COVID-19 has forced us all to adapt our messaging, outreach, and methods for communicating with both prospective and current students. While some schools were caught off guard and forced into reaction mode, others were able to take a more proactive approach and simply flip existing plans from “contingency” to “active.”
One important thing to have nailed down in a time of crisis is your communication strategy. Sadly, this probably isn’t the last time we’ll have to shift our focus due to crisis or unforeseen events.
It never hurts to have an outline or a crisis communication plan playbook ready for any kind of unforeseen situation- especially when it impacts something as important as your enrollment strategy. Even before COVID-19 hit, there were probably ways you were prepping to work remotely or create virtual admission experiences, even if you didn’t have quarantines in mind when you made them.
The good news is: if you haven’t started these efforts yet, it’s not too late! There’s a TON you can do to make sure your admission and enrollment teams can review and respond to things remotely; all the while creating a fabulous experience for prospective families to better understand what your school is all about. And making these preparations can take you from the COVID-19 Response Curve’s “reaction” phase to the “adapting” phase. We’ll go into the who, the what, and the where (or how) you’ll want to communicate in situations like these.
Who Should You Communicate With?
When thinking through your crisis communication plans, you’ll want to start by making a list of each different group you need to communicate with or send your message to. Here are the top few constituent groups you’ll likely want to plan for (though your particular circumstances might dictate others):
1. Faculty and Staff
You need your colleagues now more than ever. For so many of us, those folks are so much more than colleagues- they are neighbors, coaches, and dear friends. We often enlist them in the important work of enrolling students because we know they are the reasons families choose our schools. We’ve used the term “whole school admissions” to help those outside the admission office properly understand how everyone plays a role in enrollment- and now that term is more critical than ever. Pulling off virtual events and remaining engaged with all of your constituents in meaningful ways will take a village.
Prospective families need to hear different voices- particularly those who may be teaching their children. It is critical that faculty and staff are all well informed of the path forward for your school. Everyone must be “in the know” about what is happening when communicating with families (current and prospective) to provide families with a clear image that everyone on your campus is on the same page.
No one wants to overhear a parent asking how finals will be graded and hearing the teacher say, “I don’t know what we’ll do about student grades this term.” Make sure that even if decisions aren’t in place just yet- everyone knows how to appropriately respond to the questions. Imagine how much better a family would feel if instead, they heard, “I know the administrative team is reviewing the feedback from our department chairs this week in order to make the right call and they will share the final decision next Tuesday.”
2. Current Families
For many of you, you’re still re-enrolling for next year and that work needs to continue. You now have the added job of demonstrating how well you’ve implemented distance learning and how your school does it in such a way that your families’ tuition dollars are still well-spent. This is where your value proposition is more important than ever! Even though you may have moved to remote instruction, is your school holding true to its core values? Are you still delivering on your mission? Can you articulate how? Do your current families see it?
Because your current students and families are your best advocates, you likely also want to engage their help with some of the virtual events you’re planning. If you’ve always offered a coffee & dessert reception at the home of a current parent, how might you work with current parents to replicate that vibe in a new way? Could they instead share a recipe for a favorite dessert to make at home and invite prospective families to join them online in a small group chat? Don’t underestimate the ability of your current students and families to help you solve some of these new challenges- their ideas just might be the best thing you’ve never tried!
3. Newly Admitted Students and Families
Most likely these folks are already familiar with your campus. They probably had a chance to visit campus and engage with you during fall tours and events. The goal now is to remind them of the why, not so much the where. It’s a chance to remind them about what they already saw when they did come to visit, and to highlight the things that will make them love and choose your school (hint: it’s the people and programs!). You don’t have to get them into the science building again, but you could bring one of your science classes to life online for them to see. Or engage them remotely in a lively discussion around a shared piece of reading with your best English teacher. You can also engage new students via social media and share more about your school.
4. Prospective Students and Other Constituents
You’ll need to be ready to start working with next year’s prospects and other constituents like secondary school placement counselors or educational consultants in the next few months. But don’t get too overwhelmed- take a breath and focus on the top three groups, for now, to ensure you’re solid for next fall. If you do that, you’ll be in a much better place to create communication plans for progress with your other constituents. After all, we don’t know how long we’ll be away from campuses and things are changing rapidly and regularly. As enrollment leaders, we have a tendency to want to fix and plan everything, but try to focus on your immediate needs first and work forward from there.
What to Communicate
Here are a few things you should focus on in your crisis communication plans:
1. Strong and Consistent Value Messages
Having strong and consistent messaging will help your yield efforts, even with everything moving online. The key is to have consistency across all of your channels, even when a message is coming from a variety of voices.
Showcase multiple voices and be creative in your communication plan. Your message is going to adjust slightly for each audience we noted above. Just remember that your school’s values are what will differentiate you, so you want to express those in your messaging. Being true to your values and mission will be what shines through at the end of the day for families.
2. Your Wins and Challenges
Don’t forget to highlight your wins, and be transparent about challenges. Highlight how your school is managing this situation- maybe you already had some blended learning in place. Maybe all your students had the tools they needed to study remotely and your faculty mobilized like rockstars to get everything up and running in short order. Celebrate that! Remind your teams that you’ve likely already cleared the first few hurdles together and you’ve done it well.
You can also be open when you fail. We’re all in this new phase of learning and we’re all likely first-timers at our jobs. It’s ok to acknowledge when things aren’t going perfectly, or when you’re struggling. Families are struggling through this in their own ways too, so modeling the humility of a challenge and the resolve to persist and succeed won’t go unnoticed- your authenticity will be appreciated.
3. New Opportunities
You’ve worked really hard this year and those new initiatives or markets you’ve been working on are all still there- don’t lose that momentum! How you work with them may look a little different, but just because you’re not in person doesn’t mean you have to abandon ship. The same applies to any other strategic planning initiatives you’ve started. Just take time to evaluate how you’ll adjust the strategy if needed- but don’t stop. Don’t abandon your strategic plans, remember you’re playing the long game.
Also, don’t be afraid to dip your toes into new markets right now amidst the challenges. Take some time to think about what’s possible. Something may have opened up to you because of this change in the market or now that you’re operating in this new way.
Maybe families who have traditionally homeschooled their children might be interested in taking an online class or two from your school now. Or, maybe you dropped a language offering last year because you didn’t have an instructor. Could you offer it again if you had a remote instructor next year? Think about the possibilities that have opened up and how you would communicate them.
Where & How to Communicate
Now that you know what to include in your crisis communication plans, and who to message to, it’s time to nail down how and where you should communicate.
Know who your leader is
First thing’s first — knowing who will be in charge and who is leading the charge is critical. Your leader has to make sure messaging is consistent and aligned across all channels no matter who relays it. And they’re going to ensure all of your messaging is being worked through in the right time frame.
Reassess + update your automated messages
Make sure you reassess any automated messages you have set up. I know a few of you have probably received marketing emails that mention COVID-19 and how companies are dealing with it. I’m also sure you’ve received some emails with the subject line of “come visit us today!” which makes it look like the sender is very out of touch or unaware of what’s happening right now.
Automated messaging is a GAMECHANGER, but it also needs to be monitored regularly to make sure you’ve still got a read on the room and don’t end up sending out messages that don’t apply anymore, like “come visit our campus!” Make sure your message is relevant.
An important note about messaging is that you don’t have to start over from scratch! You can use the same templates, videos, and pictures – just change what is *said* with them.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been using my social distancing time to catch up on TV. SO MUCH TV. And I noticed big brands General Motors, Ford, and Toyota have all changed the voiceovers in their commercials — they’re offering extended no-interest plans, assistance with current payments, and other timely benefits- some of them without ever mentioning coronavirus. It’s the same clips of cars driving up mountains that they were using months ago, but the voiceover is different. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel — you just have to change the tread a little bit. (Do you see what I did there?!)
Pick your platform
You’ll also need to decide what platforms and systems to use to get your message out. Social media and video creation are great for talking to potential students who are curious about what life at your school looks like right now. Emails and texts to parents are a great way to show how you’re handling the situation and keep them up to date on closing, distance learning needs, and other information…even if they don’t always read them.
Likely you’ll want to use the system you have now and are familiar with, assuming your system has these capabilities. If you don’t have a system in place to help you automate, you may want to start thinking about exploring something that can help you do this. If you’re using SchoolAdmin, use the automated and bulk email features to create and send emails and text messages and keep your messaging top of mind with parents.
You don’t have to use every channel for messaging. Find out where your constituents are and meet them there.
Send it Out
Lastly, it’s time to send your messages. You’ve thought about who your messages are going to and what they say, you’ve worked through getting them out there, and now it’s time to press ‘send.’
Enrollment isn’t stopping just because you’re not in the office — but you’re not alone in all this. Schools around the world are deciding how to adapt and overcome this crisis. Thankfully, you have peers who can help you brainstorm and innovate. And you can always be growing and increasing your enrollment management maturity. There are great tools you can use to help make messaging and automation easier not only in times of crisis but anytime. For now, take a second, make a plan, keep up the good work, and keep innovating.
Access the full recording of Kate’s speed session on Crisis Communication Plans to learn more.