The global pandemic has upended how classes will be taught this fall. A resulting economic recession has cast uncertainty into enrollment forecasts and financial aid budgets. And a presidential election that promises to be the most consequential of our lifetime is only 90 days away.
Talk about disruption.
With so much uncertainty, it’s okay not to have all the answers. You may have even paused new student outreach altogether. But how your school positions itself now will have an impact for a long time to come. Amid all of this chaos, you now have the opportunity to show empathy, judgement, steadiness and organization, the traits of a school worth attending. You’ll now be able to strengthen bonds with current students and instill in prospective students a sense that yours will be the right school for them someday.
While the exact path you take in the coming months will be unique to your institution, I’d like to offer a self-assessment that can help you shape how students and families will perceive your school for the foreseeable future.
Are you leading?
Like the rest of us, you’re at the mercy of unfolding events and imperfect information. But are you out front with what you do know? Is your guidance cogent, thorough and transparent?
The schools that are leading have nailed this. As soon as you arrive on their website, their plan is front and center. They go as deep as they can within FAQs, in addition to social media and direct communications, to explain where they stand and how classes and campus life will look during COVID. The best prepared schools engage someone of influence, be that the head of school, board chair or an executive committee member to talk genuinely and directly about these issues, underscoring a commitment to student safety and success. That’s leadership in a time of crisis.
You may be in a holding pattern in terms of your exact plan. But what signals are you sending in the meantime? Saying nothing implies denial and leaves your community searching for answers. Conversely, proactively stating what you know as transparently as possible leaves a lasting impression that you’ve acknowledged circumstances and are in partnership with students and their families. This is a sign of fortitude, and shows that you’re preparing for the day (hopefully soon) when the pandemic is under control.
Are you communicating steadiness?
In normal times we advocate bold, up-front messaging about what differentiates your school and the reasons why students should attend. But sometimes, it’s not about student acquisition, awareness or outmaneuvering the competition. Sometimes, it’s just about showing poise. Confidence. Steadiness. Right now people want certainty. With everything else being just so heavy, they want to know that at some point, things will return to some semblance of normal. And although you’re not in a position to tell them when or if things will go back to the way they were, you can indeed meet them where they are. You can empathize.
Are you communicating your commitment to students’ well-being and a dedication that, to the best of your abilities, you’ll be providing them with an education that prepares them for this new world? Is your messaging clear, consistent and confident?
Be self-critical. Step out of your day-to-day and look at how parents and students see you from their perspective. What are their perceptions of your school? Are you seen as a knowledgeable, safe haven that has a plan and understands what parents and kids are feeling?
. . . sometimes, it’s not about student acquisition, awareness or outmaneuvering the competition. Sometimes, it’s just about showing poise.
Is your digital house in order?
This last point may seem trivial, but it underpins everything I’ve discussed above: are you providing a consistent, orderly and accessible online user experience?
The most well-conceived messaging won’t resonate if people can’t find it, don’t hear about it, or learn about it in a haphazard fashion. It’s never a bad time for digital housecleaning. Prior to disseminating your plans, assess the quality of your online channels thoroughly. At a minimum:
Ensure that you have the capabilities to place key information front and center on your website, and then provide deeper pages and FAQs to elaborate; establish a proper location and bandwidth for a 1-2 minute video.
Evaluate your existing social channels and provide accurate, consistent messaging around your guidance; consider that static information like pinned Tweets, Facebook cover images or Instagram bio links should all convey and point to the same place and/or similar messaging.
Create a plan for your social media communications, including who will be handling the delivery of messages, the content of that messaging and how to respond to inquiries via social channels.
Review your mailing lists to ensure that the appropriate individuals will be receiving your communications; time your emails properly to ensure maximum response and be sure to re-send critical emails to those recipients that did not open the initial round.
These guidelines will help to ensure your communications reach your intended audiences. But just as importantly, the standards by which you deliver this messaging will have deeper implications in terms of how students perceive your school. Will they think, “These folks have their act together. This is the school I want to go to.” or, “I can’t find any answers.”?
Right now, we are all in uncharted, chaotic waters. But this chaos will not last forever. At some point, the election will be decided. The pandemic will subside. The economy will come back. And your school will be there–the one that laid the groundwork months in advance. The one that was the right choice all along.
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