COVID-19: Strategies for communicating and leading with certainty

From top leaders to staff to students and the campuswide community, keeping everyone informed is key
Jeanette DeDiemar is vice president for University Advancement & External Relations at Texas A&M University-San Antonio.
Jeanette DeDiemar is vice president for University Advancement & External Relations at Texas A&M University-San Antonio.

For university presidents and chancellors, what is certain during times of uncertainty is the indispensable expertise of university communication resources and a good working relationship with the university’s chief communications officer.

In the days ahead, COVID-19 will touch nearly every university, no matter its size, geography or mission. In the end, the virus will have affected almost every academic and administrative area, and challenged higher education institutions in new and different ways.

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While administrators are grappling with its impact, the need to effectively communicate is paramount. To successfully navigate through this crisis, each institution and its leadership will need to rely on its communications staff and resources.

Working together

A clear and open line of communication among the university president, chief of staff and chief communications officer is key during the COVID-19 situation. Unlike other executive positions, the chief of staff and chief communications officer touch every strategic and operational area within the university. They establish and maintain the choreography that is so vital between risk management experts and the strategy for communicating with university audiences.

A daily huddle that marshals resources is essential. Traditionally, it is done in person, but now it is virtual and, as needed, in person. Secure online resources for sharing documents for review are a must for executing an effective way to expedite strategies and messaging—keeping pace with the dynamic, changing situation.

For presidents, activating a risk management group or task force to help inform the university community is important. This collection of experts should be empowered to act and make recommendations to the president and executive leadership. While the immediate focus is on navigating through COVID-19, members of the group need to be thinking about continuity and restoration of “normal.”

While the immediate focus is on navigating through COVID-19, colleges and universities need to be thinking about continuity and restoration of “normal.”

The chief communications officer must understand the importance of speaking candidly—recommending when and how the necessary messages are shared to engender confidence in how the university is marshaling the necessary experts and resources to protect the wellness and safety of its community. This officer must also be able to recommend to the president who is out front and when.

Guiding staff

Beyond emails and tweets, university leaders can best inform with small-group meetings of middle managers and directors. With social distancing expanding, managers can attend virtually. An initial message from the president will amplify managers’ responsibility in guiding their staff members.

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Specific to COVID-19, the collaboration between the chief human resources director and the risk management group is essential. The HR staff is on the front line of reviewing policy changes for self-reporting, self-quarantine and travel limitations (university sponsored or personal) as well as the impact on employees with dependents. How, for example, will the university support parents when schools and childcare facilities are closed? With policies associated with COVID-19 being added at a rapid pace, managers must be informed, and then be able to answer questions and carry out the new guidance.

Managers must also be alerted in advance of key messages associated with policy changes and when new information is posted on a microsite dedicated to COVID-19, for instance.

Communicating campus priorities, event status

The reality of COVID-19 is the need for social distancing. Resources are needed to communicate the status of events, such as an admission tour, athletics competition, awards ceremony and, yes, commencement. With large gatherings and meetings banned in most cases, universities are debating everything from remote work to complete shutdown.

Administrators, faculty and others should avoid burdening the university’s communications staff by sharing each event change. Instead, a dedicated landing page or microsite can be created to incorporate a list of the events affected, for example.

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Campuses should use social media to raise awareness of this microsite. Know that students and parents will already be asking about the events that are traditionally held in the spring. Get out ahead and let them know that the university is already considering scenarios.

Now is the time for the president to be out front on social media. The president should address two to three priorities, which could include safety and health, the academic mission, and the commitment of resources to be prepared for ongoing challenges. The campus community should also be informed that the university’s social media will serve as a valuable and relevant resource.

A president should also consult with the chief of staff and cabinet about other stakeholders and key constituents who need to be made aware of the impact of COVID-19, updated policies and operational changes. In addition to students, faculty, staff, alumni and media, consider prospective parents and students, school districts, donors, trustees, partners, vendors, elected officials, and chambers of commerce. Consult with the chief communications officer on how best to communicate with them—through a phone call, a Google Hangout or an email, for instance.

7 effective strategies for campus communicators

Here are seven strategies for communicating with constituents both inside and outside higher education institution offices.

  1. Senior communicators should assign a member of their staff to monitor the president’s social media and email accounts. This staffer can respond to questions and comments as well as monitor emerging trends of concern.
  2. Act with transparency and accuracy. If time isn’t on your side, a holding statement is better than silence. For example, if an event is canceled for no other reason than an abundance of caution, then say so.
  3. Empower the experts. Identify ahead of time who drafts messages and content, who can approve, and who speaks on behalf of the university.
  4. Campus leadership and senior communicators alike must be prepared to communicate beyond email. At a minimum, create a dedicated landing page or microsite, and direct all audiences to it so they can access communications and resources specific to the COVID-19 situation. Rather than sending emails and news releases each time an event is canceled, direct event organizers to a form that feeds a listing of canceled events. Also consider creating a video that is brief (90 seconds or less) and easily sharable on social media platforms.
  5. Create a mechanism for individuals within the university to ask questions; then track the questions to monitor the effectiveness of communication tactics. A trend in the same type of questions identifies a gap in the communication strategy.
  6. Use media relations as a valuable resource, and approach it with focus and care. Respond to media requests and be prepared to offer a general statement rather than “no comment.” Agree ahead of time what the primary messages need to be, and if the media don’t ask about them, conclude with the key points that are most important to your audiences at that time.
  7. Consistency in social media is key. Don’t begin to use an administrative voice if you’ve always used a more casual tone through social media. Continuity of voice amplifies confidence in the information you are sharing, so it will more likely be accepted and followed.

And finally, remember that the higher education environment is unlike any other sector and as such, so are the roles and responsibilities of its lead communicators. These experts are also on the front lines of COVID-19, providing counsel and expertise to lead our institutions and community with confidence.

Jeanette DeDiemar is vice president for University Advancement & External Relations at Texas A&M University-San Antonio and chair of the Public Relations Society of America’s Counselors to Higher Education section.

Jeanette DeDiemar
Jeanette DeDiemar
Jeanette DeDiemar is vice president for University Advancement & External Relations at Texas A&M University-San Antonio and chair of the Public Relations Society of America’s Counselors to Higher Education section.

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