HE lessons learned from communicating in a corona crisis

Honest and timely communications proved critical for universities as they rapidly shuttered their campuses and moved not just classes, but virtually their entire ‘modus operandi’ online in response to the coronavirus crisis.

That’s the conclusion of Jan Dries, director of communications at the University of Antwerp in Belgium and president of EUPRIO, the European association of higher education communicators, which recently held two webinars to share experiences during lockdown with its 700-strong members and the French university communication network, ARCES.

He said: “Crisis communications have always been an essential part of the professional work of our members, but none of us have experienced anything quite like this.

“One thing for sure is that the way institutions – and countries – have handled the coronavirus has demonstrated that honest and timely communications are vital to gain the trust and support of key stakeholders.”

Effective communications gained recognition

According to Dries: “Efficient messaging and effective communications gained the recognition it deserves, but seldom gets, during the pandemic.”

The first webinar, organised with the help of French digital agency Campus Com, brought French presidents and directors of universities and grandes écoles together with heads of communications around the theme of “Les enjeux de la communication pendant et après la crise de la COVID-19” (“The challenges of communication during and after the COVID-19 crisis”).

François Germinet, president of CY Cergy Paris University and representative of the French association of university presidents, said: “Communications [departments] were on the frontline during this crisis and demonstrated their highly important role not just on the external level, but especially on the internal level.”

Jérome Guilbert, director of communications at Sciences Po, told the webinar that the COVID-19 crisis “had given communication departments the opportunity to really find their place at the strategic level. Challenges had been met and a large number of messages to different audiences were successfully coordinated”.

Digital advantages

Annelaure Oudinot, director of communications of Grenoble Ecole de Management, said among the lessons learned was seeing the advantages of working across the physical and digital environments.

The time has come for what she called ‘phygital’, a mix of physical contact and digital meetings, particularly useful when press conferences were necessary to relay what the university was doing during the lockdown to journalists.

But whatever medium was used, she stressed the need to “do a reasoned communication, no false promises”, and back up what you say to the media with effective internal communications.

Alice Guillon, director of SKEMA Business School and representative of the French association of grandes écoles, said they found the use of video to reach different audiences spread across international campuses very effective, with messages “tailored to expectations on the different campuses in France, China and the United States”.

David Diné, director of communications of Université de Lorraine, emphasised the essential role of networks like ARCES and EUPRIO in sharing experiences and lessons during the crisis. He said that “humility” and “adaptation” were the key words coming out of the pandemic.

Olivier Rollot, a journalist specialising in higher education, agreed that institutions should stay humble, especially as everybody was facing and reacting to the same events, saying: “While uncertainty remains very present, communications will remain very difficult and central and we all need to be careful going forward.”

The webinar was followed by an online session in English to share experiences of rapidly moving big events from the academic calendar – such as open days and graduation ceremonies – to the virtual environment.

EUPRIO members and supporters from 17 countries across Europe heard from Paolo Pomati, director of communications at Universita del Piemonte Orientale, Italy, that a priority was ensuring that higher education remained “inclusive”, broke down inequalities and kept students motivated as classes were moved online.

Unexpected financial difficulties

“We learned about unexpected financial difficulties, so we split up the annual fee in small instalments and raked our alumni network to collect around €100,000 [US$116,000] to pay what the students could not afford,” said Pomati.

With graduation and exams arriving in the middle of the pandemic, the northern Italian university produced a written ‘netiquette’ on how to hold a graduation ceremony in the students’ living room, with parents still taking pictures on their mobile phones and tablets as their offspring, dressed appropriately, held their degree certificates up high during the online ceremonies.

“Highlights were put on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram for all to share and celebrate,” he said.

“Handling examinations online was less straight forward as it wasn’t even clear whether writing answers on a computer was even legal and there were all sorts of technical challenges. But we did our best,” said Pomati, who told University World News it was vital to remain “sober, relevant and supportive” and “not to see the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity for communicators to test how smart we are”.

Getting the chairman involved

Mascha Arts, director of communications at Fontys University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands, said one of those most successful experiments was getting their chairman of the board, Joep Houterman, directly involved in communicating with staff and students during the pandemic.

The first webinar-type activities involved around 400 staff, with just a few students taking part in information sessions to explain how the university was responding at the start of the COVID-19 crisis in the Netherlands.

“For students we needed to do something different,” she said. “So the chairman started a posting a few pictures each day on Instagram Stories and then we invited students to ask questions, some of which were personally answered by him.

“In normal times the board is usually a little distant from students, but these were different circumstances and after a little coaching the chairman felt confident about using the platform to communicate directly with students.”

Asked what she would keep or drop from online alternatives to traditional events, Arts said she hoped Fontys University would stick with one of their three big open days remaining online – the one in March – as it was a great success. “We invested a lot in the online platform, so why not keep what worked,” she said.

Lessons from America

Régis Faubet, digital strategy consultant for La Haute Société, France, drew on some of the successes of online ceremonies and events from universities and digital companies in the United States in his contribution to the webinar.

These included 100 University of California, Berkeley students recreating a whole campus using the Minecraft video game during the lockdown and news channels NBC and ABC banding together to offer prestigious speakers for graduating students, and YouTube providing ‘Dear class of 2020’ commencement speeches featuring the likes of Michelle Obama and pop stars Justin Timberlake and Jennifer Lopez.

Marketing project manager Sabine Piccolo, responsible for online events at Grenoble Ecole de Management, France, organised 15 webinars between March and June “to keep in touch with the students”.

She recommended avoiding lunchtimes to reach staff and students, especially those with children to feed, and to remember that not everyone working or studying from home has good internet.

“Many live in the mountains here, so try out the platform or it can be a pain for the audience.”

Reaching international students

As for supporting international students, who make up the majority of masters students at the Grenoble institution, Piccolo said: “They have many questions: How can they get to France? Are courses physical or online and many are not sure whether they are coming or not and ask about visas.”

While not wanting to disrupt the French lunchtime, she confessed that midday Central European Time is “the best time to communicate with international students. You can reach the world at this time”.

More online events planned

Christine Legrand, EUPRIO’s vice-president and director of communications and industrial relations at CPE Lyon, who helped organise the webinars, said more online events are planned as universities “adjust to the new reality when they reopen for the start of the 2020-21 academic year”.

A one-day online EUPRIO conference is being planned for later this year instead of this year’s annual conference. The conference on science communications was originally planned for the end of August 2020 in Trieste but has now been moved to August 2021.

Nic Mitchell runs De la Cour Communications and regularly blogs for the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ Association, EUPRIO, and on his website, as well as reporting on UK and European higher education for University World News.