As governments across the globe take rising measures to stem the spread of COVID-19, higher education institutions are pitching in. Some universities are putting a stop to face-to-face teaching, whilst others are releasing medical staff from academic duties to help fight the crisis. All of us are having to adapt to new policies and processes. In this unprecedented time, the difference between pulling together and falling apart comes down to one key thing – communication.

When it comes to your university community, you are in a position of leadership and responsibility. The words you use – and how or when you use them – will make a real difference in the lives of the people under your care. Issues like clarity, channel penetration, tone of voice and information hierarchy will be key to ensuring co-operation from your stakeholders.

Let’s take a look at some crucial concepts and tools that can help you bring your team – staff, students and partners alike – together to keep everyone safe.

Build a messaging matrix

When you’re managing an institution as large as a university, your communications strategy is going to serve a number of diverse functions and needs. Mapping out those needs correctly is your first step towards great crisis communication. To do that, you’re going to need to build a messaging matrix that will give you a bird’s-eye view of the key stakeholders, outcomes and barriers.

Open a new spreadsheet and put the headers ‘Audience’, ‘Actions’, ‘Emotions’, ‘Channels’ and ‘Challenges’ in the first row. In each subsequent row under ‘Audience’ write a detailed description of each stakeholder you need to contact. The next column is dedicated to output behaviours – the things you want your audience to do after they’re received your message. The ‘Emotions’ column is a space for information on how your audience might be feeling and will be useful for getting your tone of voice just right. Under ‘Channels’, list the different ways each stakeholder likes to communicate. Finally, the ‘Challenges’ column gives you a space to write down the communication barriers your stakeholders might face. Everything from language difficulties through to visual impairment, access issues and timeliness goes in here. 

This document might take some time to put together but it will be invaluable when it comes to building an action plan for your communications.

Bring in your brand values

It’s moments like this that those brand values you’ve been talking about for years suddenly take centre stage. They’re the guiding light by which you should make not just comms decisions, but policy decisions, too. Will your institution innovate its way through the challenges of social distancing? Will you make university resources available to help stem the infection or shut down for the sake of student safety? What are your true priorities in a time of crisis?

Create a new column in your messaging matrix and title it ‘Brand’. For each stakeholder, make a note of which of your brand values you want to drive your communications efforts. They’ll then be at the forefront of your mind when you write your copy. Brand-driven writing like this will help build familiarity, trust and a sense of belonging within your community – feelings you’ll want working in your favour during times of crisis.

Plan your information hierarchy

The order in which you present information is of vital importance to stakeholders and the actions they take. It also says a lot about what your institution values most. If the personal safety of your staff and students is your top priority, make sure you lead with that messaging. You never know how much – or how little – your audience will take in. You’ll need to plan your hierarchy within and across all your channels for an effective communications strategy.

Think of your information hierarchy in the same way you would approach user journey mapping for a marketing funnel. Each stage in the process should address a specific emotional state and elicit a specific action from the reader, whether that’s clicking a link, writing an email or washing their hands. 

Write for the lowest common denominator

If you’ve followed the steps above, you should already have a good grasp of what your messaging needs to say. Getting it down on paper will require some craftsmanship, though. When it comes to writing, clarity is always a top priority, but it’s especially important at times like right now. Miscommunication or confusion can lead to serious – perhaps life-changing – problems for stakeholders. What’s more, your team would be responsible. That’s why it’s important to keep your sentence construction and vocabulary as straight-forward as possible. Use short, simple sentences and write in an active voice, avoiding adjectives and adverbs. Write for the lowest conceivable reading level and check every word for simpler synonyms.

Test before you publish

This step is one that very few comms managers bother to take. However, asking a member of your target audience to read your messages through before you publish is a great way to eliminate issues before they arise. We all have blind spots in our logic and it often takes a fresh pair of eyes to help us see them. More importantly, there’s a good chance you’re in a different place emotionally than your audience. Ask how your messages make them feel and check to see if that’s the outcome you’re looking for. You’ll be glad you did.

We hope that’s given you a solid framework to build your crisis comms around. Remember, your brand is a powerful tool that can help you speak with authority and do great things for your community. Use all the tools at your disposal to keep them safe. Good luck!