For the past two years, communications professionals have been head-down and shoulder-deep in COVID-19 communications and response. For many communicators, it has felt like being in a washing machine—two straight years of crisis communications mode, an exhausting cycle of understanding the ever-changing health guidance; navigating differing opinions; crafting messages for a variety of channels; getting approvals from legal, human resources and student affairs; our holding breath as we hit send on yet another change; bracing for responses from internal and external audiences; and then rinsing and repeating for the next set of changes.
Now that we have had a few weeks out of the spin cycle and some time to reflect on the past two years, at least one silver lining has emerged from the pandemic for the communications field: university leaders and employees, many for the first time, saw the true value of a strong, centralized communications function.
In a rapidly changing and crisis-like cycle, it is critical that student communications, employee communications, media relations and alumni and donor communications are all in sync and singing from the same sheet of music. Leaders saw firsthand that the communications department is more than just press releases and emails; Rather, they are strategic thought partners that can help the institution navigate challenges, make informed decisions and take good care of the university community.
At Southern New Hampshire University, communications has always played a critical role, but the pandemic provided us the opportunity to centralize, streamline and build a team to best support the university. With support from leadership, we were able to bring together the power of our disparate communications functions under the Office of External Affairs and Communications to deliver a broader strategic portfolio to our university partners. The pandemic also allows us to maximize existing channels and stand up new ones to help provide clear and timely updates. Today, the centralized team meets more regularly and can collaborate and coordinate more easily. No matter where a university partner engages with our team, we are able to bring the power of the full team to help them—whether it’s a universitywide message, strategic communications plan, video, social media copy, media outreach and beyond. With every team we centralized, our communications got better, because these professionals with years of experience in journalism, communications, graphic design, videography, event planning and more all brought varying perspectives, skills and institutional knowledge to the table and challenged us to think differently .
Every COVID-19 decision had numerous ripple effects to other teams and audiences; With a centralized team, we were able to anticipate and navigate those ripples in a quicker and more efficient manner. This meant better communications and clearer direction for our university community. We didn’t have the luxury of time to muddle through bureaucracy and numerous team review processes; we needed to get clear and timely information to our community to keep them informed and safe.
At SNHU, we actually saw communications satisfaction among employees increase during the pandemic on our monthly employee engagement surveys. Seventy-five percent of employees reported being satisfied with the internal communications updates related to COVID-19, and 96 percent of employees found the president’s weekly update, a channel we launched at the start of the pandemic, to be useful. Anecdotally, we have also heard statements from colleagues like “we make better decisions when communications are at the table, because you think about how the decisions will be received” and “we’ve learned to involve the communications team earlier on in the process. ” In a year of so many losses, these are huge wins.
As we enter the tumble-dry-low phase of the pandemic, we’re more optimistic than ever that the communications field as a whole came out stronger and more prepared to lead in whatever the new normal is for universities and business alike. The power of strategic communications can be utilized beyond COVID-19 information, and a centralized communications function can help in almost every facet or change of an organization. A recent Edelman survey found that 46 percent of CCOs now report to the CEO, compared to 34 percent in 2014, and 77 percent said perceptions of the role of communications as a strategic business driver favorably changed within their organization during 2020.
That’s progress, but there is still more we can do. We hope that more leaders will see their communications professionals as strategic thought partners and give them a seat at the decision-making table. When we align our communications strategies, tactics and teams, our employees feel more connected and empowered, our students get a consistent message and experience, our alumni are more engaged, external audiences have more positive associations with the university, and our business is better positioned to navigate any challenge it faces.
Lauren Keane is the associate vice president of communications and Libby May is senior vice president of external affairs and communications at Southern New Hampshire University.