A Candid Conversation Regarding Coronavirus, College Campuses, and Communications
In this episode of On Record PR, we go On Record with members of the Furia Rubel Communications team, including Gina Rubel, CEO, Sarah Larson, Executive Vice President, Jennifer Simpson Carr, Director of Business Development and Producer of On Record PR, Caitlan McCafferty, Public Relations Account Director, and Jayla Johnson, 2020 Drexel Co-Op Student and Public Relations Intern. We discussed coronavirus, college campuses, and the need for strategic communications. This episode was recorded in September 2020, four to six weeks after college campuses in the United States either reopened or announced that they would remain virtual.
One of the things that is interesting at Furia Rubel is we have now been working from home for six months. Zoom meetings are how we get together. Every morning we have a virtual conference, we check in, we have a status call, sometimes we laugh, and sometimes we support one another with whatever we need support with. We have been working in the coronavirus space since January. We have clients in 28 States and two countries, we have been working internationally as well as nationally and this for us as a corporate communications company. It is the first time any of us have had to deal with a global pandemic. We are not only dealing with our clients here in the U.S., but we were just recently on a call with a prospective client in Israel, and they were shut down for a second time. We are recording this, it is mid-September 2020, and none of us really know what to expect. One thing we do know is students are back to learning. Colleges went back in the last month in the U.S. middle schools, high schools within the last month, some even as recent as this week. Sarah, let’s start with you.
What are some of the things we are seeing because of college learning and coronavirus?
Such a broad question and a really great way to start Gina. One of the things that we are seeing and that we are all going to have to keep in mind as this moves forward is this is really becoming a region by region pandemic. The situation here in Pennsylvania, in the Mid-Atlantic area, is very different than the situation in Florida, in Alabama, in California and Arizona. The importance of making those local decisions on how to react, what to do, what procedures should be, everyone is sharing best practices, definitely but putting those into action has to be done at the individual school level, because the situation is just so different from school to school and area to area.
Jayla, you are just getting ready to go back to your third year at Drexel University. What is that going to look like for you this year?
We start classes on Monday, September 21st, and originally Drexel said that they were going to do a hybrid situation: 50% online and 50% in person. After multiple colleges decided to go online, they took the initiative as well and hopped on board. Right now, all fall term classes will be online. Campus is closed, but you can go on campus. Certain restrictions are there, masks are required and everyone that steps on campus must have had a COVID test.
How do you feel about virtual college classes?
I don’t really feel anything considering that our spring and summer terms took place online. It is interesting to see how colleges are going about this situation and dealing with the online learning, such as the Zooms, Microsoft Teams, and really adapting to what we all will now be dealing with for a long time. I have gotten used to virtual college classes.
Caitlan, what are some of your perspectives and experiences?
I think about this a lot because I went to a city school. I went to American University in Washington, D.C. They are shut down too this semester along with all D.C. schools. As Sarah was saying, we need to look at the situation regionally, like college is shut down when the public school systems shut down, it wouldn’t make sense to stay open when the school system, in the areas aren’t open either. I think you are seeing that in Philadelphia as well with Drexel and Temple. I also was a freshman when H1N1 was hitting the states. I have a bit of an experience and memories of quarantining in the dorm rooms and outbreaks being a concern when we were trying to go to class. I had friends getting quarantined in a hotel when they got the virus. I do think that colleges are specifically situated and prepared for these types of things. They do know on some level that dorm rooms are petri dishes for these types of things, whether it be coronavirus, the flu, mono, or any other contagion. As we look at it, as people get everything that’s been going on, as crisis communications professionals, colleges, and how they’re handling it and what they’re doing wrong and right, can really help us think about some of our clients and the corporate world and how businesses should model proactive communication and best practices moving forward.
The language that we use to describe these things is important as well. We wrote an article on the vocabulary of crisis and how Covid-19 has changed our language. We wanted to shed light on these things and the difference between an epidemic, which was H1N1 and a pandemic, which is something we have never experienced.
I agree with Caitlan that there has been some opportunity to learn from H1N1. I do not think any of us were prepared for this, but I mentioned that because Sarah took a lot of time to help educate our audiences.
Jennifer, you are the only one with very young, much younger children than some of us and some with no children. What is it like having an elementary school student at home while you are working?
Jennifer Simpson Carr
Challenging, is a fair way to put it. As a parent who has a young child, the summer was stressful because many opportunities were presented for learning as the school year came closer to starting whether it was all virtual, hybrid, or in person. Learning pods are becoming popular among middle and elementary school-age children. On top of day to day work and having our daughter home, we do have help. We’re very fortunate that we have help during the day with her, but there was a layer of stress added just to keep her busy and to keep myself and my husband educated on what these various options look like and where there would likely be the most success for someone her age. There are a lot of articles that were presented and continue to be published about the achievement gap and what that might look like in certain scenarios. Particularly in the type of learning that we chose for the fall. It was a stressful summer. Any choice parents make is the right choice for them. The teachers in our school, and our daughter’s teacher, are working hard to make this successful and ensure that all the children are doing the best that they can during this time.
What crisis communications and business advice do we want to share with listeners, whether it be the educators, the students, the families to deal with the pandemic?
The Bucknell Covid-19 Dashboard that you told us about, Gina, is an excellent example of how, as Caitlan alluded to earlier, over communication prevents more problems than anything else, giving people the data, showing them the information in charts, in graphs and numerically.
Demonstrate that you as an organization are dedicated to being transparent, to sharing what you are doing to keep the kids safe, to keep the employees safe, to keep the whole community safe. That is going to reassure people regardless of what the numbers are. I do not want to say completely regardless. I mean, Bucknell numbers are minuscule, right? 20,000 tests administered 16 cumulative positives. That is fantastic. As a parent, that would make me feel very comfortable with my kid being there and staying there. On the other hand, as we have seen some of the other numbers across the country region skyrocketing, that does not make me feel very comfortable.
One of the things I want to mention, and we may come back to this later, but nobody has alluded to it yet, is the importance to get out there. I am not at all worried about on campus. I am worried about off campus. I am not worried about the classrooms or frankly, even the dormitories. Yes, dormitories are petri dishes, but most college kids have strong immune systems if they are taking care of themselves. However, the off-campus parties, the bar crawls, that is where we are seeing these super spreader events. Once it gets a foothold, it is just astronomical growth. The universities are probably frustrated because they are doing everything they can to keep it off their campus, but they cannot always control things that are happening off campus. That’s the wild card.
You make a great point. That is the scary part when they all come home for their extended fall winter breaks and to see what happens then. It will be interesting. For example, Bucknell finishes mid-November. They take their finals at home virtually, and then will be home through early January. I am not sure about other parts of the U.S.
Jayla, many students apply for internships or co-ops different types of learning experiences. What would you advise them in terms of them or universities in getting ready for virtual work? What are some of the things you would say you need to be aware of?
- Be aware of your time management. You may think since you are home, you can do everything, but that is not the case, especially if you are planning on taking classes and taking a job.
- Get a planner, download Google calendar, and stay on top of everything.
- Reach out to your advisor and any company that you hope or plan to apply for and work for, reach out to them and let them know that this is your situation and you are trying to be a great asset to the team, but there are things that could happen.
- Hold yourself accountable.
- Do not be afraid to ask for help because we are all new to this. None of us are perfect.
- Take the opportunity to learn not only about yourself, but how companies are going about the situation. Then in the long run, you can maybe think, “Oh, I saw what this company was doing while we were in a pandemic. This is definitely a place I would like to work.”
Speaking of staying positive, we have written a blog on silver lining beyond coronavirus, we will be sure to link to that as well.
Caitlan, how about you? What advice do you have?
I echo what everyone said, but I forgot to mention that in addition to my own experiences in the past, I live with a nursing student. You must have patience with everything and especially the people like your daughter or my roommate who need some of those hands-on things and may be struggling with the labs or just some of those in school experiences that you don’t usually get. Just being patient and trying to help them stay as positive as they possibly can makes a difference. Also, understand that not every student is coming from the same experience, the same perspective, and some may be more frustrated than most. I was a history major, I can do that online, no problem. A nursing major needs to go to the hospital and do clinicals. It is a part of the program. It is a requirement of the degree. Everybody’s experience is going to look different at the end of this.
Jennifer, what tips do you have?
Jennifer Simpson Carr
Routine has been key for us. It is like what Jayla said in terms of time or project management. Right now, our daughter is hybrid, she is virtual three days and in school two days. Regardless of whether she is virtual or in school, we maintain the same schedule of waking up, when breakfast is held, when lunch and recess are held, and when breaks are held. I think that has helped her feel like there is a sense of normalcy and even though it is virtual school, it is still school. She is learning on an iPad that was provided by the school district. For us as parents, we have a sense of when we need to be available to help, provide a snack, provide lunch, or provide some outside time. This helps us as we are scheduling or going about our workday. Therefore, for us routine has been important. I can imagine for other families that might be something good to consider.
One of the thoughts that comes to my mind in terms of advice, and it ties in with what Sarah and Jennifer said, is that universities, the ones that have communicated well, have a routine with communications. Sarah, you talked about over-communicating as, did you Caitlin. I do not think you can over-communicate at a time like this. Our son, the district he is in have weekly communications as to what is happening and what is changing. I cannot say that I am one hundred percent pleased with everything because this whole situation can be frustrating, but I do know that they are doing their best. Knowing when you are getting that communication also cuts down on the number of people jumping to reach out to the university or the school and say, “well, what about this? and what about this?” because they are expecting to hear from you.
That regular communication really makes a difference, whether it is internal communications with your students, faculty, and administration or external communications with parents and students. I share that as one thing that came out of me listening to all of you. Another is the importance of providing resources for students, parents, and faculty on how to maximize the value of all the different platforms of your time, productivity, positivity, resilience, behavioral health, and all of those things that are often considered soft subjects. The third is that all these institutions need to update their crisis communications and incident response plans because they do not only need the A and B scenario. They need the, A, B, C, and D scenario.
As crisis communicators, we usually have an A and B scenario. I do not know that we have often gone into scenarios C, D, E, and F. We have a couple of clients who were relatively prepared for the coronavirus pandemic. One client is a senior living facility, another is a bank and banks are required to have pandemic plans, and the third client is a law firm that is headquartered in Louisiana and dealt with hurricane Katrina. We as a communications team have all learned from those clients, as well as helped them navigate these pandemic waters. What has been interesting, even with banks, is that they all have pandemic plans because they are required to, but who knew how to handle the Paycheck Protection Plan (PPP) loans and then the universities that had to communicate those things? To bring it back to universities, several that took loans received negative press, because they took loans that they did not really need due to endowments. Many universities did not communicate with their students or the payers, whether it is the parents or the students, on how those situations were being handled. It is really fascinating how many different spokes this conversation has and how many ways we can take it. When I was speaking with Devon earlier, she mentioned a quote that she wanted to share, and I thought this would be a good time to do that.
Jayla, what is the one thing we have been doing at the end of our morning meetings, our zoom meeting that has helped to bring us closer together?
It is important to know your team. We do get to know you questions where I will either think of a question or we will find a question to ask the team for example, “what is something you enjoy?” or “what are your hobbies?” It is a nice little break from the work world, and it is once again, a great way to know your coworkers on a personal level.
Even bringing those icebreakers into the classroom is important. Suddenly, you have all these people in a zoom classroom who you have never met before. Teachers need to take a little bit of time to let the students communicate together and get to know each other better through ice breaker activities or by playing zoom bingo.
Jennifer Simpson Carr
In addition to getting to know each other, especially with the work that we do, there are certain days where our team meeting conversations are heavy. We are dealing with crisis’s and incident responses that may be negative for a client. I look forward to that question at the end of our meetings, because regardless of how the conversation around our client’s work may have gone, I feel like it is a nice way to end the meeting with some smiles and laughter. Even if it is as simple as the favorite Netflix show question. It gives us a way to part for the day that is positive and feeling a little bit more lighthearted about the day and how it may go.
I do love the daily question and because my office is separate from where all of your offices used to be, and I say ‘used to be’ because we are now a fully virtual agency, I feel closer to all of you and it has really helped me to grow as well as learn different perspectives. Sarah, I am going to ask one more question because we are at about 45 minutes and we will start to wrap this up and I am going to ask everyone to answer this.
Sarah, what is one thing that you have taken away from this pandemic that you wish to share with universities? Whether it be the administrators or the students.
I have one for the colleges and I have one for anybody in K through 12 grade or in preschool. If you are still in high school, middle school, elementary school or preschool, especially the younger they are, stop worrying about the achievement gap. Our goals for 2020 are not the same goals as they were in 2019. My goal for my eighth-grade daughter is that she stays healthy, attached, and connected to her friends, even if she cannot be with them and that we do not kill each other. Anything above that is gravy. They are still learning, right? Especially the younger your kids are, do not expect them to sit in front of zoom all day and come out ready to do rocket science. It is just not going to happen, but it is not going to happen for anybody.
I tend to, as a parent think all that stuff comes out in the wash anyway, therefore do not worry about that. A little bit of a different story at the college level because we are all paying so much for the education. If you want me to keep paying you at the level of tuition that you have subscribed, then the students are going to need some services. As Devon said, everyone is learning to adapt. I truly and absolutely believe that crisis drives innovation. We are seeing changes because of this pandemic that will be with us as a generation. We are seeing societal and technological advances that would have taken 20 years or so to adopt. We have done it in six months and a lot of those changes are going to stay which is great. However, make sure you are harnessing those changes to deliver what you are being paid to deliver. If you’re not going to deliver them, then you should not have to pay for them.
That is a great point. It made me think about something that I feel is important to share. We as members of the community, whether we are parents, communicators, students, or former students need to help advocate on behalf of students at all levels. One of the challenges we have had is that the one educational institution our son really wants to go to has not formally announced whether or not the ACT and SAT are going to be required, they have not made them optional. That has created a lot of stress given the fact that the standardized tests were canceled three times, he showed up two additional times last month, and this past Saturday for both schools to just ‘close’. I did not tell you all that earlier this week. He still does not have his ACTs and we must continually, as parents, and the students need to advocate for themselves too do not get me wrong, reach out to admissions and ask these questions because it is becoming a challenge and it can be changing what their dreams are and if those dreams are achievable. I share that as my tip to universities. Please remember that you also are dealing with incoming students and you need to communicate to them, not just as students, but the paying students. If you want people to come to your university in the future, you need to communicate with your future. Universities are missing that mark big time right now
As we have seen both Devon and Jayla are examples of high achieving individuals who set their goals and know what they want. They are going to buy their planners and they are going to reach out to their teachers for academic support. Those students are going to be fine. It is going to be stressful, but they are going to be all right. On the other hand, there is a whole section of students in the middle and as Caitlan alluded to, individuals who do not have anywhere near the support that our families do. This could be a sink or swim moment for them and a lot of them are going to sink if they do not have some support.
Which also reminds me to say to universities, help these students get internships. It does not matter if it is virtual.
Jayla, you have learned quite a lot over the last few months. I know we certainly have learned a lot from you, and it goes both ways. What advice do you have?
Honestly, it is very simple, just breathe. I know that sounds crazy, but people are rushing. What are you rushing for? Yes, there are 24 hours in the day, but you need time to unwind and relax because if not, you will drive yourself crazy. You cannot say yes to everything or do everything. You need to take time to sit back, unwind, and relax however you may go about that. Also, hold yourself, universities, and teachers accountable. Like Sarah said, if we are paying X amount of college tuition then I expect things to happen, I expect a response, and I expect basically everything if I am paying for the education. Once again, just breathe do not stress over things you cannot control. You do not know what is going to happen tomorrow. This could all be gone, which is not possible, but it could happen. Stay positive and remain calm, cool, and collected.
This is a young woman wise beyond her years. I would have probably been one of those kids getting in trouble on campus and I feel for those parents.
Caitlan, what advice do you have?
My biggest advice for all industries, but especially college is, “is it working?” The way you are currently doing it, is it working and what can you change to make it better? I was a very single-minded high school student. ‘You are going to college, there is no other option, you are going to this school because you went to it and you loved it.’
My brother is very different and challenges my thinking on this all the time. He did not go to college, he got a certificate in his trade that he loves from the University of Pennsylvania, a great program. He took a different route. However, making other opportunities more available to people might be the new way education is going to look in the future. That does not necessarily mean you are going to go to school for four years. I think 2020 is going to be the year that we look back on and say, “Wow, look at everything that changed and not just remote working.” We need to ask if college classes really prepare people for the current universe that we are all living in and what do they need to change so it can?
Jennifer, what is your final piece of advice?
Jennifer Simpson Carr
A piece of advice is also something that has been a lesson learned for me. I always knew how critical communications were, but I see now more than ever, how confident communications instill confidence in others. Whether it is from your school, with communication on how they plan to proceed and why and data around that. Or your gym and what steps they are going to take to keep you safe. It is more apparent to me now more than ever, and I have been trying very hard to think about ways to apply this to the work that I do every day, how important it is to communicate clearly, communicate with data, and how much of an impact that can have on the recipients.
Two things I want to share, the first thing is, we have several other members of the team who are not on this call and they are the ones who do not typically deal with the crisis communications but I want to mention that we have other members of our team, nonetheless, who also contribute to our group think.
Each one of you brings a great amount of value to Furia Rubel. The other thing I want to share, and I want to make sure we share this and any other resources you all may have in the written transcript, yesterday I shared a video from MarieTV, ‘Holocaust Survivor Dr. Edith Eger on Choosing Hope, Love & Compassion Over Suffering’. If you all, have not watched it I recommend you do, and I recommend it highly to our listeners. All I could think about is how this woman, as a young person, was drugged to Auschwitz. Her mother was taken right in front of her and they said, “Oh no, she’s just going to take a shower”, I don’t need to tell you what happened and that night she was told by the prison guards to come and dance and it left me feeling ill.
What she [Dr. Edith Eger] said is, you do not ask “why me”, you ask, “what can I do?” If we choose to be positive and if we choose as corporate organizations such as universities and as individuals to say:
- What can I do?
- What did I learn from this?
- What is the new way of doing things?
- How can it be different?
- How can we innovate?
- How can we grow?
- How can we learn?
This is what I have heard from all of you. I want to thank each of you for what you contribute every day to Furia Rubel, to our clients, and to our growing friendships.
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Jennifer Simpson Carr
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