Respect, compassion important to crisis communications

Editor’s note: This article is provided by the National Council for Marketing and Public Relations (NCMPR), an affiliated council of the American Association of Community Colleges.

Getting in front of communications is challenging during any crisis. When that crisis is a global pandemic that has gone on for months, however, it can feel nearly impossible. 

Throughout the pandemic, Skagit Valley College (SVC) in northwest Washington state has relied on a set of established guiding principles to shape its messaging to students and the community. In fact, they’re the same principles that are deeply ingrained in the college’s day-to-day operations, and they draw on the strength of a collaborative environment focused on student success.

The five simple principles are respect, integrity, open and honest communication, collaboration and compassion. Here’s how SVC has applied them to the myriad communication challenges arising during the pandemic.

  • Respect: This means looking at all possible outcomes of decisions and respecting the fact that everyone faces challenges in different ways. Some meet them head on, while others need more guidance and assurance. For SVC, this means that staff, students and the community’s health, well-being, family situations, and different views and perspectives need to be considered in all decision-making. 
  • Integrity: Here the emphasis is on acting honestly, following through with the actions being communicated, and building trust through consistent communication. At SVC, updates are promised – and delivered – at certain times. The focus is always on “walking the talk.” And messages are designed to inspire confidence that the college is still providing education and services to meet staff, student and community needs. 
  • Open and honest communication: It’s imperative to remain transparent with decisions and communication. Pandemics bring fear and uncertainty. Colleagues and students want to hear what’s really going on, and it’s difficult to sift through the barrage of information coming from all directions. This increases the need for transparency and quick communication. For staff and students, this means frequent email updates. For the community, it means keeping the website up to date. 
  • Collaboration: Throughout the pandemic, SVC has ensured that key departments and employees are involved in decision-making and messaging. Some prime examples: Instructors and academic departments have been brought to the table to give fresh perspectives on how to handle online instructional challenges, particularly with required labs. Staff members in student services have brought a better understanding of the challenges involving remote operations and, ultimately, how to best communicate helpful instructions to students. 
  • Compassion: This speaks to the basic understanding that people need to act with thoughtful care. At SVC, there have been examples of compassion at every turn. Students and staff have been extra patient with IT technicians, who have been overwhelmed with inquiries. The college has listened with open ears to students, who have been overwhelmed with concerns and fears about losing their jobs or not having the right technology for online learning.

These principles have provided Skagit Valley College with an effective road map for managing communication throughout the months-long pandemic. They will definitely remain in play when decisions about spring operations are made. “How can we deliver required lab content? How can we keep social distancing guidelines intact? How will we address low enrollment and budget reductions?” Answers and messaging will come easier when applying these foundational principles.

About the Author

James Walters
is director of marketing and communications at Skagit Valley College (Washington).