As universities responded to COVID-19 by moving online, Nic Mitchell looks at key lessons from a webinar on the rapid transformation of big events like open days and graduation ceremonies to the virtual environment and Christine Legrand reports from a French online discussion on communication challenges during and after the corona crisis
Campus doors slammed shut as the coronavirus spread across Europe. First in Italy on 22 February, and then a few weeks later in countries like the Netherlands which announced its “intelligent lockdown” on 12 March.
With healthcare struggling to save lives, higher education institutions found themselves having to transform not just their teaching, but also the care of current students running short of funds and those from abroad unable to get home.
In the midst of all the crisis management, efficient messaging and effective communications gained the recognition it deserves, but seldom gets, said the President of EUPRIO Jan Dries.
He was opening a session at a webinar-day organised by EUPRIO in collaboration with the French professional university communicators’ association ARCES and specialist higher education agency Campus Com on 18 June 2020. This looked at the massive impact the health emergency is making to major events of the academic calendar, such as open days, graduation ceremonies, exams and the soon-to-arrive freshers’ weeks.
According to EUPRIO stalwart and past-president Paolo Pomati: “Communications sparkled in its key role in the crisis which crashed into a 24/7 never-ending frenzy of activity.”
Looking back at the experience from northern Italy, the director of communications at Universitá di Piemonte Orientale said a priority was to “remain inclusive and breakdown inequalities” by ensuring students were “not left alone for a single moment” and kept motivated as classes switched online and normal physical university life came to an abrupt halt.
“We learned about unexpected financial difficulties, so we split up the annual fee in small instalments and raked our Alumni network to collect around €100,000 to pay what the students could not afford,” said Paolo.
With the twin challenges of graduation and exams arriving in the middle of the pandemic, the university offered a written “netiquette” on how to hold a graduation ceremony in the student’s living room. Parents took pictures on their mobile phones and tablets as their offspring, dressed appropriately, held their degree certificates high during the online ceremony. Highlights were put on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram for all to share and celebrate.
Handling examinations online was less straight-forward as it wasn’t even clear whether writing answers on a computer was even legal and there were all sorts of technical challenges.
“But we did our best,” said Paolo, adding that it was vital to remain “sober, relevant and supportive” and “not to see the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity for communicators to test how smart we are.”
Tips for a successful webinar
Marketing project manager Sabine Piccolo, responsible for online events at Grenoble Ecole de Management, France, organised 15 webinars between March and June “to keep in touch with the students”.
Her session gave tips on what makes them work and things to avoid.
First know the audience, choose the right topic and get the right speaker.
During lockdown avoid lunchtimes as parents are busy feeding their children, said Sabine, suggesting webinars between 11-12 noon and 2pm to 3pm probably work best. “Experiment to find the perfect time for your organisation,” she said.
“Use images and no more than three bullet points and characters big enough to catch the attention and give people valuable solutions! People want keys to use in their organisation.
“A one-shot webinar doesn’t really work. Get your audience interested with a series of webinars, starting with a global approach and then narrowing little by little to specific content.”
Promote the webinar well or the effort could be wasted and “don’t deliver a sales pitch”.
Also, during a crisis remember not everyone working from home has good internet. “Many live in the mountains here and you must try out the platform or it can be a pain for the audience.”
Despite moving courses online smoothly, the biggest challenge for Grenoble now is supporting international students who make up the majority of its master’s students.
“They have many questions: How can they get to France? Are courses physical or online and many are not sure whether they are coming or not and ask about visas,” said Sabine.
While not wanting to disrupt the French lunchtime, she confessed mid-day CET is “the best time to communicate with international students. You can reach the world at this time.”
Chairman of the board online
Mascha Arts, who leads the communication team at Fontys University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands, said they got the chairman of the board involved in webinar-type activities; first with 400 staff and just a few students attending to find out how the university was responding to the COVID-19 crisis.
“For students we needed to do something different,” she said. “So, the chairman started a posting a few pictures each day on Instagram Stories and then we invited students to ask questions, some of which were personally answered by him.
“In normal times the board is usually a little distant from students, but these were different circumstances and after a little coaching the chairman felt confident about using the platform to directly communicate with students.”
Fontys is planning a mainly digital welcome to new students in August, said Mascha, but she hopes students can come on campus “to get an impression of the atmosphere” and get a better introduction to the university than can be achieved by just using online activities.
Asked by the webinar’s moderator Ludo Koks what she would keep or drop from online alternatives to traditional events, Mascha said she hoped Fontys would stick with one of their three big open days remaining online – the one in March – as it was a great success. “We invested a lot in the online platform, so why not keep what worked,” she said.
Learning from America
Régis Faubet, digital strategy consultant for La Haute Société, France and a former colleague of Sabine’s at Grenoble, drew on examples from the US in making a success of online ceremonies for students.
From a mum in her living room complete with face mask taking photographs of her daughter graduating to 100 Berkley University students recreating a whole campus using the Minecraft video game, he suggested there was no limit in the possibilities if you harness the “emotional engagement” of students in such initiative.
News channels like NBC and ABC banded together to offer prestigious speakers for graduating students and digital platforms like Facebook provided resources for graduates, teachers, parents and alumni to get together and make graduation day “a little less disappointing that it could have been”.
YouTube has also got involved with its ‘dear class of 2020’ commencement speeches featuring the likes of Michelle Obama, Justin Timberlake and Jennifer Lopez.
Duke Tape offers virtual prom attire and TikTok provides stickers, filters and fun videos for graduation parties. “While it is not the same as the real deal,” Régis recommended checking out what’s available from the big digital companies when moving real-life celebrations online.
“People expect online events will be long, boring, tedious and there will be some technical issues. So, if we are only trying to mimic a real-life event online, the chances are it won’t work perfectly. So, keep things shorter, divide it into small digestible chunks of 20 minutes and engage students early and often,” he suggested.
One-day conference planned
Closing the session, Jan Dries said this was the first in a series of online events for EUPRIO members while the medical emergency makes it impossible to organise the annual conference.
“We are planning a mini one-day conference online for the end of October / beginning of November and hope that we can all meet once again in person to discuss science communications in Trieste in August 2021,” he said.
Les enjeux de la communication pendant et après la crise de la COVID 1 9
Christine Legrand, EUPRIO vice-president, reports that before the EUPRIO webinar on 18 June, an online discussion was held for French presidents and directors of universities and grandes écoles together with directors of communications on the theme of « Les enjeux de la communication pendant et après la crise de la COVID 1 9 » The challenges of communication during and after the COVID 19 crisis.
It was organised by French association of higher education communication professionals ARCES together with Campus Com and EUPRIO.
François Germinet, President of CY University and representative of the French association of universities presidents, saying that communication was on front line during this crisis and had demonstrated it highly important role not just on the external level, but especially on the internal level. He was already convinced of this, but its performance during the crisis had reinforced his opinion.
Jérome Guilbert, Director of communications at Sciences Po, saying the COVID 19 crisis had given communication departments the opportunity to really find their place at the strategic level. Challenges had been met and a large number of messages to different audiences had been successfully coordinated.
Anne Laure Oudinot, Director of communications of Grenoble Ecole de Management, was convinced: “We can’t stay as we were: We learned how to work effectively in a digital way, but we also need to meet in the real world”. She said the time has come for what she called « PHYGITAL », a mix of physical contact and digital meetings. She gave the example of a press conference she organised during the lockdown attended by many journalists and stressed the need to « do a reasoned communication, no false promises” and back up what you say with effective internal communications.
Alice Guillon, Director of SKEMA business school, representative of the French association of Grandes Ecoles, embodied the values of the school by using video to reach its different audiences spread across international campuses. Messages were tailored to expectations in the different campuses in France, China and the United States.
Davis Diné, Director of communications of Université de Lorraine, explained the essential role of network like ARCES or EUPRIO to share experiences and lessons during the crisis. He said that “humility” and “adaptation” were the key words coming of the pandemic.
Olivier Rollot, a journalist specialising in HE, confirmed that institutions should stay humble especially because everybody has to face and react to the same events. While uncertainty remains very present, communications will remain very difficult and central and we all need to be careful going forward.