Put People First: How Colleges Can Communicate Effectively About COVID-19

column | Coronavirus

Put People First: How Colleges Can Communicate Effectively About COVID-19

By Kevin R. McClure (Columnist)     Apr 10, 2020

Put People First: How Colleges Can Communicate Effectively About COVID-19
A memorial to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's fireside chats.

This article is part of the guide: Sustaining Higher Education in the Coronavirus Crisis.

As the spread of COVID-19 forced closures of campuses across the country, college leaders have contemplated how to craft some of the most difficult messages in their careers.

They have had to find words to console graduating students grieving the loss of their final months on campus. They have had to prepare stressed faculty members for radical changes in how they teach. They have had to deliver painful news about commencement, new hires and construction projects. Writing these messages has been all the more difficult given the evolving nature of the crisis and uncertainty about long-term effects.

As a researcher of higher education finance and leadership, I have paid close attention to college leaders’ messages. In addition to taking a scholarly interest in the messages, I have also read them with deep empathy. I regularly speak with college leaders in my work, and I understand the long hours they have logged in service to their communities. Striking the right balance between candidness and compassion, strength and vulnerability, realism and optimism in communication is an elusive target in the best of times. With stakes so high and stressors multiplying, it is easy for messages to miss their mark.

Striking the wrong tone or prioritizing the wrong points in a message can compromise or slow down response efforts because it can de-motivate or confuse people being called upon to act. At the most extreme, a communication error can breed resentment and resistance at precisely the moment leaders are trying to unify campus constituents around a common cause.

In an effort to find positive examples of crisis leadership, I asked my followers on Twitter if they had been particularly impressed by how their leaders had responded. Dozens of people took time to share the ways in which their institutions’ leaders rose to the occasion. Based on their assessments and my own study of messages, I distilled the following five insights for how best to communicate through a crisis like COVID-19.

Put People First

With the need to convey detailed plans quickly, it is easy for messages to sound like policy manuals. They can come across as too technical, failing to recognize the emotional toll of massive upheavals.

Effective messages always put people first. In the best messages I read, this took shape in explicit statements about the importance of protecting people’s health and safety. One person I heard from praised their leader for “[realizing] students were vulnerable and being hyper-focused on their basic needs.”

Putting people first also entailed making clear that wellbeing comes first and work comes second. My own dean wrote in an email that “as you balance your personal responsibilities with work, please make every effort to tip the scales to the personal.” This meant a great deal to people struggling to meet their varied obligations. In short, leading with compassion and kindness proved especially effective in laying the groundwork for implementing necessary changes.

Ramp Up Resources

People who responded to my tweet were particularly impressed with messages that outlined all the resources that were being mobilized to build support infrastructure. They were grateful to learn about the quick deployment of instructional designers, fully stocking the campus food pantry in anticipation of increased demand, creating wireless hotspots in campus parking lots for students without access to reliable internet, and other efforts to signal to campus constituents that they were not walking this new path alone.

They especially celebrated when resources were organized without campus constituents having to first apply pressure. One commenter highlighted CUNY’s hub of information about continuity of learning, complete with a video from the chancellor, details on accessing laptops and mental health services, and optimization for mobile devices. Leaders should be prepared to share what specific actions had been taken to support campus constituents—or the work underway—and not lean too heavily on platitudes.

Stay Visible and Speak With Authenticity

One lesson my own institution has learned through several hurricanes is to be judicious with messages. Too much information across too many platforms can reduce effectiveness.

One way to do this is to route all messages through the university relations office. However, this strategy can come at a cost to leaders’ visibility and authenticity. Campus constituents want to see and hear, in some way, from their leaders during crises. Authenticity means opening up about personal challenges and fears, allowing others to see—and connect with—vulnerability.

I found brief videos compelling because there was no question that the messages were coming directly from the leader, often in their own words. One person who responded to my tweet shared that William & Mary’s president is hosting virtual community discussions throughout the month of April on topics like resilience and wellness. Another shared this personal letter that the admissions dean at Iowa State University wrote from her living room, mixing personal emotions with generous accommodations for prospective students. Even if it’s just an email, leaders should prioritize visibility and authenticity in their messages.

Make Decisions Promptly

Some of the most frequent descriptors in the responses I received were “fast,” “early,” “quickly,” and “promptly.” People appreciated decisiveness, as they were better able to make their own plans and begin adapting once a decision was reached.

There are many good reasons why a leader would wait to make a consequential decision, including the need to adhere to state or system policies, respect shared governance, and weigh possible consequences. Nevertheless, people admired leaders who took charge when they had the authority to do so, especially when the outcome was a humane decision designed to help people in need.

Quick decision-making yielded benefits beyond making it easier for people to plan—it also cast a positive light on leaders and their institutions for being courageous and setting an example for others to follow. One example of this was Ohio State University’s president announcing on Twitter that all pre-tenure faculty will be offered a one-year extension on their tenure clock.

Go Above and Beyond

The COVID-19 crisis has likely produced an avalanche of work for presidents, and keeping up with necessary meetings and decisions is more than a full-time job. Still, some leaders managed to impress and inspire by going above and beyond in terms of their creativity and service to their communities.

James Ryan, the president of the University of Virginia, organized a virtual concert performance for every Sunday evening. He tweeted: “It’s hopefully a time for us, through the arts, to connect as a community.” People praised both the presidents of Florida State University and Morgan State University for attending online classes to better understand the experience for students and faculty. Another response pointed to Montgomery College’s president, who dedicated money that would be used for commencement to fund emergency financial aid. Lastly, leaders at Cornell University voluntarily took pay cuts in advance of the university’s announcement that they would be freezing new hires.

Cutting across all these insights is the unmistakable importance of vulnerability, kindness and empathy. Few, if any, responses to my tweet centered notions of strength, institutional excellence or legal obligations.

People did not want to be thanked, congratulated or assured that the institution will emerge from this crisis better and stronger.

They wanted their leaders to think, speak and act like the real people they are.

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