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Now & Later: COVID-19’s Impact on External Communications

Supporting the Profession Student Affairs Fundraising and Communications AVP or "Number Two" Senior Level VP for Student Affairs
August 10, 2020 Blake Weiss The University of Tennessee, Knoxville

If you turn on the local news in any college town, there will almost always be a story covering the latest sports higlights or scandal from the local college or university; higher education is certainly not shy of the spotlight. However, amidst a global pandemic, colleges and universities should consider the unique strategies necessary for communicating effectively to constituents beyond current students, their families, faculty, and staff. As the fall 2020 academic year pushes forward, the spotlight has been put directly on higher education professionals by local communities.

Now, more than ever, student populations are connected to the local community, and it is essential that institutional leaders address community concerns as such.

Below are a few considerations for effectively addressing and managing these communications pressures and furthering trust between communities and their institutions.

Regular and thorough updates:

Scheduling regular and consistent updates with external stakeholders and community members goes a long way to reducing the fears and anxieties related to a public health crisis. When external constituents know they can expect institutional updates on Tuesday and Friday afternoons, for example, they spend much less time reaching out with questions and concerns in between. These updates can also go great lengths in increasing trust through transparency. Simply addressing concerns and providing information directly from the source mitigates the power that rumors can play during a crisis. That said, updates should address trending and relevant concerns that are most applicable to all involved. If they prove to not be helpful, or leave many questions unanswered, they may do more harm than good.

Context and understanding: 

COVID-19 has presented higher education with the unique opportunity to directly explain the context of campus life, even specifically the role student affairs plays in higher education. Taking advantage of this opportunity in messages to the public can provide a much greater sense of understanding by external stakeholders. For example, student behavior has always been at the forefront of the public eye. However, COVID-19 has increased the spotlight, leading many college and university leaders to address the issue directly to the public. In rare form, many college and university presidents are explaining the conduct process and possible sanctions for violating policies related to COVID-19. Some college and university presidents are even following up with communications regarding the use of such sanctions. These are certainly unprecedented times. Whether the strategy is to demonstrate to students that leadership is not bluffing or show the community they are taking misbehavior seriously, the context provided to external stakeholders and community members by senior leaders has reduced misconceptions and furthered the public’s understanding of the role colleges and universities play in student accountability.

Build the bridge:

The ‘Ivory Tower’ has a one-way draw bridge. Now, more than ever, external stakeholders and community members must have a clear and reliable path to share information with the institution. Unless their role specifically involves external communication, higher education professionals do as much as they can to avoid critical conversations from those external to their institution. COVID-19 has shown us that it is essential to bring the community into our conversations on campus, especially as it relates to addressing the impact of students off campus. The pandemic has pushed us to no longer let that concerned citizen email go without a response. The truth is, we should have been investing capacity and expertise in this area long before now – but in many ways, we have benefited from avoidance. Taking this opportunity to build intentional infrastructure and capacity for fielding these external concerns will go a long way in mending relationships and building trust towards the future.

In sum, a global pandemic has presented college and universities with unique challenges and exceptional opportunities to engage with their external communities. Should these collaborations and relationships persist beyond COVID-19, I believe community trust will continue to grow, greatly benefitting institutional outcomes related to communications strategies and community engagement. For many, these unprecedented times will lead to unprecedented growth.