We have long been proponents of continuing to push good news -- within reason -- during a crisis. However, we need to re-examine what that looks like during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been and will continue to be a lengthy and multifaceted crisis, changing many things about higher education in the short term, and some things forever.
Despite the many competing priorities for communicators’ time while dealing with crises, our recommendations to campuses always include deliberately carving out space to also share examples of institutional strengths and excellence. Doing so serves multiple purposes, including reinforcing ways in which institutions are living their mission and reassuring audiences that good things are still happening. And, in the case of our current crisis, focusing on positive news is a much-needed distraction, source of hope and return to normalcy (however brief) for our communities.
But this advice has been harder to follow with COVID-19. This crisis is different, even as states reopen and people attempt to resume their lives. The depth and breadth of the ongoing crisis and coverage are unlike anything we’ve experienced, and there has been little opportunity to focus on anything else -- we’ve all been in survival mode, most of us for more than two months. This is true not only of communicators and journalists, but also of consumers of news.
In the midst of the trauma and change so many of us are trying to manage, it’s nearly impossible to process anything other than the most critical messages about our health, safety and financial concerns, all of which continue to shift as we get more information and data. (In fact, on a webinar we participated in, a reporter from Yahoo Finance said they were "not looking for stories that are not related to COVID yet.") At that point any nonessential news seemed aloof, out of touch, insensitive. Personally, we felt some of the messages that seemed to be too “business as usual” too early on were inappropriate and mistimed.
There’s a risk right now -- as some activities and services feel as if they are returning to pre-COVID status -- in not reading the moment and the needs of our audiences. Striking the right tone in this environment so that you’re providing the news you want to tell with what people (including journalists) need to know is challenging. And there is a possibility that missteps by pitching something that isn’t relevant or tasteful in this moment can impact PR professionals’ reputations and the reputations of the colleges they represent. However, that doesn’t mean we don’t suggest trying to find and share a positive.
As the country beings to reopen, we’re starting to identify signs that there are some appropriate circumstances for sharing good news -- both lighthearted stories meant to allow people to escape for a bit and those completely out-of-left-field “good news” stories. They have started to pop up in newscasts that just a few weeks ago did not include a single noncoronavirus story. (We kept track ourselves listening to NPR broadcasts and watching local news for hours, and noticed tweets from reporters that reinforced our experiences.) And we think there are starting to be more opportunities for good news, with a few caveats.
With media outreach, there needs to be more widespread recognition of the pressures facing journalists, including furloughs and job loss, skeletal staff for coverage, challenges of working from home (especially for broadcast journalists), a massive shift in all beats to focus on the COVID angle, and rapidly developing and evolving pandemic storylines. Our goal is to help media do their jobs easier by giving them content they need and staying on top of what they’re prioritizing for news -- and right now, while there may be more of an appetite for “normal” news than there was in April, COVID-19 is still the top story for every beat.
While we encourage finding pandemic-related hooks and angles, op-eds and story ideas should not be forced to fit if it doesn’t make sense. In order to help preserve relationships with reporters and editors, we need to hold on to some stories that we might have pushed out otherwise. We know people are feeling pressure to push forward-looking news, stories about engagement, enrollment, donations, etc., but outlets (and audiences) aren’t ready just yet.
We also need to be mindful of the difference between inspirational, positive news and self-serving updates; the perceived variance between the two is slight. Certainly, positive campus features help us remember some of the best of higher ed -- we need the uplifting reminders of what we all miss most about being together on campus. But we must also recognize that many of these are more appropriate to share internally.
With internal audiences, there is much more room for pushing these positive stories -- and the first wave of shifting back to some sense of normalcy with news will be within campus networks. Institutions need to continue fundraising efforts and maintain enrollment, and these stories play a role in meeting those critical institutional goals. We can -- and should -- be celebrating our recent graduates and student achievements, profiling campus and community members who are doing extraordinary things in these trying times and highlighting the work and accomplishments of professors. We need to re-examine campus newsroom functions and internal audience reception as it becomes more critical to shift to forward-looking news and opportunities for students.
As in any crisis, there are ways to appropriately push out positive news during the pandemic, but it must be in the context of this ongoing global event. There are competing priorities between what institutions want to tell -- good, positive news unrelated to COVID -- and what journalists and the general public have the ability and interest in processing right now. The already high bar has been raised on what is newsworthy, and now is the time to be creative and thoughtful.