Justin Shaw, Chief Higher Education Consultant, Communications Management, outlines his view on how university comms teams have managed during the pandemic and how it could lead to better recognition for the importance of communications work in the future.
I have worked in higher education communications for 30 years – and what we are going through now trumps everything I have seen (and I have seen a few dramatic incidents of on-campus risk and crisis in my time: fires, protests, mergers, closures, misbehaving leaders…and even a missile crisis!).
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been observing how our university communications teams have been coping amidst this “unprecedented” chapter in our history – and these teams (and the often-unsung leaders of these teams) have coped exceptionally well.
Whenever I have delivered crisis comms workshops for universities my parting shot is always to say “embrace these crisis – you will never ever learn more about crisis management and your abilities as a communications expert than when you are in the thick of it”.
This has been a massive learning experience – but has also created significant opportunities: the professional communications function has never been so in-need, in-demand, and earning such respect.
After this all calms down, I am hoping we will see a substantial sea-change in how communications is regarded in our universities and that there will be more investment in our communicators.
Universities are made of complex structures and have sizeable and varied communities – so when it comes to any type of communications they have to be treated differently than with most other types of organisation (where there tend to be just 4 main groups to address: staff, customers, owners/investors and suppliers/partners).
HEIs do have a real advantage in terms of their natural (and physical) affinity with their staff and students but they also have a significant disadvantage in that these people are highly protective of their individual interests and rights – and the ways in which they want to be communicated with.
In these COVID-19 ‘circumstances’ so far I’ve seen varying degrees of response. The best universities have come together quickly, produced roadmaps with options (recognizing that things can change quickly) and demonstrated immense community support.
They’ve made tough decisions (often without precedent or policy) and they have scoped the finer details that will accommodate and address the needs of those in a very wide range of circumstances (especially when it comes to students – different stages of study, different living arrangements, different nationalities, different ways of studying). While most universities tend to rely on emails – the best have developed and adapted different methods and channels (the increase in cohesive apps for students has helped – along with social media, SMS messaging and messaging platforms that sit within VLEs).
What we have seen is a unique set of circumstances never encountered since the 1939-45 War – and where the best universities have shone is where they have been far more proactive and open than ever before. They’ve genuinely shown commitment through actions rather than words – by sharing facilities with those who need them (for testing, for living space and even – in the case of UWE – for a brand new temporary hospital), by being more immersed in their communities and by sharing their knowledge and expertise on the issues that matter.
Where they are succeeding is showing heart and beyond-expectations support and not just issuing announcements and pushing out information. I really feel that public perceptions of universities will change for the better as a result of what we are going through – for years they have talked about themselves as ‘anchor institutions’ (for their neighborhoods) and as serving a civic duty, but now more than ever they are demonstrating that with specifics. People will remember more how universities made them feel, at this historic time, rather than what they heard.
The biggest challenges in the management of crisis communications in universities is lack of agreement. There are leaders who want to slow the pace down, encourage elongated and consultative discussions, and shy away from potential backlash. This isn’t good when you need leaders who are both good listeners but can also take swift, decisive action.
Traditional consultative and collegiate cultures and timescales don’t work well in crisis. I also believe that communications professionals in universities are vastly under-recognised for their experience, talent and expertise. Universities hire them and then don’t tend to draw on them effectively – there’s a severe value perception deficit.
It’s slightly better in the USA where communications tends to be a discrete office of its own (often reporting direct to the president) but in the UK, communications is often submerged well underneath the structures for student recruitment marketing and (as such) is often a last-minute voice or a forgotten resource. What is happening now will change the course of universities as effective communicators forever.
A major crisis often brings about positive evolutions in the organisation. Many universities have stepped up their community responsibilities and demonstrated their active humanity during the COVID-19 crisis – and they will more likely be remembered for these in the long term.
Examples of ‘heart’ in universities during the current global crisis are:
Providing free (close to hospital) accommodation for medics, nurses and other hospital workers during Covid-19:
Academics (in Medicine) return to front-line hospital work:
Providing staff and students to run additional testing for Covid-19:
Providing unused/ spare PPE to health workers:
Using 3d printers for face shields:
Donating mobile tech to help hospital patients communicate with families who cannot visit:
Medical students providing childcare support for doctors and nurses who might otherwise have to stay at home and be a loss to treatment of COVID-19 patients:
Setting up online learning opportunities for school pupils in lockdown at home:
Community meals support from Chicago: https://coronavirusupdates.uchicago.edu/community-support/
The Viral Stories site has many more such tales to tell – and we should be celebrating every one of them.