Communications Peer Perspectives Part 1

By this point, if you’ve worked in the field of communications in the last few months, you may feel like a seasoned crisis communicator. Even though you may have previously used several elements of crisis communications in your work, little could have prepared us for the COVID-19 pandemic, which redesigned our worksites and reset our ability to collaborate virtually.

Working within higher education brings its own nuance to handling a crisis through communications. The decentralization of decisions and messaging can often set off other crises to manage. The University of Minnesota internal communications team reached out across the five-campus system to hear about the techniques and tactics communications leaders used to inform audiences and successfully create two-way communication. Below is insight from those professionals (with slight editing).

Set the tone (and change when needed)

Communicators across the University created daily or weekly messaging for their college or department leaders, sent via established channels like email or a newsletter. Getting the tone right at the onset of our new working environment was a crucial element of garnering trust. Throughout the pandemic, that tone shifts as processes and decisions alter course, but, according to our internal communicators, empathy and timeliness remain the underlying values.

What values have been most important in your messaging during this time?

“I think empathy has been important with our own staff as well as with researchers, many of whom have seen their life's work interrupted or stymied. When dealing with the research community, accuracy has been critical. Timeliness and accuracy were crucial in the initial weeks of the pandemic response. We have also made a point of showing that the [vice president] is leading by example, with a video message that showed his work-from-home setup.”—Dan Gilchrist, Erin Dennis and Kevin Coss, Office of the Vice President for Research

“One thing we focused on was voicing the chancellor's empathy and trying to translate her in-person ethos through written updates. We (the chancellor and I) shifted her voice to be more informal and personal over the course of the pandemic, incorporating more ‘I’ statements than are typical for her, signing with her first name (which is typical for her), and adding more anecdotes and notes about her everyday activities in ways that connected to some of the operational updates (e.g., tying a local Sunrise Plan announcement to her description of getting out into her garden).”—Jenna Ray, senior communications specialist for the University of Minnesota Morris

“Early on we communicated at least every few days to our own staff and kept [approximately] weekly contact with the finance community. Our messaging tone attempted to either provide specific guidance or state specifically where local decision makers had discretion to deviate from that guidance. This adventure has reinforced for us the need to continue a strong working partnership between the responsible central units and campus/college leaders for finance. If we had not spent a great deal of time cultivating these relationships over the years, we likely would have had to do far more directive communicating, and likely would have required senior leaders to do more direct/directive messaging.”—Carrie Meyer, director of customer support and communications, Controller's Office

Each of these communicators tapped into—and amplified—the voice and tone of leadership to show connection and empathy with their audience. Regular communication also showed that leaders understood the concerns of faculty, staff, and students and were actively addressing those concerns.

Do you or your team have effective internal communications techniques to share? Submit your responses in this quick survey and watch for additional posts.

Check out these additional resources for supporting employees during a crisis: “Support for Employees During Crisis” and “Keep Your Remote Meetings Engaging.”

Contact Christie Wells or Meagan Pierluissi for internal communications support at