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How should providers be communicating about Covid-19?

Coronavirus Covid-19 puts pressure on every part of the university. Simon Horrocks considers what communications teams need to be doing.
This article is more than 4 years old

Simon Horrocks is an independent consultant.

Responding to Covid-19 has provided universities with many challenges over recent days, not least making rapid decisions about moving teaching online and putting in place the necessary support for students and staff to make this work.

Levels of uncertainty inside and outwith universities are probably unprecedented in peacetime which has also put an immediate burden on communications teams throughout the sector.

Crisis comms

One of the key considerations for comms staff will have been how best to deploy the various digital channels at their disposal. Urgent information updates to websites, intranets and virtual learning environments (VLEs) alongside emails to staff, students and other stakeholders will have required high levels of prioritisation and coordination with university senior management. In this context, then, it is surprising to see how little activity there was on some university main social media accounts over the weekend.

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and other channels have all become vital means for universities to communicate and engage with their multiple audiences. By their very nature, these social channels are perfectly suited for fast-moving situations where regular updates are required. Importantly, they are also open and public. It is not difficult to imagine, for instance, how many parents are currently concerned about what a particular institution is doing to support and care for their children, so social media provides a particularly valuable way to provide clear information and reassurance.

Too few tweets?

Having taken a snapshot of all institutions’ main Twitter accounts between 11-12pm on the evening of Sunday 15 March, the difference between those who were actively using this medium to publicly communicate/engage and those who weren’t was genuinely stark. With more detailed content analysis to follow, it was clear that many universities had no staff looking after this particular social channel or responding to queries that may have come their way using this route during perhaps the most concentrated two days of concern and speculation since the outbreak began. Some accounts had not been updated since Friday and many of those that had new content had obviously just used a scheduling tool such as tweetdeck. If you were looking for quick information or reassurance about how these universities were responding to Covid-19 you wouldn’t have found it here.

In the context of an international crisis, it feels particularly incongruous to find certain universities apparently just carrying on as normal in their social media presence. Maybe now is not best the time to be headlining with institutional nomination for awards, the NSS or an upcoming open day. Tone is a notoriously complex business on social media but empathy for the concerns of your audience(s) surely starts with focusing on the issues that are likely to be uppermost in their minds.

While there is no standard playbook for using Twitter and other social channels as a university, some institutions have accounts that have been deployed constructively during this unique crisis. A fairly high percentage of accounts have pinned tweets providing a link to the latest guidance for staff and students and, in some cases, broader government advice on Covid-19 protocols. A distinct minority of accounts had also been active in responding to queries or providing additional content that might have been helpful to their audience(s) in this context.

A good example

The University of Glasgow was one of the institutions who made effective use of its Twitter account over the weekend. As well as providing a link to more detailed information on its website, Glasgow’s pinned tweet sought to manage expectations about institutional capacity to respond to individual queries. That said, through Twitter they did respond calmly and publicly to questions from staff, students and external stakeholders, including one about whether the campus could still be used for an upcoming wedding.

In the days and weeks to come it will be important for universities to reflect on their commitment to and deployment of social channels. And, when business as usual resumes, it will be interesting to see if there has been any shift in institutions who use these channels as much for engagement as for broadcast. In the meantime, it might be useful for communication teams and senior leaders to consider some of the immediate benefits of social media. For instance:

  • Providing a more personalised message (whether from the Vice Chancellor or head of student union etc) to demonstrate visible, reassuring leadership
  • A regular (daily as a minimum) update including at weekends of social accounts to demonstrate the active work being done to address the situation
  • Amplifying the voices of experts within the institution, for instance academics whose work focuses on public health or staff who have particular expertise in online learning

2 responses to “How should providers be communicating about Covid-19?

  1. I think Simon Horrocks is underestimating the tremendous efforts being undertaken by comms people in HE during the coronavirus.. Looking at European universities, they are embracing digital like never before…. See my blog on how an Italian university is organising its graduation ceremonies using Skype during the COVID-19 lockdown to a Belgian uni changing a campus open day into an e-event in just a week to Glasgow’s impressive use of social media…

  2. From graduating students, via Skype at the University of Trieste during the Italian lockdown, to organising an e-open day at Antwerp in 7 days to Glasgow’s effective use of Twitter to keep students and staff up to speed with the latest developments.

    I’ve been impressed with how universities around Europe are using social media to respond to the challenges of communicating with students and staff during the coronavirus.

    So, I was surprised at the criticism by Simon Horrocks on the Wonkhe website.
    Seemed a bit harsh… but then maybe I’ve only seen those doing a great job. See my blog on my HE-Comms blog.

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