April is Communications month at University of Maryland University College’s (UMUC) Office of Career Services. Throughout the month, we are highlighting the University’s communications experts to examine career and industry trends, and provide students and alumni a chance to learn about different career paths within this fast-paced industry.
Recently, UMUC Assistant Vice President, Communications Chip Cassano answered questions about career trends and opportunities in executive communications. An 18-year veteran of UMUC, Cassano has 24 years of experience as a communications professional. At UMUC, he previously served as senior writer and editor in Publications, editorial director in Marketing, and director of Public Relations, winning awards for publications, feature and magazine writing, and “marketing on a shoestring.” As PR director, he grew raw monthly placements more than 400 percent in four years, and he has served as editor of the university magazine, Achiever, for more than a decade. A veteran teacher with 20 years of experience in the college classroom, he has taught and developed curricula for courses and seminars in introductory and advanced creative writing, technical writing, and corporate communications. He holds a BA in English, BS in communications, and an MA in writing. Additionally, he holds an MS in management and an MBA both from UMUC.
Q. In your role as Assistant Vice President of Communications, responsible for executive communications at UMUC, you draft many presidential speeches, executive communications, and a variety of university publications that serve multiple audiences.
What are some fundamentals of effective executive communication?
A. I think that being able to see the big picture and define your objectives is key. When you are developing communications with the president or another senior executive, you are doing so on behalf of that individual and the entire institution, and it’s critical that you answer some fundamental questions:
- What is the intended outcome—and is the message and channel appropriate to that outcome?
- Does the message deliver on audience expectations?
- Does it align with institutional priorities?
- Has it been vetted by the appropriate stakeholders?
- How will it play with secondary audiences—lawmakers, reporters, prospective donors, and so on?
At the same time, it is important to position yourself as a resource and an asset, which means getting to know the executive team and learning to leverage and augment their strengths. UMUC President Javier Miyares, for example, calls himself a “data guy” and has an eye for detail and a nuanced grasp of trends and analytics. But—when working with him on a presentation— we would be doing him a disservice if we only encouraged him to “talk data,” and failed to leverage his other strengths—his principled leadership, institutional memory, unwavering focus, commitment to openness and communication, constant willingness to listen and discuss, etc.
Q. How did you begin your communications career?
A. I sold a story to a children’s magazine for $15 when I was in third grade, but that probably doesn’t count. My first full-time job was with the U.S. Department of Labor, where I worked in the Branch of Technical Assistance, Office of Workers Compensation Programs, researching the Workers Compensation Act and responding to written inquiries on behalf of members of the U.S. House and Senate, the Secretary of Labor, and occasionally the president or first lady.
In college, I actually started out studying physics and engineering. Toward the end of my second year, I was sitting in a linear algebra class, struggling to stay awake, when it dawned on me that what I was learning really didn’t interest me that much. I went to talk to my advisor that afternoon and—very much against his guidance—switched my dual majors to English literature and communications and started writing for the school paper. After I graduated, I went on to earn a master’s degree in fiction writing from Johns Hopkins University and, much later, an MS in Management: Public Relations and an MBA, both from UMUC.
Q. How have some of your career experiences shaped you into the communications professional you are today?
A. After I enrolled in graduate school, I started teaching expository and creative writing part-time at my undergraduate alma mater. At the beginning of each new term, I would ask students to write a paragraph that began, “I remember,” and read it aloud. Then we would go on to other things.
At the end of a three-hour class, I would come back around and ask students what they could recall of the paragraphs they had heard earlier. Inevitably, they remembered concrete details: “My first car was a rusted brown Honda Civic that smelled like rotten oranges,” or “I was so close to the stage that when the drummer broke a stick, a splinter landed in my hair.”
Everything else—the most lyrical abstractions, the most emotionally charged descriptions—was long forgotten.
Bottom line? Good old-fashioned facts are the building blocks of good communication, and often your command of the facts will determine whether you succeed or fail as a communicator.
Q. With today’s competitive communications landscape, what advice would you give a UMUC student getting ready to enter the communications field?
A. Often, entry-level jobs, internships, and even volunteer positions offer opportunities to truly master the basics of communication—and to expand your portfolio and résumé. Don’t be in such a hurry to advance or to specialize that you waste the opportunities in front of you.
One of my early jobs was as assistant editor of a small scholarly journal and business manager of the association that published it. The pay wasn’t inspiring, but the experience was. In addition to editing and writing, I managed a staff of three part-timers, set the publication calendar, organized annual membership drives, built a subscription-fulfillment database, began selling advertising space on the journal’s mailing wrap, and organized promotional campaigns to clear inventory backlogs. I even managed bi-weekly payroll and quarterly tax filings.
Was it all communications with a capital ‘C’? Certainly not. But the things I learned about publishing, marketing, advertising, management, and even cash flow, were truly priceless.
Q. Any final thoughts or recommendations you want to share for UMUC students and alumni currently working in or entering the communications industry?
A. When it comes to communications, the world is your textbook, and the skills and knowledge that you acquire along the way will yield benefits in every facet of your life. Communication channels may change and evolve, but the fundamentals remain surprisingly consistent. Commit to being clear, concise, honest, and constantly mindful of your audience, and no matter the direction your career takes you, you will have a solid foundation on which to build.
For more information on career opportunities and resources available to UMUC students and alumni from the Office of Career Services, click here.
Jennifer Tomasovic is the director, Communications for Career Services and Alumni Relations at University of Maryland University College. She has spent career crafting communications strategies and messages using both marketing and public relations tactics to enhance the brand and reputation for both the clients and organizations she has represented.