Yesterday, the Trump administration reversed course on a controversial set of guidelines that would have revoked the visas of international students whose schools transitioned to online-only classes during the coronavirus pandemic.
Even though they weren’t implemented, the mere publication of the guidelines probably sent your team into a scramble to understand how to interpret the new rules and importantly, how to best communicate next steps to your affected students and their families.
So although we can all step back and breathe a sigh of relief, these events revealed how important it is to have at-the-ready, a structured process for communicating critical information to your students, staff and community.
In this post, I’m going to offer a series of steps that you can put to work immediately to build out your communications infrastructure. Having such a framework in place will allow you to share sensitive information in an organized fashion, deliver messaging calmly and consistently, and react nimbly to directives that may change from day-to-day.
1. Understand the Issues at Hand
The first step in any highly-charged situation that requires a concerted communications strategy is to seek out the highest-quality information possible. This includes the direct source(s) itself, news sources and if possible, individuals that have first-hand or high-level knowledge of the issues.
You can’t construct messaging until you know the facts. In the case of the rules regarding international students, this meant going to the ICE website and understanding what the directives themselves said. Then, what reliable supporting information can you gather to gain context about the new regulations? Consider vetted, general source outlets like NPR or the Wall Street Journal as well as specialized, industry-centric sources like the National Association of Independent Schools.
Next, who within the school’s network of contacts might be able to shed some light on the topic from a professional standpoint? Again, using the ICE regulations as an example, your outreach may have included imigration and education attorneys, international recruitment consultants and those with governmental or international law expertise who could help you grasp the full scope of what the regulations mean, how they might impact the school and what options are available in terms of planning.
The due diligence here will provide an understanding not just of the issues at hand, but source material to help you construct overall messaging and content regarding your position and the next steps your school will offer students and their families.
2. Develop Your Response
Using the information you’ve gathered, in tandem with your own intuition and input from necessary sources including your board and executive team, begin crafting your message. The guiding principle here is empathy; place yourself in the position of the parent and student whose lives are now being affected by these circumstances. Consider that they may be anxious about any number of concerns, including their education and repercussions to their future livelihood; write to address (as much as is appropriate) those fears.
When developing your messaging, gather input from multiple voices within the school. Representatives from admissions, advancement, marketing; teachers, the board, the executive team and even the students themselves can all play a role. Yes, more voices can slow things down, but it’s critical that the school considers all aspects of how their response will affect the school community; moreover, gathering from this varied group will lay the groundwork for consistency of messaging, which will be critical to ensure your guidance is steady, clear and correct. Messaging should entail:
Ideally, this will be a page or pages on your website that can then be disseminated across all of your online and offline channels. It can be a written statement, but will carry even more weight delivered as a video from a high-level team member such as the head of school or board chairperson. Delivering delicate messaging in this way underscores sensitivity to a difficult situation and communicates a humanity to which students and their families can better relate.
Lastly, consider creating a questions and answers page dedicated to students who may be affected by the situation. There’s nothing more frustrating than being put in tough circumstances and not being able to find answers; a page that lays everything out–even if you don’t fully have all the answers yet–will help to acknowledge the affected students’ situation and lets them know you’ve got them top-of-mind. The Q&A page should contain a form for any new questions that arise, as well as direct and toll-free phone numbers that students and families can call for more information.
3. Establish a Communications Hierarchy
As you develop your messaging and related content, consider putting together a response team. Knowing who is responsible for what will help you react nimbly, streamline decisions, minimize mistakes and infuse stability into your process. Consider:
4. Deliver Your Message
Prior to delivering your message(s), have an understanding of who your intended audiences are and what communication channels you’ll be using to reach them. This can change over time as you communicate and receive feedback, but initially you should have a baseline understanding of the outlets and timing around which your announcements will be made.
You know best the channels to which your community is most receptive and can allocate resources accordingly, but an example baseline plan may include something like this:
5. Monitor and Amplify
The benefit of digital communications is that you’ll instantly receive feedback. If you’ve done the diligent work of fully developing your messaging and considering the possible reactions and repercussions (step 2), responding to feedback will be somewhat easier.
Now, the point person responsibility will shift to the individual monitoring your digital channels; they should be prepared with your approved messaging and empowered to respond in a timely fashion. The rule here is to be responsive, informative and at all times, empathetic and consistent. They should also be monitoring the analytics surrounding your different channels to see which messages and tactics are resonating and which channels are receiving the greatest response. Is one link getting clicked on more than others? Is the form on your Q&A page being used? Is one social channel getting inundated with questions and responses while another is languishing?
This individual should be gathering data and insights, reporting back to the response team to determine where messaging should be amplified and where, perhaps, it’s no longer necessary to dedicate time and resources. As with any digital outreach, it’s not a one-and-done proposition. Careful monitoring of and adapting to feedback is critical to ensure that your message is resonating and that your audience’s questions are being addressed.
In the meantime, as inquiries and feedback are received, all representatives from the various departments of the school should be on the same page, prepared to answer and respond to inbound inquiries that fall outside of digital channels–hence the idea of having brought in these members at the planning level. Admissions should know how to respond appropriately, as should the office of the head of school, the board of directors, the teachers and so forth.
Communicating your response to an issue that affects the livelihood of your students won’t be easy. But having a plan in place to help your school be proactive when these circumstances inevitably occur will help you proceed on an even keel, which is critically important to assure your students that your institution is proceeding down the right path and staff are there to help. Keep in mind also that it will take several rounds of implementation to arrive at a point where all of your communication elements work seamlessly. But with each iteration, you’ll see improvement in your communications infrastructure. The ICE regulations ended up being, thankfully, a “near-miss” and were, in the end, misguided. But this provided the benefit of showing us how to be ready for the next time. And there will always be a next time.
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