Mining your COVID plans for media-worthy pitches

Here's what higher ed communications teams can do to get strategic about telling pandemic-related campus stories, stories that put a human face on the college experience during these challenging times.
By: | August 28, 2020
Photo by Kane Reinholdtsen on UnsplashPhoto by Kane Reinholdtsen on Unsplash

What makes a student choose one university over another? Understanding this question is crucial for marketing any campus, and at a time like this, having clarity is more important than ever.

Lynne Golodner

Lynne Golodner

  • Is it the promise of a lucrative career and gainful employment upon graduation?
  • A robust social life with the opportunity to build lifelong friendships?
  • State-of-the-art classrooms and exercise facilities?
  • Residence halls with fancy food in the cafeteria?
  • Affordability?
  • Proximity to (or distance from) home?
  • Or something else entirely?

With approximately 3,000 institutions of higher learning in America, it’s been challenging to differentiate one campus from another for some time. Add a global pandemic to the equation, and standing out from the competition, attracting students and instilling confidence in the public become a tough nut to crack.

But there may be a silver lining to pandemic marketing paralysis. It may feel counterintuitive, but now could be the ideal time to market your institution—if you know what to look for in your COVID communications.

Rather than simply sharing what your return to learn plans are during COVID-19, schools can highlight how they are establishing protocols with ease and empathy. There are newsworthy stories hiding in your pandemic plans that could market your institution in new and unique ways.

For instance, does your school excel at online learning? If so, how do you do that? What innovative instructional design tips can you offer as a higher ed leader that can map a new horizon for better, more interactive student experiences online?

If, stripped of the bells and whistles that attract many students to a campus, you are experiencing an increase in interest and applications, figure out what the students are coming for—and highlight that.

If your campus is so beautiful, rambling and nature-rich that it’s a perfect place to socially distance, get in shape, soak in some Vitamin D, and boost your immune system, tell that story. And highlight the clubs and activities that focus on this outdoor haven.

Knowing what your university is good at, what you do really well, aside from all the glossy perks, is where your marketing storytelling should start.

Unfortunately, too many colleges and universities have told one-way stories for too long about what they offer or what endowed state-of-the-art facilities beckon students to campus—when in reality, marketing storytelling needs to be a two-way street. Yes, you speak ABOUT your campus, but really you should be speaking TO your ideal audience.

And that means you have to know what they want and what concerns them right now.

We are all living through a global pandemic with an uncertain outcome. Students and parents are knee-deep in anxiety and concern. Colleges and universities that can show compassion, demonstrate that they know what people are grappling with, and provide comforting solutions will attract more new students than those who keep telling the same stories.

This fall, think about new stories you can tell:

  • How to create friendships amid social distance
  • How to have a rich college experience, academically and socially, while wearing masks
  • How to enrich online learning to be as evocative as in-person

Tell stories of how your pandemic plans promote new ways of connecting on campus. Recruit students to share their experiences and their satisfaction with this new normal. Put a human face on the college experience today—and tell optimistic stories about the innovation that will come forth from these forced changes.

Create characters to be the fun face of your COVID communications. Address the emotions and also the yearnings students are feeling right now. Show how what you’re doing this fall reassures and encourages a positive future for students in an uncertain time.

Don’t just say it will all be OK; show how that is true.

If you look for the inspiration in your COVID plans, you will surely find it. And those inspiring stories are what will drive prospective enrollees to your campus now – and into the future. A university that endures is one that can meet the challenges of the times, embrace uncertainty, and respond to immediate concerns with grace, resilience and creativity. Being real, showing the human side of higher ed, differentiates campuses that have rosy futures from those who may not.

Lynne Golodner is a marketing and public relations entrepreneur who leads Your People LLC and works primarily with schools and universities. She is also the host of the Make Meaning Podcast.