Skip navigation
EAB Logo Navigate to the EAB Homepage Navigate to EAB home

The Best (and Worst) COVID-19 Crisis Communications

Episode 5

April 28, 2020 32 minutes


This episode of Office Hours features a discussion on the topic of crisis communications in higher ed. EAB Senior Director Kaitlyn Maloney and Associate Director Michael Fischer talk about the need for accuracy, speed, and transparency when communicating during a crisis.

They review examples of schools that have handled this task really well—and a couple that haven’t—and offer lessons learned from those examples. They also discuss the extent to which colleges and universities have done a good job during the pandemic of living up to their reputation as being among America’s most trusted and respected sources of information.


00:14 Matt Pellish: From EAB, I’m Matt Pellish, and this is Office Hours, a weekly podcast from the leader in research, technology, and services for education. On this week’s episode, we’re welcoming back some familiar voices, people you’ve heard a lot on the podcast before. The EAB research duo of Michael Fischer and Kaitlyn Maloney. They have been taking the lead on a ton of our COVID-19 related research. And today, we’ll dive into something everybody’s been confronting, the challenges of communication in this crisis. They’ve seen things like how speed and transparency can be critical, but also the way that channels like Instagram, Twitter, email, websites, all the things you have to use to reach a truly multi-generational organization like a college or university. We’ve learned a lot seeing schools try to communicate the move to fully remote instruction when they announced they were closing campus and had to send everybody home. But today, we’re gonna hear Michael and Kaitlyn’s take on the next big communication moments leaders need to be preparing for. Thanks for joining us, welcome to Office Hours from EAB.

01:26 Kaitlyn Maloney: Hi everyone, this is Kaitlyn Maloney from EAB, coming at you again from my kitchen table in Downtown DC, my makeshift podcast studio. Today I’m joined by my colleague, Michael Fischer, Associate Director of Research at EAB and a new time dad to a beautiful, what, almost two-month-old son Matthew?

01:45 Michael Fischer: That’s right, that’s right. If you hear some crying in the background, it is probably him, my apologies in advance.

01:53 KM: Well, Michael is going to join me today to talk about communicating effectively through a crisis. We’ll keep our conversation mostly specific to the coronavirus outbreak today, but I’m sure that Michael has a lot of lessons learned from working with higher ed institutions on communication best practices across the past few years. So, I’m eager to hear what you have to say and how some of our existing prior research can help support members through this critical time.

02:17 MF: Absolutely, I’m glad to get into it.

02:19 KM: And Michael, I know that you have been on the frontlines of our coronavirus response since the very beginning and one of the first things that you did was help stand up our central coronavirus response page. That includes a lot of policy documents and communication statements that institutions have made in light of the crisis. Thinking about what you’ve seen across the past few weeks, what have schools done pretty well responding or communicating the crisis, and what are some areas of weakness you’ve seen in how schools are communicating?

02:54 MF: This crisis came about so quickly and escalated so rapidly, it’s impressive that institutions were able to even get communication webpages off the ground as rapidly as they did. A lot of it was making decisions on the fly, and so website URLs were changing, and pages were undergoing rapid structural adjustments to meet the new needs as things evolved on campus, so credit to partner institutions, to universities and colleges across the United States, and Canada, United Kingdom, that they were just keeping up with things as so many institutions had to move to remote instruction and to closing off their campuses asking students not to return. I generally think that where universities were strongest was in that transparency around acknowledging that they didn’t know all the answers, and that so much was changing rapidly and that a decision made today might have to change tomorrow because of new information that came from their state or federal government or by decisions that were being made.

04:00 MF: The transparency, as put on display, a recognition that we’re doing our best and we’re keeping you all as safe and informed as possible, I think went a long way in alleviating concerns on campus that students were being kept in the dark, that stakeholders weren’t being informed, that staff weren’t aware of the direction that the institution was going. So, it was one of the main strong points. Another one was the creation of these FAQ pages, almost every institution eventually decided to create one. And these were places where questions that institutions were hearing commonly, they were putting up the information regarding, and the best institutions here were categorizing them based on topic. So information related to health, information related to supporting my young children if I’m a remote worker, information related to accessing basic needs like housing, food and internet if I’m a student who has to be remote. Creating a central place where all that information was available and easily searchable, and easily downloadable, I think was a huge win, and a lot of institutions learned from each other in building up those types of resources.

05:10 MF: In terms of areas that were maybe not as successful with communication, in the early days there wasn’t a lot of work in social media. There wasn’t a lot of attempts to try to get the message out to people through Facebook, through Twitter, through other social media mechanisms, even through text and other types of platforms that students in particular are more commonly likely to use. Facebook and Twitter messages tend to be a link to a statement from the institution as opposed to actually previewing and putting forward that information rapidly. So, a student scrolling through Twitter or a staff member looking at a Facebook page could quickly gain access to that information and make informed decisions. So, institutions have been a little shaky in trying to develop that social media policy, and even today, we still see kind of a mixed messaging where announcements about the coronavirus or changes to the campus status are being intermingled with what almost seems to be leftover policies or “ads” that the university had planned to promote an event that might be cancelled now or a type of course that no longer can take place on campus.

06:20 KM: I’m glad you brought up social media, I think higher-ed institutions are at a unique position in that they are truly multi-generational communities. I’ve worked with some executive leaders who swear by Facebook, swear by email, but at the same time wonder if their students ever check their email. Do Gen Zeros only communicate via TikTok anymore? Are you saying you’ve seen the most successful institutions have deployed a multi-medium approach and incorporated social media on top of these FAQ pages on top of email?

06:54 MF: Yeah, but most institutions have that central location, their COVID-19 resource or information center. And that’s the core. You always wanna direct people back to that as the single source of truth, but in terms of distributing that information to the population, it’s not only beneficial in terms of the different generations and recognizing that your faculty, your staff, your vendors, your contractors, your students all are engaging in different ways of interacting with media and with communication material. We’re also recognizing that it’s important to reiterate information and that if a student just sees a piece of information once, especially something that’s on a very highly important topic for them… This was especially true around the time where institutions were making the decision to close off their campus, ask students not to return from spring break or limiting them from returning to spring break, to small groups that were just going to pack up their dormitories of the residence halls and then return to their homes.

07:56 MF: There were a lot of contentious pushback from students around, “I don’t have a home to return to. This information wasn’t made clear to me. Where am I gonna get food? Where am I going to get access to the materials I need for remote instruction?” And one email message may lead to more questions than there are answers. But instead of reiterating that communication over time, putting something on social media so students who missed something in the first time that they skimmed that email or saw it on the website, that they are reiterated or clarified or informed about a slight difference in the policy or changing in their misunderstanding, really helps ensure that everybody’s on the same page and everyone feels confident that they know what the institution is doing.

08:39 KM: It’s the old adage, “You can’t over-communicate during a crisis.” I wonder though, are there limits to that? What’s the risk that you would go too far, that your audience starts to tune you out if you’re communicating too much? Have you seen that or what are your thoughts on that?

08:54 MF: We haven’t seen that per se, especially during the actual high point of the crisis. That period from about March 6th or so, when the University of Washington, along with a couple of other Seattle area universities, decided to cancel in-person classes to about March 15th or so, when the vast majority of institutions had made that shift and made important decisions. So much was happening, so much was changing, that having every couple of hours an update to your information center was considered important because things had so rapidly changed. In this period now and continuing forward where institutions are having to make decisions but maybe not as at quick pace, new information is coming out on a fairly day-to-day basis, but it’s not so rapidly changing the nature of the crisis or the status of the campus. There’s still a value of updating people even just to let them know that things are progressing the way that we foresaw them or that the way that we’re moving forward is working, and that’s a confidence booster.

10:00 MF: Generally, we see institutions updating their resource center or central hub pages about at least every three days or so. But sometimes that communication can be different than just an announcement about a new policy. It might be a video from the university’s chancellor, president, or provost, giving some confidence, an inspirational speech, or showcasing a part of campus that students can no longer go to, no longer see. But especially when spring was coming up, highlighting the flowers on campus and the trees and giving students a connection back to campus in that way. Or it might be something funny or clever. A faculty member who’s made a song or has created a clever way of doing a laboratory remotely, profiling that information to highlight the ways in which faculty and staff are innovating on their online and remote instruction that gives people confidence that education is still taking place on campus. So updates are important, but they don’t always have to be so weighty and meaty as we saw during the core of the crisis.

11:04 KM: Yeah, that’s a great point. I’ve been watching my alma mater’s social media page and their Facebook updates, and I’ve been really impressed with the way that they’ve been highlighting stories from particularly frontline facilities staff, as they’re cleaning out dorm rooms, as they’re making sure that campus is safe for the faculty and staff that are still there. It really helped me feel connected, but also gives these staff some much needed credit where their work is so important, but they’re not often the ones in the spotlight.

11:34 MF: Yeah, absolutely.

11:36 KM: To that point, we’ve been talking at a pretty high level about communication best practices. As said you’ve seen a lot. You’ve read a lot of communication statements, probably perused a lot of social media content. Do any stories or examples come to mind? I don’t want you to name names, but stories of schools doing a particularly good job communicating to faculty and students on next steps. If you have any horror stories, again not naming names, I think those would be helpful too.

12:05 MF: There are a couple that come to mind of a variety nature. There was one institution that decided to send out an email regarding the shift to remote instruction, and that was considered to be a very contentious issue on campus. Doing all sort of online virtual education had been an area of concern. There was a potential pushback from faculty, and even from students around the shift here. And so, while not wanting to undermine those concerns, the provost really wanted to highlight the opportunities that were gonna be made available to it, so. They actually made that announcement in the form of the Zoom platform that they were all going to move in to sort of highlight how easy it was to use and how the features and opportunities that would be available because of this instruction as part of the video announcing that the shift was going to take place. So, it was modeling a little bit of what students and faculty could have to expect, and that seemed to benefit significantly.

13:19 MF: There are probably two major crisis points that led to the most issues with communication on campus. One was the shift to remote instruction, and one was the decision to send the students home. So with that shift to remote instruction, we heard from a couple of campuses that they really leveraged these role models or ambassadors to go out into the community, especially to older staff, older faculty, who maybe wouldn’t be as comfortable with the remote instruction, and try to give them the talking points and the pep talk early on so that they could present a unified front when the shift did took place. And so that seemed to really benefit getting everybody on the same page. Identifying who were the champions, who were the cheerleaders in each department and who might need a little bit of extra support in that shift and making sure that all those resources were available and those communication lines were opened.

14:13 MF: With the shift to closing off campus to students and sending students home, the messaging around trying to ensure that in particular first generation students who were most at risk for not having the kind of resources available in their own communities to continue with remote instruction or may have had concerns around housing insecurity, food insecurity, there was a lot of agita around that. And so the announcements or those we heard from a couple of institutions paired those with appeals for alumni to donate to student emergency funds to provide resources that would allow the institution to quickly buy additional technology or keep food banks open or ensure that they could maintain some housing on campus that was secure and safe and healthy for both staff and students but would allow the students most at risk to remain on campus. Pairing those announcements together presented the challenge of having to close off campus but also a solution that the institution was already working on. So it was a nice one-two punch that I think softened the blow for what was a very disappointing announcement for many students.

15:27 KM: Yeah, that’s a great idea. I know a lot of these decisions that you’re talking about communicating were not just made with the safety of campus in mind but invoked so many emotional heartstrings, especially for students as some of their big academic and social milestones were cancelled. Shifting gears a little bit. So, this isn’t the first crisis that higher-ed institutions have faced. It’s certainly the largest in recent memory that institutions have dealt with. Campus safety incidents, natural disasters, weather-related incidents, student protests, a lot of conflict and crisis in the past few years. I’m curious, do many schools or most schools have crisis communication plans in place these days, given the political environment that we’ve been living through in the past few years. And if so, have they helped institutions respond to the current outbreak?

16:23 MF: I don’t think there’s any question that the last decade or so, given political situations on campus or concerns with natural disasters and other risks that have taken place have led institutions to invest in campus communication resources. And including that is some emergency preparedness and response plans. I don’t necessarily think based on the conversations that we’ve had and the surveys that we’ve done of partners that people were really ready for this kind of a crisis. A crisis not only that was an infectious disease in nature, this was not something that was on people’s radar as much, but also one that was so fundamentally wide-sweeping. Most campuses instead were prepared for a crisis that would affect maybe their campus and some of their neighbors. A localized hurricane, earthquake, fire. And those institutions that have had to deal with natural disasters recently out in California with their fires, near the Gulf of Mexico with hurricanes and along the southeastern shore-board, they tend to have the most robust response plans and communication resources in place.

17:35 MF: But what happened here that made it so different is everything was happening across the country, and frankly around the world simultaneously. And I think that put universities in a weird position on the communication front. And this has been backed up a little bit by surveys, but there’s basically no institution that is as trusted in this crisis as universities. They’re basically tied in terms of trust with state and local governments. More so than the media, more so than the federal government, more so than even the CDC or the World Health Organization. The survey folks say that they trust higher-education institutions to provide accurate information. And so in particular for stakeholders for students, staff, and faculty, these resource centers, these places where they were putting out updates and trying to inform the community, they were not only doing a service for them on behalf of the institution, but doing a service for them on behalf of the community, on behalf of society, keeping them informed.

18:31 MF: And so I think that that was an additional challenge, a burden that was placed on them, but a lot of communication staff at these institutions really rose to the occasion and are continuing to do so with regular updates about known cases in the area, testing that’s taking place, access to resources that the state or local governments are providing, providing that advice that maybe goes above and beyond what we’d expect is required for a higher education institution to inform its campus constituents.

19:00 KM: Yeah, that’s a great point about just the number of stakeholders that institutions have to consider in their communications plans and just how difficult these crisis communications can be because your decisions can be interpreted different ways by different stakeholders. Community members, alumni might be thrilled with your decision to open up your residence halls for COVID patients or for frontline responders. That same decision might be met with ire by parents and students who might fear lingering safety or health risks once those dorms reopen.

19:26 MF: Yeah, in fact, I think it was Mitch Daniels, the president out at Purdue University, who in responding to students saying, “This disease doesn’t affect us, why do we need to be sent home? Why do we need to close off campus here?” He had to go out there and frankly communicate that, sure, the risk to young people is fairly low, but the risk to professors and to faculty and to staff on campus who tend to be older and in those high-risk categories is so significant and so we have to think about a campus as a holistic community, it’s not just about those traditional segments and silos on campus, we all have to respond to this proactively as a community as a whole. And so he was having to take different talking points to students, than necessarily to those faculty and staff who are well aware of what’s the urgency driver behind that change in policy was.

20:20 KM: That’s a great example. So we’ve been talking about how institutional leaders should be communicating policy decisions out to the campus community, but they don’t know what they don’t know. Have you seen any good examples or have advice for institutions about how they should be asking faculty and students to communicate with them about the challenges they’re facing right now and where they could use the institution’s assistance?

20:45 MF: Yeah, most institutions have created what you might call hotlines, either email inboxes or forms that are on the website that ask for information to be taken in, and they may include specific ones for some of the most hot button issues, those that are most pressing, things around mental health and student basic needs are two of the most important where you may want a more dedicated line to mental health services or to some of your student affairs staff to address those concerns around mental health and access to basic needs, but we’ve also seen institutions leverage some of their communication resources to try to get at some areas where they would like feedback or crowdsourcing of solutions for problems that they’re facing. One that we’ve seen recently come up is around commencement, given the current trajectories, most institutions are probably going to have to either postpone their commencements or move them to a virtual environment. And so, they’re having to think about what are ways that we can celebrate the class of 2020 even though we’re not gonna be able to present to them the traditional walk across the stage and gathering of people on our campus.

22:00 MF: And so, while they have ideas, they’re also asking those students and alumni to think of what was most important, what are those traditions that are core to the experience of graduating from our institution and how can we reframe those in an online environment? ‘Cause they’re trying to compile all those ideas together, spitball them off each other and then be able to present them back to the students and alumni and other stakeholders and say, “This is your commencement, the commencement that you developed with us to celebrate your class graduating even in the midst of these times.” So it seems like a small thing but it can really magnify the impact of some of these decisions when students and staff feel like they had an input in the decision-making process.

22:45 KM: Yeah, that’s a great point. Yeah, I could certainly see how it would be harder for students or staff to criticize some of the decisions that were made if they had a voice in making those decisions. It’s a great way, I’m sure, a great idea to engage students and community members. We’ve been getting a lot of questions about that as folks are remote and all over the country, how do you keep folks engaged, so a great way to get some of their feedback on some of the decisions that you’re making and continue that communication and engagement stream at the same time.

23:15 MF: And the fact that so much of the country is under social isolation or stay-in-place orders and they don’t have those normal means of interaction, being able to hang out with extended family or friends or co-workers, I think has given a lot more runway for institutions to leverage communication tactics to encourage more of this networking and exchanging of information virtually because there’s a hunger for it. People want to communicate. We’re social animals. People have a desire to engage with one another. And so when in a traditional crisis or a traditional time of uncertainty, people might rely on their local neighborhoods or their local institutions in the area for that social outlook. Higher education institutions have actually tended to step up here and create these virtual networks for people to be able to engage, whether they’re a student, a staff member working remotely or an interested alumni who wants to ensure that the institution gets through this.

24:16 KM: Makes sense. Michael, you’ve mentioned a ton of really big difficult decisions that institutions have been making and communicating those decisions out to their constituencies, whether it’s the decision to close campus, to shift to remote education. Now we’re seeing more and more canceled or postponed or virtual commencement decisions, getting into decisions that about summer athletic, summer programs. What, from your perspective, are some of the next big communication moments that leaders need to be preparing for right now?

24:50 MF: There are a couple, and they’re in different time frames. In the short run, probably the biggest communication point that institutions should be prepared for is when a known member of the community gets diagnosed with the coronavirus, and in particular, when the first member of their community passes away from it. It will probably be a member of the staff or faculty and some institutions have already had to deal with this, but what’s the plan in place for communicating that out to the community, for celebrating that person’s life, for acknowledging the work that they did, for creating a way for the community to grieve, mourn, memorialize and talk to one another about the loss of that person. Given what we’re hearing from the estimates and modeling thattake place, certainly almost every institution will probably have at least somebody on their campus come down with the virus, and that will need to be communicated, but many others might also have to deal with the passing of somebody in the community. So that’ll be an important thing for institutions to be prepared for and ready for so that they appear not only capable but also very emotionally present and available during that time.

26:03 MF: In the mid-run, the big communication decision that will have to take place is the question about whether campus will reopen in the fall. There’s a lot of concern out there right now in the COVID-19 community and discussions around medical staff, public health experts and government officials around the potential of a second wave. Even if this first crisis is dealt with, will the return of cold weather in the fall lead to a new uptick in the amount of the virus outbreaks that are taking place, number of cases. And given that a vaccine is probably at least a year away, do we put students potentially back at risk by bringing them back to campus in the fall? But if we make that decision to bring them back, if we don’t bring them back in the fall, we’re gonna have to maintain these online and remote instruction capabilities. Students may feel even more strenuous connections to campus. So as we’re making that decision, how do we communicate our results to the student body, to faculty, to staff, to stakeholders, let them know the process, the risks that we’re taking into account and make that decision seem the best course of action given the limited information that we had?

27:13 MF: And then finally in the long run, once this crisis subsides, there’s gonna be some communication around the decision to reduce some of the policies that were put in place. The big one that comes to mind for me are the travel bans and the decision about when it’s okay to allow faculty and students for study abroad, for research grants, to go back out there even as travel bans that are put in place by governments come down. So, how do we communicate the decision and how that might disrupt the research opportunities for both students and faculty in a way that’s sensitive to their needs but also takes into account the risks that are out there.

27:57 KM: Yeah, that’s a lot of really big and difficult decisions. I’m sure that the communication tactics, the messages that schools put out, it’s gonna vary by the decisions they make and the circumstance. But generally speaking based on what you’ve seen so far, do you have any lessons learned? Any advice about what sort of tone that schools or leaders should be striking in these messages and what sorts of details they should be sure to include?

28:23 MF: Tone wise, the most successful have been those that have confidence. So commitment that they are making a decision and they’re going to go through with it, but also sort of approachability, recognition that this is a crisis, that no decision is gonna be 100% right all the time. So finding that balance there. And this is where I actually think that presidents who’ve been able to leverage video in some of their announcements have really gained a lot being able to put on their persona and showcase both an aura of authority and making decisions that will benefit the community but also, yeah, approachability and in a sense, almost a vulnerability in a way of being still able to be recognized as dealing with this crisis themselves and being personally affected by the disruption that’s taking place. More details are better as especially as those details are put forward. So institutions that are tracking the number of cases that are known in the community, in the campus, the number of people who’ve recovered, some of them have trackers on the top of their sites or announcements, flags about what are the local governments’ or state governments’ stay-at-home or social isolation orders, getting that information right up front and center so that it’s very clear and obvious is a real advantage for those as well.

29:44 MF: And then finally, in terms of component pieces there, again, it seems like a very simple thing but the horror stories, and there have been a couple, not a ton in the case of universities dealing with this, have tended to be tone deaf probably because of a lack of proofreading or just having somebody else read through this communication. One institution got in trouble because they alighted the word “Not” from the announcement. So, it said the exact opposite thing that they were intending to say. Another one included maybe accidentally a video that came across as joking and too un-serious for the nature of the announcements that were being made. And those are things that probably would have easily been resolved if somebody else in the communications department or somebody else on campus had a chance to just review that communication with a clean slate and say, “Oh, I understand what’s being said and my emotional effect is good, so this is probably worthwhile for sending out to the community.”

30:44 KM: I know listeners couldn’t see my cringing face just there during the horror stories. I think that’s a great place for us to end though. Thank you so much, Michael. I’ll be curious to see if we get any outreach from higher-ed leaders considering communicating to their communities through podcasts after this, so stay tuned for that. But thanks for being with us today.

31:04 MF: Oh, thank you, Kaitlyn. My pleasure.

31:13 MP: Thanks for listening. Join us next week on Office Hours when I welcome EAB’s Chief Information Security Officer, Brian Markham. He’s gonna talk to us about his days managing university IT security, but also the risks when your entire workforce and your whole student body suddenly go remote. Until then, I’m Matt Pellish from EAB.

More Podcasts


The Early Impacts of COVID-19 on Higher Ed

Carla Hickman and Dr. David Attis discuss the immediate effects of COVID-19 on higher ed, as well as…

Will the CARES Act Save Higher Ed?

Our experts discuss why the CARES Act really isn’t a really stimulus package, but a stop-gap measure that…

4 Unique Leadership Challenges Posed by the Pandemic

In part one of this two-part discussion, EAB experts share four reasons why the coronavirus pandemic is a…