How is the role of communications professionals changing amidst the pandemic?

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By Anne Nicholls

Almost all sectors of our society have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. Education and skills is obviously no exception. Communications professionals have had to deal with parents’ anxieties about the closure of schools and the cancellation of exams, students’ anger at being denied face to face teaching, staff worries about their job security and training providers facing business failure unless they adapt to the reality of online learning.

The CIPR’s Education and Skills Sector Group held an online Q&A session on 25 June to provide a forum for debate about the burning issues affecting communications professionals in the sector. On the panel were:  Suzy Giles (chairing the session), Managing Director of Giles Global Communications; Dan Selinger, Head of Communications, Students and Professional Services, University of Oxford; Ben Verinder,  Managing Director, Chalkstream; Richenda Wood, Managing Director, Livewire PR; and  Jennifer Lipman, Associate Director, Lexington Communications. As a group they cover a wide spectrum across the education and skills sector that includes experience with schools, colleges, universities, charities and government.

Questions put to the panel covered the role of the communications function, how to deal with uncertainty, communicating with diverse audiences, internal communications and the changing skills needed by communications professionals.

Working in a more flexible way is one of the skills that Richenda Wood and her team needed to address. “We have had to rethink how we plan ahead and adapt to last-minute changes, all of which need a high level of agility,” she says. Being well organised is essential. Having a clear agenda before setting up Zoom calls and a written record of actions and deadlines helps to keep meetings running smoothly.

A key issue during the current crisis is being clear about the role of the communications function and where the boundaries lie.  “In some organisations there is an expectation that communications professionals should dictate the operations strategy. This is clearly not their role,” says Ben Verinder. His sentiment is echoed by Dan Selinger who says that communications should not be “the tail wagging the dog”. Both stress the need for communications staff to be part of the leadership lead in times of crisis so they have contact points with stakeholders.

How to communicate when there are so many uncertainties was another question addressed to the panel. “Getting your messaging and narrative right is critical, “ says Jennifer Lipman.. “This means identifying different scenarios, so that when something happens people know how to act. Nobody likes a vacuum. You need to keep stakeholders informed.“ Managing expectations is essential, says Ben Verinder. “Be  honest and say you don’t have all the answers. Be upfront with people such as parents and students. Develop and maintain relationships – don’t sour them.”

The abrupt move away from face-to-face teaching to delivering education online has been preoccupying many communications teams. University and college students are needing clarity. Some are demanding a reduction in fees as what they were sold is not what’s on offer now. Parents are anxious about their children’s futures. Staff are facing changes to their teaching modus operandi. Local communities are worried about those youngsters who have been left with no home schooling. All this needs careful handling.

“How you communicate depends on the audiences,” says Dan Selinger. “What are their concerns? For home students it’s about the student experience. For international students from Asia it’s more about health and safety.”

Listening is as important as communicating in these uncertain times. “There’s a lot of information coming out of government that you need to monitor,” says Jennifer Lipman. “Organisations need to know how the changes will affect them. Follow what’s being said at Select Committees and by back benchers. Sign up to government alerts. Ensure you are monitoring what your applicants and stakeholders are talking about in social media. Staying on top of what’s happening helps you to advise on making the right decisions and ensures you don’t miss opportunities to engage or build your case with the right people.”

How has media relations been affected by the pandemic? Thankfully, there have been some good news stories which have given the education and skills sector a chance to shine. Schools and colleges have been producing protective shields from their 3D printers. University research teams are working flat out to find a vaccine. Imaginative ways of delivering learning at a distance are being tried across the UK and worldwide. But far from being inundated with pitches and press releases from PROs journalists have seen less activity, as Jennifer Lipman pointed out. Research by Energy PR amongst national and trade media showed a 56 per cent drop in PR activity since the start of the pandemic. This seems to be echoed across other sectors. “Journalists need to fill pages. Now is a good time for thought leadership if you’ve got something relevant and new to say,” says Jennifer.

Panellists were asked to predict what the future might mean and what lessons could be drawn? Here are their thoughts.

We need to get internal messages right with better joined up working between teams in marketing, communications and student services. (Dan Selinger)

We are experiencing fundamental changes in society so we need to make sure that communications professionals are included in the conversations. It’s harder to build trust without face-to-face communication. We need to value soft skills and the whole communications function. (Jennifer Lipman)

We cannot predict what the ‘new normal’ will be. But we can learn from and act on recent experiences. For the HE and FE sectors this means rethinking how to use technology and adopting cloud-based applications. The quality of online teaching resources need to be improved. Let teachers and lecturers do what they are good at and leave designing online courses to the techie experts. (Richenda Wood).

The growth in blended learning is creating changes in the delivery of education, even in nursery schools. It is leading to changes in how students identify their place of learning. In a recent research project with further education students we asked them to describe their college. A significant minority referred to their home. (Ben Verinder)

Top takeaways

 

  1. As communications professionals we need to be agile, flexible and get used to last-minute changes. We also need to ensure we have a voice on senior leadership teams.
  1. Maintaining trust with audiences is critical. That requires well-honed soft skills as well as a mastery of digital communications tools
  1. Use all communication channels to reach audiences but be sensitive. That means communicating offline and maybe using the phone where necessary.
  1. Be clear on boundaries. You shouldn’t be telling operations what to do. Nor should they be asking you.
  1. If you have nothing to say that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t communicate. Keep the channels open. If you’re not sure what to say reassure people that you’re trying to find a solution.
  1. Listen and monitor what’s happening locally and nationally. Keep abreast of policy changes with new rules and regulations. Keep an ear open. Listen
  1. Be positive. There are good things happening with a need for good news stories.

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