No matter how many ways a message is delivered, nearly every college president or communications manager has probably heard this from a faculty or staff member or student: “Why didn’t I know about this?”
A sound internal communications strategy and effective emails can ease that frustration for both college leaders and their community members. Creating an intentional, thoughtful and nimble internal communications approach not only informs students, faculty and staff, but it involves them. Presidents can inspire trust, connection and community through thoughtful and strategic messaging. Internal communications create both transparency and belonging and can spur engagement and productivity, especially while many continue to work and study remotely.
Renton Technical College (RTC) in Renton, Washington, just outside of Seattle, developed a solid internal communications strategy to address the problem, which became even more critical as the college moved through constant change during the pandemic. Email became the essential source of information, and the college strived to ensure everyone knew what was happening by using effective messaging.
RTC’s strategy proved effective, demonstrated by a college survey about its response to the pandemic. More than 80% of respondents rated communication from President Kevin McCarthy as excellent or good. And while presidents hear of email fatigue and messages getting missed, results showed overwhelmingly that the most prominent source community members relied upon for information were emails from the president.
It remains crucial to share messages on all platforms – including the college website, social media, text messages, the press and virtual or in-person all-college meetings – to reach all college community members. But strengthening email communication is central to effective communication. Especially as in-boxes appear more cluttered than ever, there are ways to make emails stand out.
Keep equity at the forefront
Consider those in your community who use assistive devices or are non-native English speakers. Every RTC email from the president is formatted to be accessible to those who use screen readers. Include messages in multiple languages when possible, or use simple words that are easily translated. Include the Google Translate link at the top of every email.
Show urgency and be timely
Whether it’s news about a weather closure, a Covid case, a budget matter or a college crisis, it’s essential to move quickly. Don’t contemplate too long about what to say or how to say it. Wordsmithing and collaboration are important, but urgency should prevail so the community knows the college is handling the situation and providing the most recent information as soon as possible.
Stephanie Delaney, vice president for instruction at RTC, led the adoption of practices from the Transparency in Learning and Teaching Project, a national project that aims to reduce systemic inequities in higher education. Use of those practices is now integral in the college’s email communications:
- Begin each message with purpose, clearly stating what readers will learn.
- Avoid acronyms that are not familiar to everyone – particularly students – and spell out or rephrase, using more user-friendly wording.
- Use headings that make the message easily understandable for all audiences.
- Separate different pieces of content that are more relevant for various constituencies, such as “For online students” and “For in-person students.”
Be clear and concise
Many emails from a president are necessarily lengthy, but they don’t have to be unwieldy. Tell constituents at the start that while the email might be long, it contains important information, and ask them to read the message in its entirety.
Set and meet expectations
Tell readers when to expect the next update – and stick to it. When inboxes are overflowing, it’s helpful to know when a particularly important message will arrive. Make sure to follow through on your promise, even if the news is, “We are still working on this.”
Although sending emails is something presidents do all day long, following simple practices as part of an overarching internal communications strategy will make those messages more meaningful for everyone.
“College students, faculty and staff are dealing with immense pressure these days,” said Laura McDowell, communications director for the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges. “Much like personal relationships, a college’s day-to-day communication builds trust and creates a reservoir of goodwill to help the college make it through both the good times and the bad.”