Title

Beyond Crisis Communications

Why colleges and universities must explain their purpose and value -- even during a pandemic.

September 24, 2020
 
 

Back in March, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, most colleges and universities abruptly went into crisis-management mode, evacuating their campuses and transitioning to online learning. At the same time, most of their marketing teams went into crisis-communications mode, trying to address the many issues and circumstances that arose.

Soon schools were facing a myriad of questions: When would campuses reopen? How would virtual engagement work? Would students receive refunds for room and board? It quickly became clear that overcommunicating was the best way to stay ahead of these issues and maintain close ties with students, families, faculty, staff and many other audiences.

Many of those same marketing teams went into overdrive to keep people informed, and by most accounts, they’ve done a masterful job. Nearly every website in higher education now has a COVID-19 section with information about campus safety, reopening plans and policies, connecting with the school virtually, and much more. But as necessary as all of this has been, some schools also chose to chart a parallel path. Consider these examples:

  • In May, Yale University launched a new podcast centered on admissions. Called Inside the Yale Admissions Office, this new series happened because Yale staffers wanted to provide more transparency into the admissions process.
  • Through June, Drexel University continued to run its Ambition Can’t Wait campaign, a message that goes beyond admissions. The campaign speaks to Drexel’s overall approach with experiential learning and the benefits of that method.
  • Brigham Young University used social media to reinforce the value of being part of the BYU community and to share various ways to stay connected with fellow students, alumni, faculty and staff.
  • In August, UCLA announced the launch of a major mental health study in collaboration with Apple to learn more about anxiety and depression over the next three years.
  • The University of Kentucky expanded its communications to include a range of optimistic and uplifting topics, with the aim of providing a counterbalance to pandemic news, and offering people hope.

Why would schools do this? What was their motivation for talking about other parts of their story when a global crisis was raging? Some of these efforts might have been seen as insensitive, or out of step with what was happening across the country. But each of these institutions -- and many others -- took that risk and decided to carefully share complementary content that was relevant to its audiences.

Purdue University was another school that took this approach. It was in a unique position when the pandemic hit, having just successfully relaunched its institutional brand. But that launch, at the end of January, was internal: it targeted some 400 communicators across campus, plus leadership and the Board of Trustees. Purdue was primed to begin publicly sharing what it meant by “The Next Giant Leap.” But it understood the need for an atypical approach given the impact of the pandemic.

The university decided to move forward with a strategic communications effort that it informally called “air cover.” Even as Purdue was communicating aggressively about COVID-19, it launched a campaign that focused on eight key themes, derived from the pillars of its core value proposition. The goal was to align communicators and drive the desired brand perceptions while shaping its next class. Strategic content calendars were developed, with each of the themes allotted its own two-week period for storytelling, news and other relevant content.

And with so many people in quarantine, YouTube was selected as the campaign’s core channel. This necessitated an overhaul of the Purdue YouTube channel: updating existing video content to the new brand standards and resharing it for new viewers.

As the campaign evolved, every aspect of it was measured. Total social media followers grew by 38,000 across all channels -- an increase of 42 percent. Moreover, engagement across all social media channels rose by 127 percent, including a 207 percent gain on YouTube. And while this was not an enrollment campaign per se, its 30 million impressions did seem to have an impact. Purdue yielded 8,925 freshmen this year -- nearly 11 percent more than 2019.

What’s the big lesson here? It will be different for every institution. At a bare minimum, students and families are questioning the value of their education more than ever during this time. For any college or university to thrive in the pandemic’s wake, it must continue to tell its story and engage with stakeholders by sharing content that goes beyond crisis communications. It must do so thoughtfully and strategically -- without ignoring the realities of COVID-19 -- by helping people understand what the institution offers over all and how it contributes to the greater good.

Ethan Braden is senior vice president of marketing and communications at Purdue University. Bill Faust is senior partner and chief strategy officer at Ologie, a branding and marketing agency.

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