Scaling Your Communications Operation for Unpredictable Circumstances

March 13, 2020
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After graduating college in 2001, I spent a year interning full-time at Boston.com, the website affiliated with The Boston Globe. My time was split between writing content for our tech/dotcom vertical digitalMASS and supporting the main online newsroom at the Globe.

Tuesdays were one of my scheduled days for working at digitalMASS — including Tuesday, Sept, 11, 2001. 

As the scope of the tragedy revealed itself over the course of that morning, my non-Globe colleagues and I — who worked for verticals in arts & entertainment, tech, classifieds, and real estate — set our typical daily tasks aside. It was all hands on deck to support our team over at the Globe, who were managing an unprecedented onslaught of breaking news. We pulled stories off the wire, created photo galleries, and updated informational pages. That new normal persisted for at least a week, with ripple effects felt for months afterward.

Navigating Uncharted Waters

Today, higher ed also finds itself in unprecedented circumstances. Central communications offices are working long, stressful hours to disseminate a constantly changing stream of information to a range of external and internal audiences. Meanwhile, many schools are rapidly working to transition their entire academic function online while managing the full or partial displacement of their residential student communities. 

There are so many questions, and the answers may be vague, unknown, or changing by the hour. The tighter the relationship and information flow between the decision-makers and the messengers, the better. But at some institutions, particularly those with highly decentralized or very hierarchical organizational structures, the tightness of that flow may be compromised, hampering effective communications. It’s one thing to have these flawed structures result in, say, a social media manager tweeting about an event that the department has actually canceled, versus compromising accurate dissemination of information vital to public health.

I worked in-house at two universities for almost nine years and was part of the crisis communications teams for both. The plans that we practiced and revised every year are built around short-term crises — shootings, natural disasters, power outages. They are not built for prolonged and profound changes to institutional function. 

Similarly, most higher ed institutions are not structured or resourced to support a sustained state of emergency communications. These types of communications can be resource-intensive, time-consuming, and emotionally taxing, frequently bleeding beyond the 9-to-5 workday. The standard staff — typically under-resourced even on a good day — cannot meet the exceptional demands of extraordinary circumstances for long without beginning to strain.

Planning for the Unpredictable

How can we prepare for unprecedented upheaval to the way higher ed does business? While we may not know the shape of the next prolonged crisis, we can find ways to scale our operations to be able to address it more sustainably. Here are some key takeaways that have already emerged from the past few weeks of seeing the strain our clients and friends are going through:

  • Create a contingency plan to expand your central communications team using internal resources from other units in the university — if there are skilled communications professionals within other units at your institution, you should know who they are and what their strengths and skill sets are in case you need to expand the central communications function to account for the burden of a prolonged crisis. However, as we know, too many cooks can spoil the broth. There should be a plan defined for how to utilize expanded resources — assigning people to own a specific platform, or an audience, or whatever makes sense — so that they can be inserted into a plan and not amplify the chaos. Ideally, outlying social media managers and other communications platform owners should be locking down their own platforms and deferring to main institutional channels during times of crisis regardless.
     
  • Prepare for the enrollment cycle to shift — One of the most reliable elements of higher education is the undergraduate enrollment cycle. Every year has a certain predictability — but this year will be different. From the recruitment cycle to the academic calendar to the drumbeat of campus traditions, things will change. Institutions will have to manage expectations, staffing, and resources in response to unpredictable circumstances. The more productive dialogues and information sharing you are having with relevant audiences, the better equipped you will be to pivot on short notice.
     
  • Ensure the front-line communications folks are closely connected to the decision-making chain — I’ve talked to too many communications folks who are kept at an arm’s length from critical decisions that are being made about institutional functions — decisions that they may be expected to communicate about on short notice, or that could be meaningfully influenced with input gleaned from social listening, analytics, or other feedback. It’s vitally important to keep front-line communications pros in the loop of institutional decision-making and concern, while also listening to what they have to share about the concerns, reactions, or questions they are hearing from the community. It is also important to maintain dialogue with outlying communications staff from schools, colleges, or centers who may be able to surface more granular but still important concerns or questions about labs, events, residence life, or other more specific topics.
     
  • Make department budget contingency plans – Identify funds that can be repurposed because of having to cancel or modify planned marketing-related activities. Brainstorm ways to redeploy these funds to help fund virtual enrollment marketing events, double-down on your digital marketing efforts regionally, or invest in virtual professional development for your team.

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