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Marketing Communications at a Time of Crisis Can Stabilize or Grow Enrollment

The sudden and devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic on colleges has put marketing and communications departments at the center of their school’s public presence. 

Regular, transparent communications reassure the campus community that “you’ve got a grip on the situation and you’re managing it as well as you can,” says Scott S. Cowen, who was president of Tulane University when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. Cowen and other administrators who faced similar upending events are featured in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s April 2 edition. He relates that during the semester-long shutdown that followed Katrina, he sent emails daily. “People are anxious, they are uncertain, and the more they hear from you, the better off they are,” he says.

Other administrators called crisis communications “a balancing act” and warned that while it is vital to deliver your message, schools had to guard against “tune-out.” 

With this global pandemic, “it’s a much more fluid situation,” says James A. Gash, the president of Pepperdine University, which closed for several weeks after a devastating fire. “We have new facts and data not just every day, but every few hours.” That means colleges will have to adapt — and re-adapt — their plans as the situation evolves. As Mary Anne Nagy, Monmouth University’s vice president for student life and leadership, noted: “There is almost no playbook for what is happening now.”

4 ways for community colleges to avoid communication fatigue.

The Public Relations Society of America points to four strategic concepts to bear in mind:

  1. Avoid non-essential, one-way information. As yourself whether the email you are about to send contains “need to know” information. Reduce or eliminate content that is less essential for those you are emailing.
  2. Consolidate multiple updates into one email. Rather than sending several emails over the course of a day with separate updates, wait till the end of the day and send all updates in one email. This will also give you an opportunity to list updates according to their importance. If you send four emails in a day and the third is the one with the most crucial information, it is more likely to be overlooked than if it headlines your end-of-day roundup.
  3. Add value. Consider how many messages people are receiving at this time, and how much information is being repeated. Is it likely your recipients have already heard what you’re about to tell them? If so, are you adding anything of value? If it doesn’t provide new or timely information, skip it.
  4. Diversify channels. This isn’t just adding the now ubiquitous Zoom to your communication tools, but taking the time to consider which platform is the best tool for the job—be it a phone call, FaceTime, email, social media or direct mail.

Americans have always turned to their public schools in times of crisis. Community colleges have a long history of providing for social need – retraining for employment, dual enrollment, cultural uplift, continuing education, childcare and food pantries, and festive social events. Right now, morale is down among wide swathes of the population. Your message will be most effective when it conveys an attitude of care, concern and compassion (3 C’s) together with straightforward, actionable facts. 

Education has long meant hope and preparation for a better future. Community colleges have done more than any other form of higher education to make these social benefits accessible to a large and diverse population. In this crisis, a  reservoir of trust is especially important. Communications can build confidence and inspire students and colleagues alike by tapping into the long record of community colleges in fulfilling this social mission despite periods of adversity. In fact, an Edelman survey shows that the majority of Americans, 58%, trust schools and educational institutions to respond responsibly to the coronavirus—higher than business (49%) or the media (46%). 

Americans rely on their educational institutions for guidance in times of crisis.

We all want to rebound as soon as possible. But this poses significant challenges for large segments of the population. In the era of COVID-19, 70% of Americans are worried that they may lose their jobs, according to Strada Education. Meanwhile, of those who believe they need more education, 64% would turn to a new career, according to Strada’s survey of Americans ages 18 and above between March and April 2020.

Enrolled students are naturally concerned about fall classes and the completion of their programs. Many more displaced workers will seek to begin again with a new direction. Both require clear, concrete program and financial aid information.  

This is the time to prepare for the new school year by alerting your students and potential learners of your continued access and expansion of in-demand programs. It will be critical to reassure them that your school can help them navigate online education and manage stress while meeting their goals. 

Increasing numbers of workers and young people are looking to equip themselves for economically uncertain times. The key takeaway is that community colleges are the “good news” in this crisis. Therefore, strategic planning, coupled with strong communication, will not only stabilize enrollment, but grow it.

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