When I first worked on a campus, much of the summer was spent preparing for the academic year ahead. We used the time not only to identify and plan proactive messaging, storytelling and media opportunities, but also to anticipate issues and potential crises that might arise. This meant thinking about the big issues in higher education, as well as logistical issues within our department, such as a new staff position being added or someone going out on maternity leave. I loved it. The opportunity to take a deep breath, strategize and approach the semester with a clear head and thought-out plans made me feel like I was set up for success and ready to take on everything the year had to throw at me.
It also represented a clear change of pace from the often-hectic semester. Over time, however, the volume of summer work increased. The busyness crept deeper in July until things started all over again in August. Never have I felt this more acutely than the blur of last summer. It was a fairly dark period of the pandemic, and the news cycle was hard to keep up with, both because of its pace and because of the heaviness of things. This summer seems calmer in some respects, but many are still trying to catch their breath -- which makes it difficult to carve out time for planning.
For many, this August will mark the first full return to campus since March 2020. And with students and employees back on campus, some of the issues that have been percolating in the background of COVID could re-emerge with new ferocity. Other things have bubbled up, or intensified, because of the pandemic.
Now is the time to anticipate what the 2021-22 year might bring, both positive and negative, and to plan accordingly. Sometimes it feels impossible to pause, but, unlike with COVID, there are certain realities we know are coming, and planning for them before they arrive will help ensure we are prepared to handle them. In addition to COVID-related topics, like possible outbreaks, new variants and vaccine policies, here are some of the things I anticipate playing a more significant role in the year ahead.
I realize this is vague and broad, but with so many issues currently politicized, politics touches just about everything these days. Prepare for a more politically active and polarized student body to return to campus. Take care with language and responses. Be ready and scan for comments by, or attacks on, faculty members, administrators or students who have shared statements in either traditional or social media that are eliciting strong responses -- not to police their opinions, but to be ready to respond in some way if necessary. Do your research on guest speakers and honorary degree recipients -- again, not to limit viewpoints, but to make sure you’re prepared if the institution needs to defend or apologize for a misstep.
Ransomware attacks are on the rise generally, including in higher ed. And this one is particularly complicated because it has the potential (and is likely) to paralyze the communications channels we rely on to reach our audiences during an emergency. With an added layer of difficulty, it’s important to have a clear crisis plan in place, with backup methods of communication already set up and ready to be utilized. If this one hasn’t already been practiced as a tabletop drill or crisis team scenario, this is the summer to add it.
While specific events are a little less predictable, most areas of the country have been experiencing more extreme weather in recent years. Prepare for scenarios that may not have been likely a few years ago but are a possibility now.
Many experts have identified this period of the pandemic as the Great Resignation. People are expected to leave their current jobs, in all fields, in fairly high numbers, which means it’s unlikely that your institution, including your department, will be immune. Consider this fact when planning for the year and building project teams. The more collaborative you can be and the better internal communication you have, the easier position turnover will be.
The media landscape continues to be precarious. Shrinking newsrooms met the Trump administration’s endless barrage of news, and then a global pandemic hit, forcing additional journalist layoffs. The news cycle has slowed down a bit recently, but journalists continue to be stretched thin, and competition for op-ed space remains extremely high. Newer media like podcasts and newsletters, which tend to focus on niche topics, are gaining bigger audiences, but many on campus are still a bit skeptical of their worth. All this (and more) means the job of media relations professionals is also changing, and it’s on us to keep up with those changes, adapt and educate people on campus about both realistic expectations and the value of placements outside of top daily newspapers.
This list is not at all exhaustive. But most of what has been occupying my mind lately are issues that either weren’t on my radar when I first started in higher ed media relations or were such remote possibilities they rarely came up in serious planning. Today, it’s hard to ignore them.
Like many of you, I am looking forward to a more normal-feeling year -- and to visiting campuses again. For comms professionals, part of a return to somewhat normalcy is the dedicated time to plan for the upcoming year. Be sure to find time this summer to set yourself up for success.