Inaugural Cohort Unlocks PR Potential in USC Annenberg Online Master’s Program

The initial cohort of the Master of Science in Public Relations Innovation, Strategy and Management (PRISM) program came together from a range of backgrounds to share invaluable experiences.

Etolia Stinson was experienced in broadcast journalism and social media, while Teni Arakelian had majored in political science and originally wanted to become a lawyer. Although their backgrounds could not be farther apart, they had in common a desire to add public relations to their expertise.

So, when they learned that the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism had launched the Master of Science in Public Relations Innovation, Strategy and Management (PRISM) online program, Stinson and Arakelian immediately applied to join the program’s first cohort.

The PRISM online program enhances a spectrum of career avenues and covers all aspects of brand communication and storytelling — from content creation and social media advertising to influencer relations.

“I love this program because it’s covering everything we need to know,” said Stinson, who — along with Arakelian — already had considerable knowledge in the field before applying.

Stinson taught herself how to use a camera and edit video as a young girl. By age 13, she was producing her own YouTube videos.

“I was trying to create a whole brand for myself,” she recalled.

Then, after earning her bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism from Howard University, she worked as a production assistant at BET and as a news associate at CNN. While she loved those production and broadcast experiences, Stinson decided that journalism was not for her. Even so, she believes they have prepared her for what she is doing now — pivoting in her career with the help of PRISM.

Arakelian’s journey to PRISM has been a bit different. After earning her undergraduate degree from UCLA, she planned to become an entertainment attorney. She even took a job at a law firm to build experience and test her interest in the field.

Yet, even though she enjoyed the aspects of her job related to the entertainment industry, Arakelian ultimately decided not to pursue a career as a lawyer.

“I like to be a little more creative than the law was allowing me,” she explained.

Arakelian submitted her resume to various studios, and she soon landed a job at Disney — but as a legal coordinator. Still, she hoped the role would lead to a more creative position in marketing, casting or PR. By the time she was ready to ask for a transfer, the COVID-19 pandemic had stalled the economy.

As Stinson and Arakelian separately investigated PR programs, one school kept coming up: the highly ranked USC Annenberg, which had recently opened its new MS PRISM for applications. The flexible program is geared toward working professionals, and students can choose to complete the degree in two years or one. Arakelian, for example, opted for the accelerated one-year track.

“I could see that PRISM focuses on the evolution of public relations and how it’s constantly changing,” Stinson noted. The program’s virtual format offered advantages as well. “I have a full-time job, so I knew I had to do an online program.”

According to Arakelian, the program features as much interaction as any in-person class she’s ever taken: “Having never experienced school in a virtual setting, I was a bit skeptical,” she confessed. “But … I think I have spoken more in these courses than I ever did while getting my bachelor’s degree.”

More importantly, Arakelian added, “the program truly has everything I was looking for — not just the marketing, PR and communications aspects but also courses on influencer relations.”

Standout courses for Stinson have included “Multiplatform Content Creation,” “Brand Purpose Communication” and “Influencer Relationship Management,” which are three areas she has always been passionate about. Arakelian also found “Crisis Communication” to be an exciting course, as the subject is important for not only leaders, but also employees.

The students even enjoyed a class that they originally thought would be daunting: “Business and Economic Literacy for Communicators.”

“None of us really were prepared for that,” Stinson admitted. “But we could see why we had to take it because everything in the program ties together.”

“I had no background in economics, but it’s turned out to be one of my favorite classes,” Arakelian says.

Of course, what makes these courses invaluable is the quality of their instructors, as the MS PRISM faculty is composed of industry experts.

“I love my professors — especially Professor of Practice Burghardt Tenderich,” Stinson said. “He blends good criticism with positive reinforcement, and the way he teaches gets everyone excited and engaged.”

Tenderich’s mentorship includes advice that Arakelian immediately took to heart.

“You can’t afford to be introverted in PR,” she recalled him stating. “And you need to be more open to networking and building relationships.”

So, she’s been making connections through the program — including with the PR notables who serve as guest speakers.

In addition to learning about the field and its future, students engage in real-world projects, building practical experience prized by employers. When Arakelian asked instructor Tina Vennegaard — whose award-winning PR experience spans the globe — about adding an MS PRISM assignment to her resume, the reply was simple: “Yes, you’re supposed to.”

MS PRISM students also learn from — and network with — each other.

“I’ve gotten close to a number of my classmates,” Stinson said.

“We’re comfortable asking each other anything, texting questions and even referring jobs that are available,” Arakelian added.

They also appreciate the diversity of their cohort. In addition to Stinson’s experience at BET and CNN, and Arakelian’s at Disney, classmates’ careers span working at Sony Music, running an independent business and, yes, entering law. The cultures represented are diverse as well, with students coming from as far away as from Zimbabwe.

But no matter how varied their backgrounds are, these inaugural MS PRISM students know that the experience, skills and connections built through the program will help fulfill their ambitions.

For Arakelian, that means working in fashion or advancing in the entertainment industry. Meanwhile, Stinson is considering the possibility of launching her own company. MS PRISM, she noted, “equips us to work on our own brands if we want to take the entrepreneurial route, including learning about management and strategy.”

Stinson and Arakelian each urge professionals who want to take the PR plunge to consider MS PRISM as a way to unlock the field’s potential.

“I’m excited to see where we all end up,” Stinson said.

Learn more about the Master of Science in Public Relations Innovation, Strategy and Management online program today.