Question: What Are the Differences Between Master’s in Communication and Master’s in Public Relations Degree Programs?

Answer: There are a number of key differences between master’s in communication and master’s in public relations degree programs. Master’s in communication designates a broad array of graduate programs that encompasses communication and media studies, mass communication, strategic communication, technical communication, and various types of applied communication specializations, including health and political communication and public relations. In contrast, master’s in public relations refers to a subset of master’s degree programs that focus more narrowly on providing training in skills and knowledge related to the practice of media relations, brand management, and facilitating client interactions with the public.

Master’s in Communication vs. Master’s in Public Relations (PR) Programs

Master’s in communication programs typically offer foundational coursework in communication theory and may also include practical training in a communication specialization such as public relations. Master’s in public relations degree programs may provide some coursework in communication theory, but the majority of the courses in a public relations master’s program focus on cultivating proficiencies in areas that are relevant to working in the field of public relations. This is the primary different between earning a master’s in communication degree as opposed to a master’s in public relations degree.

It is important to note that while these two types of programs generally have different areas of emphasis, there can be significant overlap between program curricula. For example, some master’s in strategic communication programs may be very similar to master’s in public relations programs, and vice-versa.

Master’s in Communication Degree Programs

As an area of academic study and research, communication, communication studies, and communication science are grounded in qualitative and quantitative analyses of how people express, transmit, and interpret thoughts, ideas, messages, and narratives on an individual level and a mass scale. It is an inherently interdisciplinary field that uses social and behavioral science research and close analyses of media technologies to formulate theories that further our understanding of communication processes and the effects of mass media. These theories can then be applied to a number of practical concerns, such as strategic marketing, advertising, political campaigning, health education, and public relations. As a result, there are different types of master’s programs available in the field of communication, and several common areas of specialization that may be pursued by graduate students in communication programs. These include:

  • Master’s in Communication Studies and Interpersonal Communication
  • Master’s in Communication with a Specialization in Public Relations and/or Marketing
  • Master’s in Health Communication
  • Master’s in Integrated Marketing Communications
  • Master’s in Mass Communication and Media Studies
  • Master’s in New Media and Digital Communication
  • Master’s in Organizational Communication
  • Master’s in Political Communication
  • Master’s in Strategic Communication
  • Master’s in Technical Communication

Communication Theory vs. Applied Communication

One of the key distinctions among master’s in communication degree programs concerns research in the field of communication theory and training in the application of theory to practical endeavors. While this distinction is not necessarily reflected in how schools designate master’s in communication programs, a theory-focused program focuses primarily on research in areas such as interpersonal communication, cross-cultural communication, the impact of mass media and digital media technologies on society, and the processes by which different types of media are processed and consumed.

While a theory-focused master’s in communication program can equip graduates with tools that have practical applications in business, government, and other areas, studying communication theory at the master’s level is often a pathway to further graduate work and research at the doctoral level.

Applied communication master’s programs use communication theory and research as a foundation for specialized training and instruction in specific applications of communication skills and knowledge. Some of the more common applied communication master’s program specializations include: corporate and strategic marketing; health and political communication; journalism and media studies; science and technical communication; and public relations.

Students who are interested in pursing a master’s in communication degree should research program curricula to determine whether or not the coursework aligns with their personal and professional goals. It is important to note that many master’s in communication programs provide a mix of theoretical and practical training, and some programs offer two or more designated communication specializations, which may include theory-based and applied communication coursework.

Master’s in Public Relations Degree Programs

Public relations is an area of specialization within the broader field of applied communication, and many master’s in public relations degree programs are offered through schools and departments of communication. Indeed, one common type of public relations master’s program is a master’s in communication with a specialization in public relations. There are also stand-alone master’s in public relations programs, which may or may not be offered through schools and departments of communication. What these programs have in common is that they are designed to provide students with practical training for work that involves representing individuals and organizations in the public arena, managing the media profiles of companies and individuals, and furthering the public relations objectives of various types of clients.

Dedicated master’s in public relations programs typically offer more core and elective courses specific to public relations than master’s in communication programs with a specialization or concentration in public relations.

Master’s in Communication and Master’s in Public Relations Program Coursework

Master’s program curricula in the field of communication vary greatly by school, by program focus, and by the nature of particular specializations. Master’s in public relations program curricula also vary by program, but the coursework tends to be more narrowly focused on providing students with knowledge and skills that are specific to understanding public relations and to cultivating skills relevant to its practice. Nevertheless, some master’s in public relations programs provide students with several foundational courses in communication theory followed by core coursework in public relations. As a result, there is commonly some overlap between what students learn in a general master’s in communication program versus a specialized master’s in public relations program.

The table below contrasts typical master’s-level coursework in public relations with general master’s in communication courses, some of which may also be found in master’s in a public relations curriculum, and vice-versa.

Master’s in Communication CoursesMaster’s in Public Relations Courses
Communication & Mass Media: The history of mass media technologies and their social and cultural impact on the evolution of communication.Principles & Practice of Strategic Public Relations: A history of public relations, theories, and public relations strategy in the digital media age.
Communication Research Methods: Quantitative and qualitative research methodologies and experimental design and analysis in mass media and communication.Persuasion & Influence: Persuasive writing and speaking in order to control messaging and further the public relations objectives of individual clients and organizations.
Media Law: Laws pertaining to media operations and the statutes governing issues related to libel, slander, privacy, and intellectual property Elements of Public Relations: The various tools and functions of public relations and the design of public relations media and marketing campaigns.
Interpersonal Communication: Theories of person-to-person communication and their application. Communication & Society: Theories of social and intercultural communication applied to media and public relations.
Nonverbal Communication: An overview of nonverbal aspects of communication and the use of images and other nonverbal representations in human interactions.Reputation Management: The role of the PR professional in tracking, maintaining, and defending personal and product branding across all types of media platforms.
Negotiation & Conflict Resolution: Strategies for negotiating and resolving conflicts using persuasion and other communication tactics.Media Relations: Strategies for engaging with journalists and other media professionals to further the goals of individuals, companies, and organizations.
Integrated Marketing Communications: Strategies for coordinating traditional and new media communications.Crisis Communication: Deploying the tools of public relations to protect clients in crisis situations.
Organizational Communication: The structure of communication within an organization and how parties within organizations communicate with one another.Ethical Public Relations: Frameworks and guidelines for the ethical practice of public relations and the norms that govern the public relations profession.

Choosing Between a Master’s in Communication and a Master’s in Public Relations Degree Program

Master’s in communication programs can prepare students for a broad range of careers in business and government, as well as in specific sectors of the economy, such as healthcare and the entertainment industry. Graduates from master’s in communication programs may also teach at the community college level and at some universities, and/or pursue further graduate studies and research in communication. Depending on the program and its curriculum, a master’s in communication degree may also provide graduates with skills for work in the field of public relations.

Master’s in public relations degree programs are designed specifically to prepare students for work in media relations, public affairs, and public relations and may not be ideal for students who intend to pursue careers in other areas of communication. Students who intend to or who are already working in the field of public relations may find the more focused curricula that are typical of master’s in public relations programs preferable to a general master’s in communication program curriculum. Students who are looking for broader instruction in communication should explore the various types of master’s in communication programs that are offered in order to find programs that will help them meet their professional goals.


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