By Dr. Bjorn Mercer  |  06/10/2021

APU podcast

The way individuals and organizations communicate has changed dramatically with the widespread adoption of social media. In this episode, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to Communications professors Dr. Alison Slade and Dr. Amanda McClain about their interest in the communication field and how quickly things have changed from traditional journalism to the rise of YouTubers and influencers. Learn the skillsets obtained from a degree in communication as well as discussion about the constantly evolving career opportunities for those studying digital media or strategic communications.

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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. And today, we’re talking to Dr. Alison Slade and Dr. Amanda McClain, both associate faculty in the School of Arts, Humanities, and Education. And today, our conversation is about why study communication? Welcome, Alison and Amanda.

Dr. Amanda McClain: Thank you.

Dr. Alison Slade: Thank you.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I’m excited about this. Communication is a great field and, most importantly, there’s so many wonderful skills that you learn in communication. And so, my first question is why study in the field of communication anyways?

Dr. Amanda McClain: So I think first, I’m going to talk a little bit about what the field of communication is. I like to think that, that the field of communication as an umbrella term that covers three different types of communication.

And the first is interpersonal, two people talking face-to-face, or two people talking via text. The second one is small-group communications. For example, in business when you have groups of people talking to other groups of people like B2B sales. And then, the third type of communication is mass communication. And that’s, generally, when you have one person talking to many through a newspaper, or television, different types of media like that.

And so, the field of communication encompasses everything from two people talking, to the President giving a speech on television on every media channel there is. And then, why study communication? Alison, do you want to talk about that?

Dr. Alison Slade: Yes, I can. Why study communication? Communication is absolutely inevitable, it surrounds us every day. One of my favorite quotes from Marshall McLuhan is, “One cannot not communicate.” And this is absolutely true.

Everything we do, whether it is verbal or nonverbal communicates with others. And so, understanding communication and how communication impacts your life is a very valuable skill. And it’s one of the top skills that employers actually look for. Both oral and written communication are always in the top three. And so, having those skillsets, and understanding why communication is a vital part of our everyday world is super important, and you really should focus on that.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. And those are both wonderful responses about what is the field of communication and why study communication? And I guess, my first question for you, Alison, is why did you study communication? What really drew you into the field of communication?

Dr. Alison Slade: I’ll be honest, I started out as a journalism major. And I thought I wanted to change the world as a reporter, and could not pass the AP style writing test in journalism 101. And so, at the same time I was taking the journalism 101 class, I was actually taking a foundations of mass communication class. And, in that course, my teacher was so inspiring and really, it spoke to me on a lot of different levels.

So, my area of focus and study is mass communication. I always used to tell people that I’m a glorified couch potato, because I get paid to teach and write about television. For the most part, that is my main area of study. So, that’s how I got started.

And then, because of that, because I fell in love with that, other opportunities opened for me. I did not want to just be stuck in teaching things that, perhaps, did not appeal to me. I wanted to be able to share my love of television with others and other students. And to do that, I had to go on and get a Master’s and a PhD in Communication. Of course, those are not requirements to work a wonderful job in communication if it interests you. But because I did want to share and teach, I needed to do that.

And so, as I was saying, it opened other avenues too because it led me to work in radio. I worked in radio a little bit after I finished my PhD, even though I was still teaching, but I worked in radio. And I worked in television a little bit also. So, there’s so many other doors than just teaching that I’ve been able to use my PhD and my knowledge in mass comm.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. And Amanda, we previously had a podcast about streaming services, and how much they’ve changed, and how that has changed mass media, I guess, and consumption. Why did you go into communication originally?

Dr. Amanda McClain: I grew up loving media. In my house, the TV was always on. We had a subscription to People magazine, I read it every week. And I was just really, really interested in media and how people communicated.

And then, I went to undergraduate college and I majored in communications because that’s what I was interested in, that’s what I wanted to study. And after I graduated, I was living in San Francisco in 2001, which was the time of the big tech surge. And I was introduced to a form of social media called Friendster, which was one of the early forms of social media. And I thought it was fascinating. And I really loved using it. And I thought the societal implications were super interesting. And I decided I had to go back to school. I had to keep studying media. And, eventually, that led me all the way to here.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Thank you for sharing. And so, since both of you have years and years of practical experience, plus years of study, what can you do with a communication degree? And also, if you could also tell people what are the different types of communication degrees out there?

Dr. Amanda McClain: Well, you can do so much with a communication degree. It’s a really broad degree. And there are a couple different types, but no matter what you specialize in, you can certainly get jobs in sales, marketing, account management, project management, social media management. You could do so many, many things with a comm degree. And, of course, you could also go to graduate school if you wanted to. I’ve had former students go on to law school, or go on to get master’s degrees in different disciplines.

I was looking up some stats earlier and media and communication jobs are projected to grow at a rate of 4% in the next 10 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. My specialization is social media, and everybody has social media. Every organization, every hospital, every sports team, every business. You need social media. You don’t even need a website anymore, but you need a Facebook page. So, who runs that? Communication majors run that, they run social media. And, of course, in addition to other things. Alison, do you want to add to that?

Dr. Alison Slade: Yes, I will. That is all absolutely wonderful fields that you can go into with a degree in communication. And also, I don’t want people to think that communication is one of those short changed areas as far as income.

Because social media is so prevalent and because it is a specialized skill to know how to use not only social media skills and marketing for businesses, and corporations, and sports teams, and all the things Amanda was listing, you are no longer going to be making a low income. The average salary for a social media manager is around $50,000. I was looking that up too. And my students are always shocked to hear that.

When I was in undergraduate school and they said, “Oh, you can go be a radio DJ and earn $14,000 a year.” And I said, “I will eat air.” So, it’s changed now. This is 25 years later and you can actually earn a pretty good living doing communication stuff. So, don’t sell yourself short just because you think, “Oh, it’s communication, it’s liberal arts.” That’s not true. These social media, and marketers, and other areas are paid quite well.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I’m glad you brought up social media and income potential because I remember when I was going through school, communication was largely journalism and mass comm. And, of course, there’s rhetoric, but that was more, I guess you can say specialized.

And so, back then, I’m not going to say it was limited, but it was very visual that journalism and, again, mass comm, TV, radio. And fast forward to today, journalism is very tough to get traditional journalistic jobs, so many cuts. And getting on TV is, well, as before, really, really hard and it takes a certain type of personality.

And so, can you talk a little bit about how communication experts can potentially be entrepreneurial and do their own thing and find a revenue stream, say, on YouTube or even “be influencers?”

Dr. Alison Slade: So, students in the social media class actually watch a really cool Ted Talk by Rachel David, and she actually discusses how social media influencers and that area of communication is like the wild, wild west, is virtually uncharted territory. And even though we do see a lot of influencers, both celebrities and non-celebrities, it is still a very young way to introduce product, and introduce your brand or different brands to others.

And I think that it’s interesting how a lot of students comment, and I know a lot of other people comment that they would rather listen to a common person, or the average person, talk to them about why they use a certain product. Or they tend to gravitate towards a certain brand because the average person is more relatable.

I mean, Kim Kardashian can try and sell her makeup all day, but we’re not going to look like Kim Kardashian. We’re going to look like Molly Jones down the street who’s trying out this really cool lipstick or eye shadow look. And people can relate to that much easier.

Also, I think that when you’re saying entrepreneurial, the skillsets that you learn and communication courses will allow you to understand how all that works. I mean, it’s a different day and age.

My youngest children are twins, they’re nine and they talk all the time about wanting to be YouTubers. And when I asked them what they want to do, they say, “Oh, we’re gonna make some vlogs. And we’re gonna talk about games and we’re gonna do all this stuff.” And they use words that they don’t learn in school. They learn this stuff by being immersed in this world of social media.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And Alison, thank you for that great response. And one of the things that’s hard to really fathom is just how students can go into social media and influencers because, like you said, there’s really no charted path and there’s really no X plus Y equals a job. And so, that’s why so many jobs out there are great and more traditional, such as social media manager and whatnot. And so, that leads us to the next question is what kind of classes will I take in a communication degree?

Dr. Alison Slade: So, the different classes that you’ll take in a communication degree will vary. Here at APU and AMU, we have two different tracks for a Bachelor’s of Arts in Communication. And one is the digital media track. And one is the strategic communication track.

And in both of these classes are pathways, you’re going to be able to immerse yourself in a variety of types of communication. The general core classes are going to be more general, but they’re good introductory classes to communication, and to get you excited about what you will be studying. And so, for example, you would take a social media class, you will take public speaking and our cultural mass comm ethics, and learning about theory and research skills.

And then we have a variety of courses for you to choose from to continue to beef up what you want to study based on which track you’re going to go into. So, we have communication gender courses, digital tools and media courses, interpersonal. We have conflict media law and persuasion, and we also have a journalism course. There’s a history of journalism. So, you can understand the pathway that journalism has had since before we were the United States of America.

And then, once you branch off into your chosen area, Digital Comm and Media Design, you’ll be able to focus more intently on those digital skills, the communication analytics, for example, visual communication, building digital presence.

And strategic communication will be a little bit more of the other direction talking about inclusive communication, situational communication, leadership and career management, as far as strategic communication goes.

So, there’s two different paths. But what I really like about our program is that you get such a well-rounded image of communication from both sides. It’s not totally mass comm heavy, and it’s not totally speech comm heavy. I do think we have a great balance.

And then, we have two of the fastest growing areas actually for our degree track programs, our digital media and strategic communication, those are two of the fastest growing majors in comm now currently. So, we have great choices to choose from here.

Dr. Amanda McClain: Yeah. And let me just add a little bit, if you are more of a business-oriented type person, you might be more interested in the strategic communication courses. They’re about planning your media messages, reaching certain targeted audiences, and figuring out how to get your message across.

Whereas, if you’re more of a creative person, you might be more interested in the digital media track where you’re learning about visual aesthetics, and how to create interesting displays to attract audiences.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent, thank you for that great overview of the tracks of the  BA in Communication here at APU. And so, my question now is put your creative hat on, think about the future and if there were no limits, what would you do? So, starting with Amanda, if you could be a successful social media person, what would you do? How would you do it? And how would you make money?

And, again, this is don’t think of limitations, don’t actually think of revenue streams or how it will actually work. Just think of, imagine that if things actually went well, what would that look?

Dr. Amanda McClain: The hardest thing to do in social media is to “go viral.” To have a video or a meme that spreads like wildfire across the internet, and across our culture, and into everybody, so that everybody knows what you’re talking about.

So, if you could somehow harness your creativity, and harness your knowledge of people and culture, and put that together into the most hilarious meme, or the most amazing video that everybody wants to see, and people can’t stop watching, I would love to do that.

And you could have that across multiple platforms. You can see the same video or meme on Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, Twitter. It’s such of the moment of zeitgeist-y right now. If I could do that, then I could write my own ticket.

I could have advertisers come to me. I could deliver them the eyeballs or the audiences. I could have my branded partnerships with different companies. I could become a spokesperson, become an influencer. You could do whatever you wanted, the money would come to you, if you could somehow make that happen.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And very briefly, can you explain what branded partnerships are?

Dr. Amanda McClain: Sure. Branded partnership is when you take yourself, if you are an influencer, or you’re a vlogger, somebody like that, an e-gamer, someone who has a Twitch stream, or a YouTube channel, and you create a partnership with a company selling a product. Like I could have a partnership with Yeti, and I could say, “This is an amazing cooler. Let me tell you all about this cooler and why it’s so awesome,” that would be a branded partnership between myself and Yeti, assuming I had an audience that Yeti wanted to reach.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. And Alison, if you could dream and make it happen, and it did happen, what would you do?

Dr. Alison Slade: I see, I think, from a different perspective, for me would be, I would like to do something that would be just fun. And I would definitely delegate all of that. That sounds like a lot of work to then have to be in control of all of the influencers, and all of the partnerships, and all of those things.

So, I would definitely, if the sky was the limit and I had my choice, I would kind of want to be like Mark Zuckerberg, who really doesn’t do anything except, “Hey, don’t say that.” I mean, it sounds simple, but it’s true. He has people that do everything for him now. So, if I was going to be at the top of the pinnacle of the world of what we want to be, that self-actualization, that Maslow says is so hard to reach that would be it.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s a great comment because when you get to the top, CEOs, people like that, I would have to question, this might come off as harsh, but how much work do they actually do? They’re in meetings all day. They talk, they talk to other people, they use their influence. They’re essentially influencers, but very typical business type of influencers. And then, they have all their people go do the work for them.

How often does Zuckerberg now look over Excel files, add different formulas to Excel files to figure out X, Y, and Z? I mean, never. His job, along with all those, say, captains of industry, I don’t know if there’s a gender neutral for captain, but those captains of industry they just sit around and talk all day, which is needed. But, as you were saying, Alison, that’s a great gig.

Dr. Alison Slade: It’s a great gig when you have become a unicorn like Facebook, or TikTok, or whatever it is. And then, you can decide where you want to invest your money. So, you’re evaluating other people’s ideas in hopes of finding the next unicorn.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s great. And you’ll often hear about unicorns in the investing world. They’re always chasing after the unicorn because that one unicorn will make them enough money for 10 years, for 20 years. If you invested into Facebook back when it started, that was the only thing you needed to invest in. You could have failed with a dozen, two dozen other investments, but that one investment in Facebook would’ve made all your money.

For me, if I had the ability to dream and it worked out, I would put out my children’s music. And it would go onto Spotify and it would go on to Google, and iTunes. And then, eventually, have some sort of visuals on YouTube. And then, people would just listen to it.

And that would have enough of a revenue stream, that it would make some money. I think that’s a very doable dream. But, at the same time, it takes a lot of work just to create the content. And that’s where I wanted to transition.

For people who do create content, and content could be podcasts, it could be videos, it could be music. Why is content so labor intensive yet, especially with videos these days, people almost demand videos?

Dr. Amanda McClain: Content creation requires a lot of work. And a lot of aspects of content creation you would learn in communication classes.

One, how to actually create your content, whether it’s video, audio, pictures, illustrations so there’s actually that. And then, you need the skill of being able to schedule it. You need to understand how social media platforms work, which audience goes to which platform, who you’re trying to reach, how is the best way to reach them?

If you’re trying to reach children under 10, where are those kids? How do you reach them? Is TikTok the place to advertise? Is Twitter the place to advertise? Twitter is not the place to advertise to kids. These are things we talk about in our classes is how to reach who you need to reach.

So, then a third skill you would probably need and this is probably once you’re a little bit more advanced, or if you’re working for a larger company, is budgeting. Because a lot of times you’re paying to place your ads online. You’re paying for placement, you’re paying for your YouTube video to be on the front page of YouTube, or other places. And to figure out how much money is your budget, how can you best spend your budget on certain places is a necessary skill.

And then, the fourth skill is the ability to assess what you’ve been doing to figure out what’s working and how you’re going to extend that. Or to figure out, “Hey, it’s not working. I need to figure out a new plan.” And that’s part of strategic communication.

Dr. Alison Slade: So, I also agree with everything Amanda said. And I think interestingly too, you also have to think about how your content is going to be A, competing with everybody else that is out there, so what makes you unique makes you the unicorn, as we said, that stands apart from everyone else?

And also, research shows you have nine seconds with a video to capture the audience’s attention and maintain it. So, after nine seconds, if they’re no longer interested, they’re clicking it off, which is one of the reasons I do think TikTok is so interesting and actually works for people because the video links are shorter, which might also be why Twitter is unique too, because the character length is shorter. And you have to really know exactly what you’re going to say in that short amount of space or character limits to really capture the attention of who your target is.

Going back to the time consuming thing, I joked earlier that my children don’t have a YouTube channel, but I don’t think they realize what it would mean for us, as a family, if they were really devoted into creating a said channel and trying to be like the families that they see on YouTube.

So, it looks really glamorous that the family’s all working together, and creating this content, and making these episodes. And they’re too young to comprehend how these families probably eat, sleep, live, breathe to make said YouTube content and channels for their audiences. And getting 10 million followers is sometimes as easy as clicking to buy the bots. But if you want real followers, then you have to really put in the work. And so, you have to be devoted to your craft. It’s not just, “Hey, I think today I’ll make a YouTube video and see what happens.”

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s true. I’m glad you brought that up because it’s kind of like if somebody was going to write a book and they’re like, “I’ll just write a book about something fun, or a self-help. I’ll just write a self-help book and people will buy it.” Well, there’s thousands of other people who are literally writing other self-help books and are good writers. And so, there’s a lot of competition. And why one person or one group becomes more popular than the others is part of the mystery.

If there was a formula, everybody would do it and everybody would have become popular and create that revenue stream. And I think for many, and especially for those who do become popular in some sense, there’s something about their communication. They’re able to communicate with their audience that is special, unique. And them, as a person, has something unique also. And that’s also one thing to always think about is, how am I contributing in a unique way? And how am I able to communicate in a unique way? And today, it’s been a great conversation. Alison, Amanda, any last words?

Dr. Amanda McClain: Come join our program, we’d love to have you.

Dr. Alison Slade: I was going to say the same thing. Communication is amazing and we have a great time interacting with our students and with each other. And it’s fun.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. Thank you. And today, we were speaking with Dr. Alison Slade and Dr. Amanda McClain about studying communication. And my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. And thank you for listening.

About the Author
Dr. Bjorn Mercer

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music in his spare time.

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