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Writing clear, concise, and consistent student messaging—even during a global pandemic

Supporting the Profession Student Affairs Fundraising and Communications AVP or "Number Two" Mid-Level Senior Level VP for Student Affairs
June 1, 2020 Mike Piacentino University of Miami

As the COVID-19 global pandemic continued to impact higher education throughout the second half of the spring 2020 semester, the University of Miami’s Student Affairs Communications and Marketing team knew that the need for consistent, clear, and concise communication to students—and their families—would be crucial to keep this vital audience informed on the latest University actions and guidance heading into the summer and fall months.

Furthermore, the team saw early on that various units from across the division (housing, student activities, wellness and recreation, student health, counseling, and others) would need to share various messages with students about updated operations and new policies throughout the summer leading up to move-in.

By developing a strategic approach to communicating with your audiences and carefully considering these questions, your messaging will be consistent in tone, voice, and content throughout any long-term crisis.

In response, the office identified three strategicv priorities to help guide all communications. It was determined that messaging must be:

  1. Centralized: ensuring that Student Affairs messages were coordinated and accurately reflected the current state of the environment, institution, Division, and/or unit
  2. Consistent: maintaining a tone and voice that was consistent across all platforms to foster a seamless audience experience
  3. Audience-focused: communicating through appropriate channels for the audience and using plain language that was accessible to all

After these priorities were identified, a Message Development Protocol was established to provide a framework for crafting new messages. With the global pandemic evolving daily, having an internal process for developing new content ensured that errors that resulted from moving too quickly or losing sight of the long-term strategy were significantly reduced, if not eliminated altogether. The five steps of the protocol were:

  1. Plan: understand the goal of the message and its intended audience
  2. Create: focus on the specific content of the message and identify the appropriate platform(s)
  3. Review: explicitly clarify who must review the message as well as the details within it
  4. Approve: final drafts and details must be approved by necessary entities; in general, the vice president for student affairs has final approval
  5. Disseminate: distribute messages in a way that allows for data collection and analysis

To make each step practical and actionable—especially in the heat of the moment—a series of questions were provided to guide both leadership and staff when beginning to develop any communication.

Step 1: Plan

During the planning stage of message development, take the time to clearly understand the goal of the message and its intended audience. Questions to consider include:

Why is this message being sent?

  • To inform on actions taken or decisions made by the University
  • To provide a status update on the current landscape/context
  • To outline actions necessary for the audience to take
  • To reassure the audience through a success story

Who is the intended audience?

  • Identify specific lists or data parameters needed to reach target audiences
  • Also consider the various mindsets of individuals within your target audience group
    • Ex: if a message is being sent to all students, how will first-year students perceive the message compared to a senior student?

When should the message be sent?

  • Whenever possible, avoid sending messages after 3 p.m. or on Fridays after noon

What information needs to be included?

  • Overly long or complex messages will cause reader fatigue. Messages should be kept to no more than three or four main ideas
  • Throughout the drafting process, clearly identify information that has been fully reviewed/vetted by necessary decision-makers as well as information that still needs approval

Step 2: Create

Only after the goal(s) and timing of the message have been determined, turn your attention to the specific content as well as the appropriate ways to reach the desired audience. Questions to consider include:

What platform will this message be posted to?

  • E-mail (via a listserv)      
  • Website
  • Signage (printed/digital)
  • Social media
  • Printed handout

What format will this message take?

  • Written letter/message
  • E-Newsletter
  • Editorial or news story  
  • Pre-recorded video
  • Live video/town hall/Q&A           
  • Infographic

Where will this message/information be housed/posted after it is disseminated?

  • For example: if sent as an e-mail, should it be added to a website? Posted on social media?

What is the tone?

  • In general, messages should address the issues at hand, acknowledge the facts as they are known at the time, show empathy, and provide transparency into what’s being done.

What terms, concepts, or ideas must be defined for the target audience?

  • Messages should be written using simple, plain, and clear language
  • If industry-specific terms are needed, provide definitions or links to external sources with more information

How will feedback and questions be addressed?

  • Identify specific web pages to direct audiences to for more information
  • Include appropriate e-mail address, phone number, or link to contact form

Who is the message coming from?

  • Statement from the University, the Division, the unit
  • Letter from pre-identified leaders/spokespersons
  • Ensure digital signatures and/or headshots of individuals are available ahead of time

If an e-mail message, what are the necessary details?

  • Subject line
  • “From” name
  • “Reply to” e-mail address
  • Opt-out or privacy links

What accessibility modifications should be considered for this message?

  • Videos should include closed captioning or transcripts
  • Use plain language

Step 3: Review

Once the underlying pan and content of the message has been solidified, make clear with all stakeholders the process by which the message should be reviewed.

For example, any message or document containing:

  • medical, science-based, epidemiologic, and/or infection prevention and control information should be reviewed by a pre-determined medical professional within the institution
  • information related to student conduct or discipline should be reviewed by the dean of students or similar office/position
  • information or updates related to a campus department other than the department sending the message should be reviewed by that department, even if the language being used has been pre-approved

Whenever possible, messages should be pilot tested with a representative sample of the target audience (i.e. a small group of trusted students who can provide quick feedback on an email draft).

Step 4: Approve

In addition to the review step outlined above, final drafts of messages should also be approved by necessary entities who may not have been involved in the initial developed of the message. Such groups may include senior institutional leadership, legal counsel, the institution’s central communications office, other members of the division’s executive leadership, etc.

Step 5: Disseminate

Once messages have been reviewed and approved, distribute messages as established through the Plan and Create stages. Have a plan in place to collect, analyze, and report metrics to relevant internal stakeholders to guide future messages.

In conclusion, developing a protocol of your own allows you to stay calm under pressure yet still respond quickly to issues at hand. Of course, sometimes best-laid plans get thrown out the window for the sake of expediency or other external pressures. But at least having this plan at the ready and considering even just a few of the questions listed above will help you craft more effective messages in the long run.