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“It’s All About the Target Audience”

For his final project in the Ethical Decision-Making for Communicators course, Boris Koehoorn ('23SPS) argued for stronger regulations regarding children’s social media access and shared firsthand accounts of parents who have lost children to social-media-influenced suicide. In so doing Koehoorn explained the science of children’s cognitive development as it relates to addiction and social media. Mirroring current affairs, he participated in a mock U.S. Senate hearing on banning Tik-Tok in the U.S., delivering testimony on behalf of the nonprofit Fairplay for Kids. 

Ethical Decision-Making for Communicators is an elective course in the M.S. in Strategic Communication program taught by Frank Oswald. Through case studies, class discussions, and assignments, students learn how to identify ethical dilemmas, analyze potential risks and opportunities—and formulate persuasive arguments for gaining support within and outside their organizations. Senior writer Shana Childs (’14JRN) asked Koehoorn who recently graduated with an M.S. in Strategic Communication to elaborate on his research and how it’s helped in his new role as a strategic marketing manager at Sabio Inc. 

The negative effects of social media get a lot of attention. What do you think made your project cut through the noise?

The negative side is indeed getting a lot of attention. Most of it, however, is scary statistics. When considering what Fairplay’s goal is, it’s about the harm social media causes but on a personal level. In most cases, politicians are aware of statistics, but that doesn’t make something actionable. Politicians also already have a strong set of predetermined beliefs that are hard to sway with statistical data or a logical argument. So, I chose to make it undeniably personal. 

I started my testimony by introducing four young victims of social media. Most of them engaged in self-harm or participated in “challenges” that caused their untimely deaths. I used pictures of those victims to break through the statistics and put real ruined lives in the spotlight. Using this incredible emotional charge, it’s important to provide actionable next steps that provide a path forward. From my research, it became clear that Fairplay actually supports several pieces of legislation currently in review. I used this opportunity to further Fairplay’s objective to get these pieces of legislation passed as a solution and way forward that would protect kids from the harms of social media. 

Did the project warm you up for your return to “real world” work? How so?

Yes. However, I don’t see myself sitting in a Senate hearing anytime soon. But it does highlight some of the key learnings that are so important in our program: first, do your research! Without this, I would have never found those pieces of legislation, and I would have never come across the sad stories of the victims. It shows how important it is to do your due diligence when speaking about a subject. This leads into the second part, which is telling a compelling story. You have to know how and when to use the information to your advantage and tell the story. It’s about looking beyond the data sets and finding the story that is relevant. 

Third, it’s all about the target audience. Calling for the approval of certain pieces of legislation is a call to action that is strictly reserved for people who are actually in the position to do so. And the final thing: There will always be multiple sides to a story. It’s our job as strategic communicators to find a way forward, to analyze, to examine, and to propose the way forward others might not have thought of. Ethical questions will always be an integral part of what we do. Keeping these in mind will influence me as a communicator going forward: After all, we’re trying to persuade people for the better. So, we need to be able to connect with them and motivate them. 

Congrats on your new job! What’s it like to be a marketing manager now that you have completed your studies at Columbia? Which skills do you use the most?

It’s very exciting! It’s a big step for me, and I’m proud to be there. I couldn’t have done it without the skills and knowledge I obtained at Columbia. I’m getting a lot more responsibility, which is great, as I can have a lasting impact on the organization. I mostly work in data analytics, which is something I directly learned in the Digital Media Analytics course. I’m happy that I can apply the theories in real-life scenarios and see how what I learned actually pays off. 

About the Program

Columbia University’s M.S. in Strategic Communication program is designed to respond to the urgent need for strategic perspectives, critical thinking, and exceptional communication skills across all types of organizations. 

The final application deadline for fall 2023 enrollment in the full-time M.S. path is May 17. The deadline for the part-time and executive M.S. paths is June 15. Learn more about the admission deadlines.