An occasional blogpost from Lander Medlin, APPA’s Executive Vice President
COVID Communications with Diverse Stakeholders & Interest Groups
September 28, 2020 — As I open this week’s message, I want to mark with great sadness the news of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing on the evening of Friday, September 18. Justice Ginsburg, the second woman appointed to the prestigious bench, was a change-maker and force for social good. Her tireless efforts leading up to and throughout her 27-year service in the highest court of the land created an unparalleled legacy. She positively impacted millions of lives; not the least of all, MINE! She will be sorely missed!
In the past two weeks, the United States added 600,000 cases tragically cresting 7M, with the death toll surpassing a stunning 204,000. In fact, about 800 people are still dying daily. Although total U.S. cases had shown slight signs of slowing down, the nation’s daily count of new cases is climbing again, fueling worries of a resurgence of the virus as schools reopen and colder weather pushes people indoors. Our current baseline of 35,000-40,000 cases a day is too high. We may be in for an apocalyptic fall especially as the virus is spreading broadly now. It doesn’t matter where you live. Positive cases abound. It’s part of everybody’s life. The U.S. outbreak is poised to get worse, so don’t pin your hopes on a quick vaccine either. What can be done in the meantime?
We must unequivocally follow the 3 Ws: Wear a Mask; Wash your Hands; Watch your Distance and Box in the Virus through Strategic testing, Rapid contact tracing, Supportive of quarantine, and Effective Isolation. In addition, there are five actionable steps to share: 1) Accept the reality that no game-changing injection or pill is coming soon; 2) Plan, prepare for more closures or shutdowns; 3) Live like you’re contagious, paying particular attention to gathering indoors; (4) Build for the pandemic, especially with respect to indoor air quality; and 5) Hunt the virus through proactive detection and tracing.
Overall, rapid testing may indeed become a deliverable soon. The debate over a vaccine heightens. As such, public confidence is plummeting. With nearly 80% of Americans thinking the vaccine approval process is being rushed. This prompted experimental vaccine developers, Moderna and Pfizer, to release the full rule books for their blind studies. YES, transparency! And, everything I read emphasizes that independent scientists and health experts will review the data from the trials and make separate and distinct science and health based determinations. And, yes, the CDC updated its guidance again regarding pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic testing given its significance in transmission. The CDC also removed guidelines saying coronavirus can spread from tiny air particles. Frustrating capitulations for sure!
Economically speaking, unemployment claims held nearly steady at a still elevated 870,000; remaining historically high amid the pandemic despite summer hiring. It’s still a level five times higher than pre-pandemic. Stocks extended losses and U.S. oil prices slid as investors see dwindling prospects for a new stimulus package. Consumer confidence slowed in mid-September, marking a loss in momentum and threatening to derail whatever momentum the economy has. As a result, the Federal Reserve expects to leave interest rates near zero through at least 2023.
Education’s reopening plans remain shaky and unstable with senior leaders facing very difficult decisions daily; evidenced by the latest Big 10 decision to NOW play football as early as October 23rd. For the moment, most campuses haven’t completely gone to remote instruction. In fact, out of nearly 3000 colleges, 10% are fully online; only 4% are fully in person; and 3% are undetermined. So what about the two interventions of face mask compliance and regular comprehensive testing? Face mask compliance, at least on campus, is the new normal. It’s captured well in this slogan, “Mask up or Pack up!” Comprehensive testing plans include testing pre and upon arrival, random selection thereafter, and pooling, along with 24-hour assessment of building waste water effluents. This one is captured in this slogan “Write your plan with logic and adjust for emotion!” Then, the motto “We proceeds me!” speaks to the criticality of an appeal to student’s responsibility to their community by their diligence. This slogan captured it nicely, “Protect the hive!” Frankly, I’m all for whatever helps us all make it through the semester with few or manageable COVID-19 cases.
During our Town Hall two weeks ago, we addressed the overall content of the latest “Membership Reopening Challenges & Lessons Learning Survey” and spent time identifying the results along with an advisory panel who shared experiences relating to each of six survey topics: Move-Ins; Testing; Contact Tracing; Quarantine & Isolation; Signage/ Wayfinding; and Dining/Food Services. Therefore, as schools manage their many and varied reopening strategies and in light of the open-ended, written responses from this survey, you clarified the need for more advice and guidance on communications strategies others have employed.
To this end, each panelist shared a “case study” on their institution’s approach to reopening and how they orchestrated their communications and messaging around a particular topical area with their many and varied constituency groups. They discussed what they have learned as a result which included their successes and failures, recommendations and advice for future efforts.
- Tom Becker, P.E., Associate Vice President for Academic and Research Facilities at Thomas Jefferson University
- David Brewer, Director of Building Services for Infrastructure, Planning, and Facilities at Michigan State University
- Tony Ichsan, Director of Facilities at Whitman College
- John Morris, P.E., APPA Fellow, Vice President for Facilities Management at the College of Charleston
Tom provided a deep dive on what Thomas Jefferson is doing with respect to their overall reopening approach and communications messaging for testing, tracing, quarantine and isolation at a Med-Ed institution. David focused on Michigan State University’s overall operational COVID communications strategies through the lens of their internal and external purposes. Tony delved into the Social Justice and Town-Gown Issues that Whitman College has experienced and what he learned from his previous role in Portland. John highlighted what the College of Charleston is doing with its various communications’ vehicles with great care and concern to the College’s overall marketing and branding strategy.
Highlights from this Town Hall gleaned from our panelists’ case studies follow:
- Major obstacles to effective decision-making encompassed scale, variation and audience, university culture, structures, changing national and international landscapes, and expectations.
- To coordinate the planning and operational activities for internal stakeholder communications, MSU designed and implemented a system of centralized decision-making dedicated to making policy and procedural recommendations for senior leadership approval. Representing over 250 people, this approach required a new structure for organizing information-sharing entailing both structured agenda-driven meetings and open forum Q&A sessions. MS Teams, OneNote, and SharePoint were utilized for centralized data collection, record gathering, and information sharing.
- Introducing a centralized decision-making approach in a normally decentralized institutional environment brings new and changing expectations with respect to cultural norms and ways of doing business. As such, they focused on the use of consistent, repetitive communications from senior leadership through multiple mediums (emails, videos, live events, website, social media, and a university external hotline).
- Recognize the importance of managing internal stakeholder anxiety and fears but don’t underestimate the sheer volume of activity associated with developing new structures. Balancing informational and emotionally supportive messaging in the same forums is extremely difficult to do especially if you are slow to start your communication structure.
- With respect to external stakeholder communications, it is important to foster a sense of safety and security. Careful alignment with the institutions branding campaign is essential. Use multiple forums for communications especially Town Halls and fireside chat opportunities that can also positively impact your Town-Gown relationships.
- Utilizing a single point of contact institutional email address drives and contains inquiries and coordination of messaging. People feel heard, and you can simultaneously manage both informational and emotional needs. All should receive a response.
- It is important to set clear expectations for various external stakeholder groups although difficult given the anticipated volume. However, email responses and videos can be utilized to deliver consistent, unchanging, or fixed decisions. It’s the ever-changing decisions that prove difficult to gain penetration in different environments and with varied stakeholders.
- At best, attempting to gain shared ownership and buy-in of responsibilities by external stakeholders can be difficult. It takes clear, concise, and repetitive communications across multiple mediums and over time. Dictating things usually fails to foster buy-in, but at times is unavoidable.
- Three takeaways for operational communication strategies: 1) Build structures early on and hold people to them. It’s really an organizational culture issue when you are departing from existing, normal cultural standards so a lot of structure is needed. Ultimately, changing your communications and decision-making approach means changing your structure. 2) Build a “Maven Trap” (taken from Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point) by establishing a single point of contact that allows you to share consistent messaging that can be echoed across multiple mediums. Other people become a “force multiplier” for your messages. 3) Fully utilize your institution’s academic expertise and practitioners. They can also effectively amplify your message.
- With respect to social justice issues, it is important to allow students and others in your community to speak out, identify their perspectives and discontentment. Institutions certainly have the opportunity to identify time, place, and manner. Engage in frequent and productive dialogue ensuring your Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) Office is in the forefront of the institution’s issues.
- Find and balance opportunities to celebrate both positive and naturally sorrowful events.
- Ensure support and other coping mechanisms (e.g., counseling, Employee Assistance Programs/EAP) exist for students and staff.
- Establish awareness and a process for handling “hate groups” (i.e., identifying, tracking, removing stickers and fliers) to combat inequity and non-inclusive behavior.
- With respect to Town-Gown issues, connect with your surrounding community officials and agencies, especially where you might share needs and resources. Engage senior leadership in open forums and Town Halls with the community at large to stem emotions surrounding potential COVID exposure by students. Be vigilant and intentional. Use a variety of different communication mediums and formats. All this effort further builds the relationship and fosters trust.
- Community pledges that extend beyond the campus sends the message of broad based interest and commitment to the surrounding community. This can foster a spirit of “joint enforcement,” thereby reinforcing the idea that “we’re on the same page working from the same plan.”
- Town-Gown issues are as much about managing perceptions as they are the substance of problems or issues.
- Partner with academic and student affairs, and the institution’s marketing department to set expectations that will amplify your message(s). Remember, signage should just be a reminder of expectations and directions. Building liaisons are great communicators of your messages as well.
- Use campus and local communication vehicles (social media posts, newsletters, articles, websites, local newspapers, and radio/TV news) to highlight your efforts and recognize your frontline maintenance and custodial staff.
- Preparing a facilities operational start-up checklist is a must to keep all details in the forefront and on track. Use metrics and dashboards to drive decisions.
- Develop protocols for quarantine and isolation with step-by-step procedures for housekeeping, facilities, and dining services. Communicate accordingly.
- In working with residence life/housing, use software tools (like StarRez) to track and coordinate cleaning and disinfection of isolation and quarantine spaces. Others have effectively placed visual clamshell lock covers on rooms to indicate available clean units that are visible at the point of service. Provide a QR code with a link for occupants to make necessary or emergency requests. Be flexible with your plans. You cannot and will not think of everything.
- Go on campus “walkabouts” to collaborate with peers, meet customers, and interact with students. Model appropriate behaviors, handout masks, and demonstrate social distancing. Offer encouragement by catching people doing the right thing rather than focusing on punishment. Educating and informing demonstrates we’re in this together.
- In most cases, students do what other students do. Utilize student ambassadors or monitors to model acceptable behaviors, and as educational agents to support compliance pathways.
- Do as much as you can to help everyone feel part of the solution.
- Taking advantage of an academic and research arm of a major health system (like Jefferson) allowed use of their cutting-edge expertise. Do so where you can locally.
- Since Jefferson has a critically important experiential component (30%) within their academic programming, they learned from the rapid move to totally on-line in the spring that an early decision to go with a hybrid model would be more prudent and beneficial. That decision drove their academic and operational decision-making.
- Develop focused communication tools for different stakeholders but interrelate each against your collective goals for success.
- Develop training slide presentations for all staff and stress staff importance as the tip of the spear or the red-line to your institution’s success.
- Determine, where possible and feasible, actually closing off campus to visitors. It can work given Jefferson’s perspective that it was critical to control who and what was going in and out of their buildings. It may be a tough sell to the surrounding community, but it can be done with early and appropriate notifications.
- If you have an Attestation of Conduct or Behavioral Pledge, it should carry consequences for intentional ignorance. If so, it’s critical to demonstrate follow-through.
- Testing intentions and delivery are evolving so keep on top of it even as guidelines, testing kits, and/or apparatus change. It’s critically important to have a comprehensive plan in place that is tracked, monitored, traced, and well-managed. Make testing as easy, accessible, and non-invasive as possible. Pay close attention to HIPAA regulations.
- Balancing transparency and abiding by HIPAA regulations is difficult. It was suggested to draw the line between public announcement of who has tested positive as identified through an institution’s surveillance testing system and the private tracking by the Health Center/Department’s required efforts for contact tracing and referrals, and diagnostic testing.
- Stay connected with staff using remote meeting formats. Take that opportunity to teach the use of these tools to encourage greater proficiency.
- Start planning now for the spring semester. Use these lessons learning to make course corrections and communicate them early and often to all stakeholders.
- Recognize that Facilities Management plays a critical role in promoting student success requiring a strong partnership, communicating with transparency, and demonstrating our capability as subject matter experts. As such, be an active participant in your campus forums and Town Halls. Be especially prepared with answers and solutions concerning your major responsibility areas.
- Make sure your tone of communication promotes that sense of confidence, compassion, and resilience. It reduces anxiety and angst.
- Remember to focus on YOUR health to successfully weather a COVID experience and the winter flu season.
One of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s famous quotes was: “Fight for the things that you care about. But do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”
Now, I connect to last Sunday’s Emmy Awards when Mark Ruffalo won for I Know This Much To Be True, which is about family, specifically a brother he fights for with mental illness. That night he said, “How are we going to heal? We must honor and care for others; being vulnerable by touching one another with love, compassion, and kindness; fighting for those that cannot fight for themselves.”
Finally, fast forward to last Wednesday night’s America’s Got Talent. The million-dollar winner this year was an English teacher, a poet – and a special kind of poet. The thing that touched America was the empathy, pain, and love he so beautifully expressed through his words.
Words are powerful. Use them to love. Use them to soothe. Use them to heal.
· September 25 APPA Town Hall Recording
· Infographic & Reopening Challenges & Lessons Learning Survey RESULTS
· Register for Future Town Halls
E. Lander Medlin
APPA Executive Vice President