An innate investigator and a doer, Trudi Baldwin developed the pioneering Master of Science programs in Strategic Communications and Communications Practice at Columbia University and serves as its academic director. For the past 10 years, she has been responsible for curriculum development, faculty recruitment and student advising. With more than 400 graduates bringing strategic communications to the workplace, the programs have earned a strong reputation among industry leaders.
Starting this fall, the M.S. in Strategic Communications program, which caters to experienced communicators, is relaunching as an executive format. So now busy professionals can immerse themselves into a 16-month intensive program rather than one than that could take more than three years to finish. Alternatively, the M.S. in Communications Practice is designed for recent graduates or those switching careers. Trudi also developed and manages a two-week certificate program that brings together corporate communications executives from around the world to share best practices.
Previously, she served as director of communications for Columbia’s School of Continuing Education, and she has extensive experience at nonprofits, including directing internal and external communications for the New York affiliate of Volunteers of America.
What was your motivation for starting the Master of Science programs in Strategic Communications and Communications Practice?
When I started doing research, I found that there was a clear need for strategic thinking from staff and communications positions. I remember the CEO of a global PR firm saying he can count on one hand the number of people that he’d give an op-ed to write, which seemed tragic to me. But that kind of opportunity was something he wouldn’t trust to too many people, and that became evident in one form or another in talking to many CEOs of large, small and mid-sized companies in every sector. The same is true today — that writing and critical thinking, analytic and interpretive skills are still highly desirable and largely missing from many staff. We need people who can focus on the big picture, connect the dots in a creative way, interpret data, make choices, analyze research, be able to take a hypothesis and lead to an insight and a strategic direction to build a compelling argument. Those are difficult things to learn in the workplace. Strategic thinking as a foundation for communications made sense to us. Since nobody else was doing it, it became our mission: Transforming professionals into highly skilled communications strategists, so they’re adept across disciplines and able to apply critical and analytical thinking to complex business and social problems in order to generate insightful, creative and impactful communication solutions.
What were your biggest challenges and opportunities?
To determine the strategic core that underpins the pedagogy and links the theory to the practice, which makes it a lot more concrete. It’s developing that core that is relevant to all environments and all job functions. The foundation, if you get it right, appeals and applies to every student regardless of what discipline she practices. They all have this formal, strategic core, which then allows them to move from discipline to discipline and practice in different areas. The challenge is to keep true to that vision and to teach the concept and depth of thinking rather than trying to cover all areas or strands of topic areas that are niche because they are current.
Communications is a constantly changing industry. How do you stay on top of all developments and keep your curriculum current?
We’re constantly assessing new thinking and building it into our courses. For instance, presentation skills are critical, as is collaborating and group projects. All of our courses include an opportunity for this, and we still rely on our strategic core for the fundamentals. We offer elective courses in areas where we think there is interest and where we think there are important concepts to learn. For instance, social media in the social world are included in all of our courses, so it’s not just one course in social networking. We’re conscious of the new, but we’re still wedded to the core belief.
What, in turn, have you learned from directing these programs?
I’ve learned to appreciate process and be patient to understand that change takes time; it requires a lot of listening and thinking and not jumping to conclusions. I’ve appreciated there’s a value to taking time to developing critical and analytical thinking skills and to ask questions to keep your vision. It’s very easy when your goal is to make something happen to steam ahead. I’ve learned to embrace process.
What would be your ideal class, real or invented, and who is your dream professor?
I’d actually like to take two classes at Columbia: I’d like to understand economics, and Joseph Stiglitz is an ace professor; and Jeffrey Sachs, who teaches at the Earth Institute, talks about sustainable development. I would like to understand how economics, the practice, can work toward helping countries reduce poverty, illness and improve children’s well-being, to develop and become sustainable. Is there a road map that one can follow to help this happen? Can we really save the planet? That’s my dream.