MSU StratCom: 'a wellspring of inspiration'

By Krishnan M. Anantharaman, soon-to-be MSU StratCom graduate 

What has MSU StratCom meant to me? Well, let’s start at the beginning.

It was the day after Labor Day in 2018, and the school year had just opened in earnest — for me at Michigan State, and for my son, in eighth grade. I was at his evening meeting in the district’s “robotics lab,” a dank, drafty industrial-arts workshop in an otherwise shuttered high school where, somehow, young engineers found inspiration.

Middle-school robotics is the kind of extracurricular activity where parents are either in the thick of the action — tightening every screw on a remote-control vehicle prototype, say — or completely out of it, idling at a desk, checking their watches and waiting to drive a hungry tween home after the meeting.

Jennifer Cook and I were in idle mode that evening when she turned to me with a proposition. 

Jennifer, whose son was best friends with mine, had been the head coach of their robotics team the previous year. She led an inexperienced, unruly team of middle-school boys to an unlikely berth at the state championships in Battle Creek, where they and their star-crossed robot clambered into the quarterfinals. I had been helping the team all season, too, with branding and presentation tips, so by the time of the championships in December, my wife and I had become admirers of Jennifer’s energy, and fully committed cheerleaders and assistant coaches for the team. Even as our boys’ miraculous run in the three-day tournament ended, we started looking ahead to how we could help Jennifer and the team the following year.

But middle-school politics being what it is, Jennifer’s tenure as head coach wouldn’t last, and her successor saw little need for input from parents like us. Which is why, nine months later, as the new robotics season began, Jennifer and I found ourselves as spectators, idling at that desk, waiting for the meeting to end.

That’s when she told me that she wouldn’t be spending the year as a spectator after all. She had filed papers to run for a seat on the school board. And she wanted me to help.

Intrigued but nervous, I rehearsed an answer in my head. Look, I said to myself: I work full time, I’ve got two kids at home, a long commute, and I just started a master’s program in strategic communication — this week in fact! I’d love to support your campaign, but I don’t see how I can balance this and work and school.

But when I turned to Jennifer, only some of those words made it out of my mouth, the part where I say: “I just started a master’s program in strategic communication — this week in fact! I’d love to support your campaign.”

My profession had long barred me from engaging in a partisan campaign, but the school board race was nonpartisan, giving me a chance now to help a friend, dabble in politics and test my MSU StratCom skills, right from Week 1. I was soon grilling Jennifer about what she wanted her campaign to be about, and brainstorming about what we needed to get it off the ground: a website, a Facebook page, handouts, signs, buttons — a slogan?

After the meeting that evening, Jennifer emailed me some text she had developed for a newspaper Q&A, along with highlights of her resume and an instruction: “Don't spend a lot of time on this :))”

I can’t remember how faithfully I complied, but by midnight that night, I had crafted a logo and designed Jennifer’s campaign website prototype on Wix. A couple days later, the basic site went live, and we were moving on to decisions about communications strategy, events and messaging. (I remember sharing the news of my venture with some of my new MSU StratCom friends at a meetup that weekend.)

Jennifer was an Ivy League-trained scientist with a deep passion for public education and a superior intellect. But she often expressed her intelligence in the tortured syntax of an academic journal. In my role as her communications adviser, I came to appreciate the power of my own education as a journalist and a MSU StratCom student of persuasion and digital media strategies. I showed her how she could speak to voters more empathetically, how to express their concerns as her own, how to put forward ideas in ways that appeal to both the intellect and the emotions associated with educating our children. 

Jennifer, for her part, helped steer me away from political cliches I had learned from watching stale stump speeches and “The West Wing,” and made sure my word choices didn’t step on her message. As she built grass-roots support, little by little, among voters around the district, I helped her build on it, step by step. Over the course of the effort, our friendship developed a parallel consultant-client rapport, where we challenged each other to overcome communication hurdles and be better at what we do.

Jennifer had moved to the district just three years earlier. But on Election Day, in a six-way race for four seats, she finished with the second-most votes. As the returns came in that night, I texted my congratulations to Jennifer, and then posted this brief victory message in the StratCom Facebook group: 

This is a long way of explaining — and only in microcosm — what the MSU StratCom program has meant to me. It’s a living community, a family of people with whom you feel comfortable sharing your fears and struggles, your starts and finishes, your adventures and successes. But it has also been a wellspring of inspiration and courage to try new things in the service of others, which can be hard to find when you’re creeping up on 50. 

Strategic communication is about helping people define their purpose and find their voice. In MSU StratCom, you might even find your own.

Last week, I submitted the last two of my assignments, feeling relieved but also profoundly grateful for the opportunities, community and inner strength I discovered through MSU StratCom. As much as I look forward to graduating from the program, I know I’ll never leave it.

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