Communication forum offers insights into the world of political and policy communication

by Kristin Leonato

Communication forum offers insights into the world of political and policy communication
Former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley offers the keynote address.

On October 25, 2016 the Department of Communications hosted an especially well-connected group in Dewberry Hall: their own students. Over the span of three hours, undergraduate and graduate students had the chance to meet and discuss the intersection between politics and communication with a former governor and presidential candidate, a political strategist who ran several successful presidential campaigns, and leading communications professionals from a variety of local industries.

The focus on this year’s annual communication forum was Political and Policy Communications: Impact, Ethics and the Art of Persuasion, a perfect fit for this time of year and an especially unique election cycle. Given Mason’s location, just twelve miles from the nation’s capital, it’s not surprising that many students are particularly interested in careers in government affairs, political communication, or public relations. The 2016 communication forum created numerous opportunities for these students before, during and after the event.

The weeks leading up to the forum provided many chances for students to apply what they were learning in their courses. Communications professor Katherine Rowan shared how students in her Writing for Public Relations class “wrote a press release about the event,” as well as “researched and designed the event program, which was graciously paid for by Insight Committee chair Tom Hoog.” She continued, “Mason students in Professor Suzanne Mims's Contemporary Public Relations and Social Media class created social media for the event, [and] students in the Public Relations Student Society of America, led by faculty adviser Sergei Samoylenko, promoted the event and created the event registration."

The forum opened with a welcome from President Ángel Cabrera, Dean Deborah Boehm-Davis and Provost S. David Wu, followed by an outstanding keynote address from the former Governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley. This was followed by a panel discussion moderated by New York Times White House correspondent, Michael Shear. Shear led the panelists — who included Torie Clarke, vice president of global affairs for SAP; Linda Qui, staff writer at PolitiFact; Arzu Tuncata Tarimcilar, board director of GGAMA Holding; and Mason Professor Emily Vraga, a specialist in political communication — in a wide ranging conversation on the issues of the day.

Those attending the forum were then treated to another fascinating keynote speaker, Mark McKinnon. Mckinnon was one of former President George W. Bush’s chief political strategists and is perhaps best known for the Showtime program, “The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth.”

The morning closed with a speed networking roundtable moderated by NBC4 anchor and Mason alumna, Angie Goff. Rowan explained that during this hour of the forum, students “meet at small, round tables, and a dozen professionals rotate to each of the tables every ten minutes [and is the part] many students like best.” The professionals come from a variety of levels and arenas in the political and governmental affairs landscape. Several are also members of the Insight Committee, a group of communication industry leaders who advise on instruction and professional opportunities for students, and who developed the event several years ago.

Rowan offers a perfect summation of the importance of the annual forum. “This event represents everything that Mason can do for students and faculty. It resulted from the hard work, kindness, and support of top-level professionals in the Washington, D.C., area who combined forces to give Mason students a campus event where they could meet personally with top professionals and discuss career options in political communication.”

Indeed, the tie to the professional community is one of the great benefits that the department offers to its students, and the forum illustrates the vibrancy of that relationship.