University communications staff are more respected than ever

The pandemic is still demanding accurate and rapid communication at every twist and turn. Johanna Lowe lists four lessons learned from 18 months of unrelenting pressure

September 28, 2021
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A crisis isn’t supposed to go on for this long.

The global Covid-19 pandemic is proving to be the longest-running, fastest-moving crisis that my university communications colleagues and I have dealt with in our careers. Since March 2020, our institutions have been riding the “corona-coaster” of challenges – lockdowns, public health restrictions, online teaching, vaccinations – and all of them require clear, accurate and rapid communication at every twist and turn.

The good news is that 18 months on there is so much we’ve learned that is shaping university communications and reputation management. Four themes stand out for me.

First and foremost, the principles of good crisis communication still apply. Communicate early. Say what you know and what you don’t know yet. Be human. Communicate often.

At the University of Sydney we’ve set some new personal best records for the number of messages sent in a single week, with the government’s public health requirements changing almost daily in response to the recent Delta outbreak here. Our staff and students have remained highly engaged throughout, evidenced in our email open rates, our website traffic and our social media metrics. In a crisis people want straightforward, clear information from a trusted source, and during Covid we’ve learned there is no such thing as too much communication from our university leaders.

Secondly, high-performing university comms teams are valued for planned, proactive, strategic communications programmes. But in a Covid world these teams must also have agility and speed. They must be ready to drop everything and respond to what my colleague, David Estok from the University of Toronto, calls the “corona curveball”: new information or decisions that need to be interpreted and communicated across multiple channels as quickly as possible.

The pressure this has put on communications teams cannot be underestimated; the speed and complexity of messages required over the past 18 months has been unrelenting.  At Sydney we have streamlined approval processes and accelerated our turnaround times – without compromising accuracy and quality – so we are as flexible and responsive as we can be when the next curveball comes.

Third, many communications teams have had a seat at the table in pandemic response decision-making at senior levels in universities. The role of communications in reputation management is better understood, and more valued as a result.

Often communications staff will ask the questions about a decision or change that we anticipate our audience will want an answer to – I call this addressing the “reality problem” before we address the communication problem. Along with this has come greater internal understanding of the variety of audiences we are communicating with. How will this change or decision impact our staff? Our students, onshore and offshore? Our government and industry partners? The local communities who neighbour our campuses?

Despite this, or perhaps because of it, in crisis committee forums, daily stand-up meetings and countless emergency emails, zooms and phone calls, my team has forged strong relationships with colleagues across the institution and has earned a new respect that will benefit our work together well beyond the pandemic response.

Finally, throughout the pandemic, storytelling has been the university’s superpower. We’ve shared the expertise of Sydney’s academics who are helping the world respond to Covid-19 – epidemiologists, virologists, biologists, DNA sequencers, public health and biosecurity experts, engineers, urban planners, mental-health advocates.

We’ve shared stories of health and medical students supporting the health system and the vaccination rollout; the students who are tutoring high-school students online to help them through their final exams; and the students connecting across borders to offer friendship and support to one another until they can share a classroom, lab, or a sunny campus lawn in person once again.

These stories are a powerful vehicle for us to demonstrate the role and impact of our universities and build our reputation along the way. The pandemic has led to greater trust and credibility in science, facts and academic expertise, and universities must extend this valuable currency beyond the Covid-response and recovery.

As a sector, we have an opportunity to broaden public – and crucially, government – understanding of the relevance and value of our research endeavours, and the impact universities have in everyday lives. Communications teams have an important role to play in amplifying the voices of our academics and telling their stories.

Johanna Lowe is director of marketing and communications at the University of Sydney.

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