year including webinars and lunch presentations on a number of different career related topics.  He began working with the MSC program in January of 2016.

What is your favorite aspect of the MSC program?

Each student I work with is unique and that is exciting.  When you work in a specific trade or job function you develop unique skills and the students I work with have a variety of skills.  The students are the ones that drive the conversations, I’m constantly challenged to help find ways to deliver on their career goals and questions.

 A career transition is a very personal decision and many of our students use the program as a bridge – to get them from where they are to where they want to go. My job, and the job of the program, is to empower students to make those choices. In fact, that’s what career coaching is all about. It’s less about advising and more about challenging students.  I ask questions like where they want to go and why, what are their strengths and how they use them, or why (or why not) they are held back by fear.

 Why did you decide to come work for the MSC program?

My previous experience had been with undergraduate students and I was looking for an opportunity to work with students who were more seasoned and focused on what they wanted to do.  I enjoy working with graduate students because not only do they have more experience, but many have specific career goals in mind.  I’ve helped our students do everything from getting a promotion in their current company to switching careers entirely. 

 What makes Northwestern MSC different from other Masters in Communications programs?

We are one of few programs that I am aware of where a position like mine even exists.  Career Services, specifically a dedicated staff, are rare among graduate communication programs.  I am able to host Lunch & Learns and webinars with the students where we gather in smaller groups for workshops or presentations on specific career related content.  It has also become common for alumni to join in these to provide some of their perspective on how the MSC program has helped them in their specific industry.

 The program is also incredibly flexible and interpretive of how it relates to you.  The three learning themes, Managing Complexity, Collaborate Leadership and Elegant Communication are very broad and can be applied in many different ways.  Students in the Custom Leadership Program are also able to customize their classes to help facilitate a career move.

 Any other projects you have been working on that we might like to know about?

We are working to expand the EPICS offerings even further.  We are also working more closely with alumni by getting them to come back to contribute and help create a more vibrant experience.  Finally we are tailoring some of the EPICS programming to integrate with the program courses and learning outcomes so that we are continuing discussions on the concepts students are learning about in class and demonstrating how they can be applied in the professional world.


How will my MS Communication degree reflect changes in communication?

I entered the MSC program in September of 2000.  I figured that a new millennium was a good enough reason to face up to a major change in my life.  I was 40 years old and already was on my second career, having spent time as both a corporate lawyer and helping to manage a mid-market manufacturing business.  The business had just been sold and I was facing a transition whether I wanted it or not.   When I made a list of the skills and tasks I had accumulated, I noticed a common theme.  I enjoyed being a communicator.  One of my good friends put it even more succinctly, “You need a job where you can talk!.” 

Luckily one of the recruiters I was working with, knew about a program at Northwestern that could help turn that insight into a direction.  From the first day of orientation I knew that I had found my people.  Even back in the dark ages, we knew that organizations were going to have to adapt to evolving communication needs and the MSC has always been adept at anticipating the ways that communication is changing.  On the other hand, the study of human communication has a long and proud history and so changing communication education does not mean throwing out the baby with the bath water.  For me, learning about the ancient art of rhetoric was life-changing, but I also learned about organizational communication, how to write and use a survey, how to survive a hostile press conference and how to find and leverage the core values of a group of people.  I learned about the way communication needs were evolving from a cohort that worked in old industries and new, in a variety of job roles.  The best part of the program was the way it bridged the theoretical world of academia with the practical world of work in profit, non-profit and government settings.  The number one lesson I took from the formal and informal parts of my MSC experience was that a deliberate and careful understanding of the art/science of communication gives people power to create change. 

Of course, the MSC is, in many ways, very different from the program I attended.  Changing communication education means staying on top of the theories, platforms, technologies and cultures that allow us to be innovators.  But the MSC has never been one to only follow fad and fashion.  The core values of this program emphasize that there are eternal facts of human organization that will never go out of style.  Evolving communication requires an expert balance of the old and the new.  As I begin my new role as a full-time faculty member in the program, I am so proud that the MSC still is changing communication education without trying to fix what isn’t broken.  I would love to talk to anyone who is interested in some of the history of this program and how it remains a unique partnership between Northwestern and the organizational world of work.

Randy Iden
MSC class of 2002
Lecturer and Supervisor of Capstone Projects

What MSC courses will advance your career the most?

One of the best parts of my job is talking with students about their career goals.  They come from a diverse background of professions and it makes my job ever changing.  Many of these career conversations revolve around what’s next.  One of the most compelling conversations you can have is where you see yourself in a few years.  Communication classes can be an important component in advancing your career.

stock-photo-16571937-knowledge-highlighted-under-trainingpaid-for-2Each of the communication classes you take while an MSC student can benefit you professionally.  There are several MSC courses that are continually popular with students and alumni. But I’d venture to say that each MSC course pushes students to continually refine their communication skills and directly implement them into their careers. 

What classes you should take are some of the most personal decisions you’ll make while at Northwestern. Are you interested in changing industries?  Have you been thinking of seeking a promotion?  Elements from each of your classes are building blocks that allow you to add to your value proposition.  Employers are always eager to hear what classes have impacted your thinking, changed your management style or reinforced an important concept.  Those classes can also fill a professional void if you are lacking a specific skill set.  Take classes that challenge you and get you out of your comfort zone.  That’s how we grow professionally.

Each of the classes you take will give you a new level of confidence and help you to advance in your career.

Michael Johnson
Associate Director
MSC External Programs, Internships, & Career Services

The Complexities Of Collaboration

We kick off every Saturday with a rousing 3-hour session on Leading Collaboration with Professor Leslie DeChurch. The class gets progressively better every week, with a commendable ability to keep us on our toes throughout.

We begin with a segment called the Teams in the News where students are invited to find real-life examples of team collaborations and a select few are chosen to talk about it to the class. The variety of examples that come through each week illustrate how different people would define a team. While a sports team would be the obvious example, teams also form around political candidates in an election—something that is often not focused on in the media. On a side note, the breadth of news articles that the class produces also reflects a variety of reading interests which ties back into how diverse the class is.

Following this, Professor DeChurch will introduce us to a new concept of collaboration.  The sheer complexity of teamwork is fascinating. It is a give-and-take, push-and-pull of different personalities and different dynamics. For example, this past week, we learned about Mixed-Motive teams where members need to balance their self-interest against the better good of the team. That old saying “There is no I in Team” is brutally dissected in the face of such concepts. Teamwork is defined so differently than in the conventional sense. It’s observation, data, and psychology all woven together to produce the best possible result.

Then, it’s down to application. Professor DeChurch teams students up on a random basis and the class dives into a team activity that aligns with the concept we have learned. The team activities hit three birds with one stone: you get to work alongside different members of the cohort every week; you understand how your personality and behaviour adapts to different tasks and different team dynamics; and, you apply a concept in the simplest possible way while having fun and learning something new in the process.

The class ends with a thorough debrief of the exercise where we see how our team performed relative to the others and areas in which we could have improved.  And before you know it, it’s lunchtime. And that’s the beauty of the class: It successfully challenges the passiveness that sets in early in the morning and that keeps us afloat for most of the day.

Madhurya Manohar

MSC Class of 2017

The Hazards of Agreement

Was it strategy or serendipity that placed Collaborative Leadership as our first required class in the MSC program? I haven’t sought out a formal answer, but it certainly feels strategic, because a large part of this course is randomly-assigned team activities, meaning we have an embedded opportunity every Saturday to get to know new people in our cohort. The other boon of these incredibly engaging team sessions is that they bring to life key concepts on how people work together (and don’t) as a result of behavioral biases.

I can’t describe these in-class activities in detail, because that would ruin legitimate Aha! Moments for future MSCers. But I would like to share one of my favorite new behavioral biases. (I’m in the creative field, so I collect these things like Beanie Babies.)

Meet the common knowledge effect. Actually, you already know it well if you’ve ever participated in any kind of meeting, ever. You just might not have known it by its formal moniker. Defined, it’s the demonstration ″that an irrelevant factor—the number of members who know a particular piece of information—can affect group decisions. If a piece of unshared information is crucial to making a correct decision, the result may be an incorrect decision.″

msc_blog_1In effect, pieces of common knowledge tend to dominate discussion time and disproportionately drive decisions. Person A shares something that’s familiar to both Person B and Person C, who express their agreement, and suddenly there’s the hopeful glimmer of consensus on the horizon. This effect is compounded as more of this “common knowledge” is shared out and validated to by other group members. Unique (“unshared”) information—something only known by Person C, for example—may be less likely to be contributed to the discussion if it doesn’t follow the trend of the common knowledge. Or, if Person C does speak up, their unique knowledge holds less weight in the decision-making process compared any piece of common knowledge.

It’s all in the (bad) math. A piece of common knowledge appears to get “multiplied” by the factor of the individuals who share it. Unique knowledge (which only has one voice behind it) is the underdog by magnitudes, depending how many people are in the meeting and just how common their common knowledge is!

You can imagine how this effect must pose an invisible but real barrier to innovation in organizations as they habitually reconfirm and recycle what’s already commonly known. So how do we save ourselves from the feel-good spirit of easy agreement and invite shifts in the conversation that might seem deviant–or even, well, unproductive? 

Soul-searching questions–but they’re what I signed up for. 

Jennifer Lindner

MSC Class of 2017

I Look Forward To My Saturdays???

Back in January, when I first decided to apply to the MSC Communication program, I would refer to this blog often to get an idea of what exactly I was signing up for. One alum said “I look forward to my Saturdays” and I remember really questioning that statement. What about a 9-5 schedule on the most wonderful day of the week was worth looking forward to? After having a successful first day this past Saturday, I completely understand what she meant.

For an international student having just graduated from college a year ago, the MSC Communication program appears daunting on paper: the subject matter, the experiences your classmates are bringing to the program, and the real worldliness of it all. However, within the first hour of our core class, Leading Collaboration with Professor Leslie DeChurch, I was comfortably settled and excited for the ball to roll. My classmates are professionally diverse, of different ages and hometowns, and are among the nicest people I have met. We were thrown into teams from the get-go and had a great time maneuvering our activities: building the tallest tower with spaghetti and figuring out supplies to take with us if we were stranded on the moon. The bustle of teamwork made the three hours fly by.

Of course, it would be unfair to not mention the lunch hour where we got to socialize over great food. Given the professional emphasis of the program, I expected to have our interactions be defined by where we work and what we do. With only internships under my belt, that can be a different road to maneuver. Surprisingly enough, it wasn’t the case at all. Everyone is interested in learning about you beyond your professional capacity and whether you have had 20 years of experience or you are just starting out in the real world, everyone is on the same page and is keen to learn. It helps that our classmates also have a sweet tooth.

My elective for this quarter, Foundations of Strategic Communication Management with Professor Randall Iden, rounded off a great first day. In our first session, we learned the importance of crafting good mission statements, which, in all honesty, I had always taken to be a string of bubblegum words to promote a company’s image. It was much more interesting than I thought it would be. Teamwork beckoned again and we set to work on crafting a concise and all-encompassing mission statement for the course that we will adhere to for the rest of the quarter.

As an international student, we also attend a seminar on Wednesdays. It’s a cosy class—just 11 of us—learning how to use data to make informed decisions. In a world with so much data, learning how to discern the important numbers and how to communicate them effectively will definitely come in handy. In our first class, we learned about how fraudulent scientific research can wreak havoc in a community. Our point of discussion was a research paper in 1998 that linked the MMR vaccine to the incidence of autism in children. Wakefield Lancet’s paper was retracted around 2002 but continues to trigger a debate about vaccinations. It goes to show that something as complex and far-reaching as scientific research should be subjected to governance.

All in all, a Saturday well spent and a great first week of classes!

Madhurya Manohar

MSC Class of 2017

My First Week Of Grad School

As I look back on my first Saturday in the MSC program, I have a few takeaways.

  • The day goes by quickly. I heard that at orientation. I didn’t believe them.
  • Just as the MSC program is accelerated, I got to figure out people’s personalities and know their names…QUICKLY.
  • The Leading Collaboration core class has already opened my eyes on the distinction between groups (of individuals) and teams. Teams can bring up an individual performance and the “best member” can drive the performance up but their individual score may drop!
  • The Foundations of Strategic Communication Management elective class has fueled my fascination with mission statements. We are writing one for the class, in groups, and will collectively decide on the best one. We will hold each other accountable each week – are we meeting the mission?
  • I will take advantage of the school’s quick bandwidth and download readings in advance so I am prepared.
  • That being written, I don’t think I am going to bring my laptop to class. I learn better by writing down my notes and gives me one less thing to carry throughout the day.
  • Did you know the school library is open until 3am Monday through Thursday?!
  • My free time has slowly evaporated and is spent reading, writing, playing the guitar, or wondering if I am supposed to be doing something else.
  • I will not be hungry….We get breakfast, morning snack, lunch, and an afternoon snack. Yet, I wasn’t tired!
  • Being a grad student is not an excuse to stop exercise. With my Fitbit in tow, I will make sure I get those 10,000 steps in on class day!

by Lauren Rein

MSC class of 2017