In uncertain times communications to key audiences become even more critical. This rule holds for pretty much any audience you can think of. But it especially applies to young people who are in the formative stages of their adulthood as they try to figure out who they are and what and where their place will be in the world.
Here are some tips for communicating to college students in the COVID age and beyond:
Coordinate and Centralize Communications
One thing that will always be remembered about the COVID era was the confusing and often contradictory advice and guidance received from public officials. According to Bryan Schneider, Principal at Port5 Communications, colleges and universities need not make the same mistake.
“Centralize communications through key leadership in conjunction with student affairs and the campus public communications office,” he says. “Try to tamp down having entities around campus send out their own communications without going through central channels first. It is okay for the International Student Affairs office to craft the message to international students, for example, but it needs to be approved ideally through the campus public relations/marketing office in cooperation with senior leadership. “
Show Concern and Empathy
According to a recent poll by Active Minds, 80% of college students report that COVID has negatively impacted their mental health. Even before the pandemic, 70% of college students reported anxiety and depression as a major issue among their peers. Ragan’s PR Daily and others suggest that campus leadership needs to show concern, empathy, and support for all students on or off-campus and continuously remind students of available mental health resources and professional help.
Student Health Will Continue To Be A Major Issue
Even when the Coronavirus is no longer a threat, health information, guidance, and support will continue to be essential to communicate to students. According to campus health experts cited by CNBC, despite recent reports of outbreaks around campuses due to parties and other irresponsible behavior, many students do care about their own and other’s health. Students (and their parents) will need to know that colleges are thinking about their health and wellness long after this pandemic has come and gone.
Keep All Your Students In Mind When Communicating
This generation of students is the most diverse ever, not just in terms of ethnicity, but also there are more non-traditional students, students living in poverty, and a declining but still significant number of international students. Communications need to address all of these groups. Segmented communications targeted to specific groups are important, but inclusive communications that link off to resources aimed at particular audiences are also necessary when there is info relevant to everyone. Using Comevo’s Launch™ Online Orientation and Training’s Decision PathForks™ and Navigate features are great ways to get information to the right audience.
Keep It Real
Research detailed by Finances Online shows that even before the pandemic, the current generation of college students valued authenticity. In stressful times, this is even more critical. Authenticity can be defined in large part by values and beliefs aligned with branding. But, according to the marketing firm The Jeffrey Group it is also about being transparent and open– not being afraid to talk about vulnerability, challenges and learning through mistakes. Perhaps most importantly, it is about conveying accurate information unclouded by propaganda or wishful thinking.
The higher ed marketing firm Carnegie Dartlet recommends not allowing your channels to go dark in times of trouble. Even when the only thing to say is: “There is no new news, but we’ll let you know when there is,” you still communicate something important– that you are monitoring the situation, committed to keeping your community informed, and thinking about the people that matter.
The content marketing firm Contently recommends the following:
- Include FAQ pages as part of your COVID or crisis information webpages.
- Listen to questions and concerns across social media channels to take the pulse of the community but also identify false rumors, overarching concerns, and problems:
“Social listening has always been crucial to customer service. Doing it well involves more than just responding to mentions. Good listeners can anticipate an audience’s needs and be proactive.”
- Back to “normal” content– Now that the initial shock of COVID has passed, it’s okay to get back to fun or more routine news mixed with the essential updates.
Jeanette DeDiemar, vice president for University Advancement & External Relations at Texas A&M University-San Antonio, offers these strategies during COVID in University Business:
- “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.”
- “Empower the experts. Identify ahead of time who drafts messages and content, who can approve, and who speaks on behalf of the university.”
- “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.”
- “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 doesn’t ask about them, conclude with the key points that are most important to your audiences at that time.”
- “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.
Challenging times can have the hidden benefit of forcing us to grow as leaders and communicators. And many of the best practices during times of crisis are still relevant when times are better. These tips should continue to be helpful even after the pandemic finally becomes history.
Written by: Bryan Schneider, Principal at Port5 Communications