It’s safe to say that every student’s life looks considerably different than it did at the start of 2020. As the global pandemic has disrupted academic life in ways that few could have imagined, schools and students alike have had to adapt to the “new normal” and figure out how to put their best foot forward.
Systems and processes that academia took for granted pre-pandemic have become obsolete. Social distancing mandates, mask requirements, indefinite teleclasses, Zoom dissertation presentations and virtual graduation ceremonies are just a few of the new norms in higher education.
The coronavirus has shaken the world of higher education and presented a future full of unknowns. Colleges and universities nationwide had to scramble to close their doors and transition to exclusively remote classrooms in just a few days in mid-March.
Getting through last year was a remarkable feat for many universities — a testament to administrators, staff, professors and students all going above and beyond to make a difficult situation work.
Unfortunately, as spring became summer, they had no time to celebrate. The 2020-21 academic year is fast-approaching and presents a new and perhaps even more complex set of challenges for higher education.
“Should we open our campus, classrooms, dorms and dining halls to students this fall?” is the multi-million dollar question that every university is grappling with this summer. Universities are developing contingency plans for a wide range of scenarios.
With so many unknowns, streamlined communication channels have never been more important for universities. Students, parents, faculty and staff are sitting at home waiting to hear what the fall semester will look like.
It’s paramount for universities to get the right message to the right people at the right time.
Gone are the days of traditional press releases and announcements in the local morning paper. Now, people get a significant portion of their news via their social media feeds. With people staring at their phones more often than ever throughout the day, social media is the most important communications tool for higher education. Sharing engaging and timely Instagram, Facebook and Twitter content is essential for universities to keep their communities informed and invested.
We’ve put together a list of nine tips for colleges and universities to utilize their digital platforms as communication assets during these times of uncertainty:
1. Curate Content Based on Social Media Platform
Each social media platform has its own strengths and weaknesses. Instagram has the highest usage among 18 to 24-year-olds. Facebook is still popular across most age demographics, but younger audiences use it primarily for more detailed announcements and live-feeds. Twitter is the go-to platform for news.
Major announcements such as opening plans for the fall semester need to be shared across all channels, but it’s still important to be cognizant of who your target audience is on each platform.
For example, sharing a short hype video for incoming freshmen on Instagram would probably get more engagement than on Facebook. Conversely, announcing an event with a niche lecturer would be more likely to entice Facebook followers.
Featuring key announcements front and center on your official website is an absolute must. With social media posts ranging in importance and targeting certain audiences, content curation and social wall embedment on your website allows you to prominently feature the most important posts.
2. Use Consistent, Centralized Communications Channels
Streamlining communications is a tall task for most colleges and universities. With so many different departments operating separately under the umbrella of the school, it’s hard to keep messaging consistent and on-brand.
It’s best to maintain one official social media account on each platform that serves as the “official voice” of the university. Anything posted on a school’s official social media account can be considered an official announcement — similar to issuing a press release in the pre-social media era.
Specific departments, sports teams or initiatives should have their own separate social accounts to share information specific to their group and target audiences. For major announcements, the official university account can reshare content posted by the niche group and broadcast it on their broader platform. Here’s an example of Gonzaga University’s official Twitter account retweeting an announcement originally shared by their Freshman Orientation Twitter account:
3. Share Content That Inspires People
Seemingly every time we turn on the news, we’re getting bombarded with negativity. It’s a repetitive cycle that’s depressing and exhausting. Use your social media platforms to break that cycle and brighten your followers’ spirits. Plenty of people are doing extraordinary things to help others amidst adversity.
Shine the spotlight on your alumni who are working in healthcare. Showcase students volunteering at local food banks. Broadcast philanthropic partnerships the university has forged. Commend student organizations advocating for civil rights. Feature faculty doing groundbreaking research. These people deserve to be recognized and your social media followers deserve these types of uplifting news.
Here’s an example of the University of Michigan using their Instagram channel to showcase pharmacy students who had their clinical rotations disrupted and still managed to help the university address the pandemic:
4. Stay True to Your Brand
Your university has most likely been around for a while. You’ve developed systems and processes that have worked over the long run — don’t abandon these in desperation.
Stay true to the brand and voice that you’ve worked so hard to establish. Ground yourself in your core values and maintain consistency.
If you’re a public institution that prioritizes affordable in-state tuition, remind your followers about your commitment to keeping student costs low. If you’re a faith-based institution, double down on your mission and values.
Things are changing so quickly now. People yearn for consistency and reliability. Use your platform to build trust and enforce stability in your university community.
5. Show Solidarity With Students, Local Community and Marginalized People
Racial and gender equality in higher education has been a constant struggle for longer than most institutions have been around. Recent events have brought social justice inequality to the forefront.
Universities are going back to the drawing board and evaluating their roles in society and how they can improve diversity. It’s critical that universities communicate their internal efforts to fight racism and inequality publicly.
For most universities, this has started with a public statement from the President condemning racism and outlining general steps that the university plans to take. But this is just the beginning; major university reform will be long and gradual.
Universities should use their social platforms to empathize with marginalized communities and show solidarity in the fight against injustice. This is not a week- or month-long campaign. Dig in for the long haul. Broadcast the change you want to create with the people in your university community who will be carrying the torch forward.
6. Share Regular Updates About Contingency Plans
All plans you set for the fall semester have to remain fluid. Students, parents and community members understand that. They also have invested considerable amounts in your institution and want to be kept in the loop.
It’s okay to say that things might change and you’re still gathering information, but providing regular updates about your preparation keeps your followers updated and engaged.
Setting up a designated COVID-19 response page that houses all related resources is an easy way to centralize all key documents in a single easy-to-access place.
Embedding a social media aggregator that includes real-time updates from your social media ensures that the latest announcements are always current on your website.
As long as you’re transparent and honest about your plans, people aren’t going to condemn you for sharing information that changes later.
Putting together the best, safest plan for your university is priority #1. Opening a dialogue with your students, families and communities should be next on the agenda. Even the most well-intentioned plans will fall short if they aren’t communicated clearly.
7. Emphasize Commitment to Health and Public Safety
College campuses have been systematically designed to bring people together — to collaborate in the classroom and socialize outside of it. The pandemic has forced universities to abandon their traditional structures and build environments compatible with social distancing regulations.
This is a tall task requiring reconfigurations across campus — ranging from classrooms to dining halls and dorms to fitness centers. Students, parents and faculty all want to know what you’re doing to ensure the campus community is safe.
Don’t just release one extensive “reopening guide” that has your safety measures buried in the middle. Provide regular updates about social distancing protocols that you’re putting in place to keep people safe. Here are a few ways to do this:
- Post pictures of your cafeteria redesigned for social distancing
- Explain changes to on-campus housing
- Provide updates on remote classroom technology
- Feature campus resources like the Health Center or Wellness Support Office
- Record the President addressing students in a university-branded mask
- Facilitate conversations about your reopening plans and learn about your community’s most pressing concerns
- Invite your followers to attend online town halls and open the door to productive conversations
8. Remember and Celebrate Happy Memories
Straddling the line between preparing for the future and reminiscing about the past can be a delicate balance. In times of uncertainty, taking trips down memory lanes to celebrate past successes can provide a nice break respite from future unknowns.
Celebrate anniversaries. Dig up old funny videos. Send birthday wishes to students and faculty. Put together an impromptu “on this date” campaign. Commemorate sports victories — on and off the field.
Gonzaga University’s men’s basketball team had their season cut short — just before they had the chance to compete for a national championship. While that was very disappointing, they’ve managed to find plenty of silver linings and celebrate their triumphs on and off the court:
9. Project a Brighter Future Ahead
While you may feel like there isn’t any good news to report, with a little creativity, you can find a way to put a positive spin on things. Share content that projects a brighter future for your university and community. Remind people that the best way to get through these difficult times is bonding together as a community.
Get the incoming freshman class excited about officially becoming (insert your mascot). Showcase exciting projects that faculty members are working on. Share progress on new campus facilities and initiatives. Encourage people to stay positive and be grateful for little things.
Hammer home that your campus community is strong. You will get through these challenging times and be better and more united on the other side.