If you are involved in communications at a higher education institution you have probably sat in meetings as a result of an emergency on campus. Usually, the topic is a natural disaster (e.g. earthquake, flood, tornado) or man-made (e.g. arson, violence on campus). Rarely is a global pandemic the reason for the discussion.
Above all else, the communications department of a college or university must be nimble, and the flexibility of your staff and your partner vendors has certainly been tested in the last two weeks thanks to the COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) pandemic. Flexibility is only half of the equation though; the other half is being prepared.
Preparation on the web side of things involves having the necessary mechanisms in place to communicate easily and effectively, and the processes to do so. And it’s easier to create and test functionality when the heat is turned down than in the middle of a crisis.
So, the question is: Is your website prepared for a crisis?
Colleges and universities have done a remarkable job shifting the focus of their websites to market to prospective students. It should not be lost in that shift that websites still have an amazing capacity to distribute news and – combined with social media – the ability to speak directly to different constituencies without the message becoming muddy.
Information distributed in any crisis is nuanced – why risk rumor taking over? For this pandemic, the exact communications for institutions 10 miles apart is distinct. Yet the same rules of crisis communication are true for pandemics and floods: Provide timely information, be consistent and clear in your messaging, and make the information easy to find. You can accomplish all three while combatting misinformation. And if you’re reading this and realize your team could use some consulting on just how to do this given your specific web experience implementation, reach out to your account manager.
With these things in mind, let’s look at web strategies to help your crisis communication efforts. And remember: Recommendations aren’t rules. Your institution may find value in using all of these or just a combination of them based on the emergency.
The most obvious touchpoint that schools (in fact any website) deploy is the alert at the top of the site. This can be done globally (on every page on the site) or on the homepage only. The benefit to a global alert is that no matter the access point on the site for the user, they’ll see the alert. This can be especially handy for groups that have bookmarked certain pages because they know the information is curated for them – think a parent or alumni page. If you leave the homepage to do all the alert work, there is a chance it can be missed.
A good alert has at least three design elements with an optional fourth to catch the visitor’s attention. The three mandatory pieces are a different color background than the rest of the site (it’s an alert and it should stand out), a clear and concise message, and a link for more information. The optional piece is some sort of visual element associated with the message, like an icon in coordinating colors with the background and text colors.
One note on preparation: Every crisis and circumstance are different but creating boilerplate language for use in an alert can improve the delivery time once it’s decided the alert is needed. For example, you might create guidelines to state that in the instance of a weather emergency [enter statement that should be used] is used. This level of preparation will put everyone at ease and it’s one less piece of content to consider when the time comes to use it.
Taking the concept of the alert even further, the pop-up is an unmissable element that displays front and center. The same conversation of a global or local application applies. It’s best to do testing on your specific site to evaluate the efficacy of a pop-up for your specific audiences. Some visitors will summarily dismiss all pop-ups because it interferes with what their expected site experience.
After the two more eye-catching options have been exhausted, it’s still beneficial in some instances to deploy messaging on the homepage – be it usurping the banner area of the site or a different component further down the page. For crises that require that level of attention, it’s best not to leave it to chance that visitors will see the alert or pop-up. As with both the alert and the pop-up the key to messaging is keep it simple and point to the next step in the communication journey. Another consideration for the homepage: If you have a video in the banner area, make sure you can also post a static image and link.
Whatever method of notification you use, it’s best to drive those visitors to a destination that houses more information. This page is also useful to push out on social media or to traditional media to help stem the bombardment of questions.
Information on this page – and it can be a comprehensive set of pages if the need calls for it – should be complete and easy to understand. Popular pieces of content wells on these pages are a type of accordion or tab component to maximize the amount of content that’s deliverable while minimizing the footprint. While there may be a temptation to re-use information from reliable sources, keep in mind how often information changes and you don’t want to post inaccurate information simply because of the pace of changes. Linking to those outside resources is incredibly helpful. The one exception to this is if you have experts on campus that can speak to the emergency being posted.
Managing Content in Times of Crisis
I hope you find these four elements of managing content and communicating to your audience during times of crisis helpful. The trick is having them in place before a crisis happens. A good CMS partner can pivot to provide support on a moment’s notice and can help make a tough communications day less problematic.