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Content Marketing Crisis Mode: How Colleges Are Handling the Coronavirus

Andrew Cassel was crammed into a room with seven colleagues. He turned to peek out the window as backpacked students bustled about campus. For a second, it looked like a normal Vermont spring day at Middlebury College.

“All I could think was, we’re about to change their lives. In a few hours, we’re going to tell them to pack up all their things and go home,” Cassel said.

It was a sobering moment to know what was coming while watching others go about their days. Cassel, social strategist and content producer at Middlebury, was in a crisis communications meeting to discuss messaging about the pending campus closure due to the coronavirus.

Colleges and universities around the world were faced with these same challenges dating back to March. Initial messaging focused on details about the virus and what campuses were doing to protect students, faculty, staff, and visitors. Regularly scheduled programming evolved into event cancellations, adjusted hours, limited services, and then campus closings.

“Crisis means you’re 24/7,” Cassel said.

Amidst a global pandemic, school is still in session. So what can we learn from collegiate content teams that have adapted to these unprecedented times?

A new plan

Springtime in higher education signals finals, awards, career fairs, internships, and graduation. Around this time, schools also welcome the incoming class at orientation. With these events comes exciting, feel-good content. But that’s changed.

About 300 miles south of Middlebury, Dave Tyler was trying to make the best of a bad situation from his office at Rochester Institute for Technology (RIT). “From a social media perspective, our content plans have been out the window,” he said.

Online content and social engagement aren’t the only forms of outreach impacted by a pandemic. The spring edition of RIT’s university magazine was set to preview an annual research expo that draws nearly 30,000 people to campus.

“Some of that issue was focused on an exciting finish to the end of the [academic] year,” he says. “And those parts were instantly rendered obsolete. We essentially vacated a small town.”

With the old content calendar wiped clean, the immediate need became emergency management communications. Critical messages were followed by a steady stream of updates ranging from which essential campus services were still available to Zoom meeting tips. The ultimate goal is to maintain a strong sense of community.

“Connecting people with their campus while they’re away from it… I take that responsibility so seriously. Every piece of content has to be helpful,” Cassel said. “It’s not funny. It’s not tongue-in-cheek. It’s not a meme. It’s ‘here’s how we can help.'”

This isn’t to say every post has to be dire. Internal memos and official statements can be stuffy and sterile. That’s why Cassel triages all crisis communications-related messaging that come his way. Will something be a full, self-contained Facebook post, or a shorter update that links to further details?

For example, a “campus is closed until further notice” message is urgent and clear enough to post on its own, while a new policy on dorm move-out instructions might serve the audience better with a conversation social post linking to the official information. Adjusting the tone of a “you-must-share-this kind of message” handed down from a VP is part of everyday life for a college social media manager, but this show of humanity goes a long way during a crisis.

Collaboration and preparation

While department size and individual roles vary from campus to campus, at its core, creating and sharing content is a collaborative effort. Tyler and Cassel have witnessed incredible teamwork amidst extreme circumstances and uncertainty.

“One of the reasons we’ve had so much communication success is because our team has been so proactive,” Tyler explained.

RIT’s communications team anticipated questions from students, parents, alumni, faculty and staff members, and other stakeholders. In turn, they built a comprehensive FAQ rather quickly. This was part of a larger effort to centralize all coronavirus-related information and resources, a smart strategy that many higher education institutions instinctively gravitated toward. (In fact, digital agency Modern Tribe recently highlighted several college and university websites with an A+ response to COVID-19 communication.)

“This place is here for you, no matter what.”

With a spring full of mission-critical events like admitted students day up in the air, marketing and communications teams had to act fast to support their enrollment management colleagues in new ways, like developing online alternatives to in-person events with quick turnaround times. Many colleges already offer online “virtual” campus tours, but that prepackaged model wouldn’t be ideal for, say, “admitted student day.” Cassel and his team brainstormed ways for his enrollment marketing team to create a far more interactive online replacement, which led to a new website for admitted students.

Enrollment and fundraising are always top priorities. But it’s not uncommon for individual college offices and programs to have their own social media presence. What happens to “secondary” accounts like athletics or performing arts when the entire spring schedule is canceled?

“Telling someone to go ‘radio silent,’ that’s not helpful,” Cassel said. Instead, Middlebury’s content creators discussed what would be useful, relevant, and appropriate. A few examples:

Cassel noted this fresh content was beneficial for Middlebury in a few ways. First, it provided a source of content to curate for the central campus social accounts. But, more importantly, this positive content from all over the college made a statement.

“It showed what this school will do for them, how this place is here for you, no matter what,” he said.

Social listening during a crisis

Social listening has always been crucial to customer service. Doing it well involves more than just responding to mentions. Good listeners can anticipate an audience’s needs and be proactive.

When college classes shifted online, the school was closely tracking how students and teachers felt about the adjustment. As a campus leader at RIT told Tyler,“We better get this right. We have technology in our name.” No pressure.

You’d expect to find trivial complaints or at least a certain level of snark in the trenches of Reddit, on campus-related “meme sites” and elsewhere on social media. In this situation, though, Tyler and Cassel discovered genuine concern from the student body. The biggest question they saw: What does this semester of changes mean for my future? Sounds obvious, but it’s helpful to see what students are really saying instead of assuming what they’re thinking.

Several weeks in, Tyler has gathered from measuring social sentiment that the adjustment to online learning has generally been well-received. But persistent monitoring will allow him to spot concerns in real-time and make sure the right people on campus are notified.

Back to “normal” content

Now that the initial shock of crisis mode has passed, many higher ed content teams feel comfortable balancing COVID-related updates with other material.

“Our audience is definitely receptive to non-corona-related stuff, and that’s been encouraging,” Tyler said. For example, RIT has a Friday tradition of sharing GIFs of tiger cubs. After pausing the posts for a few weeks in light of the pandemic, Tyler brought them back after he heard that followers actually missed them.

He’s also been mindful about not letting “regular” campus news—such as faculty research, end-of-year awards, or student Fulbright fellowships—get lost in the shuffle. In fact, working on those types of posts and stories, “lets everyone breathe a little bit, including our audience.”

In communities full of curious and creative problem-solvers, there’s also been an uptick in stories about the coronavirus that aren’t just urgent updates.

Middlebury recently reshared a photo album titled “The Little Mask that Could” from the school’s costume shop director. A pile of unused fabric transformed into dozens of homemade face coverings.

RIT, meanwhile, has highlighted leading the healthcare team at the field hospital inside the Javits Center in New York City and developments about a low-cost, portable emergency ventilator. These accomplishments inspired University News to create RIT Rallies, a new series of posts highlighting similar alumni stories.

The pandemic is far from over, but as Tyler put it: “We’re settled into the ‘What’s next?’ phase of things for now.

Many people across all areas of higher education might be asking that same question, and there’s no rule book to consult (yet). A few industry folks are putting together resources to help, such as Oho Interactive’s Braintrusts, regular live meetings that bring together experts on a specific topic, like virtual commencement or building remote content teams.

Settling in

Higher education has a pretty predictable communications schedule: same milestone events, same recruitment cycle, same annual fundraising deadline.

Content creators in higher education—if they weren’t working from home—would look out their office windows to find a very different campus scene than Cassel did on that early spring afternoon.

However, if there’s one thing about working in the realm of digital content, it’s that schools are getting used to a rapidly changing landscape. That skillset will continue to serve them well in the future, pandemic or not.

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