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Crisis messaging: how universities are communicating the pandemic

An analysis of written communications related to COVID-19 at colleges and universities in China, Canada, and the United States during the first six months of the pandemic.


Almost exactly a year ago, on January 21, 2020, a university in Southern China issued new health guidelines to protect students and teachers from a strange new virus that was rapidly spreading. The message was sent via the school’s official WeChat social media channel just hours after China’s National Health Commission confirmed the human-to-human transmission of the new disease. Forty-eight hours later and some 9,500 km away, a university in Saskatchewan issued a notice about a novel coronavirus and urged its faculty and staff to avoid travel to Hubei province, China, the center of the outbreak. Four days later, a public research university in Tennessee updated students about an ongoing coronavirus outbreak in China but assured them there were no reports of cases on campus. By the end of the month there would be almost 10,000 confirmed cases worldwide and over 200 dead.

Few corners of the globe have been left untouched by the devastation of the pandemic, which has claimed nearly two million lives and infected more than 75 million at the time of this writing. Higher education is no exception. In an attempt to understand how universities communicated to their communities during this crisis, our research team analyzed over 600 written communications related to COVID-19 at 27 colleges and universities in China, Canada, and the United States during the first six months of the pandemic.

These were emails and website updates sent from chancellors, presidents or public safety officers to students, faculty and staff. As we combed through the messages, we asked ourselves some questions: How did higher education institutions inform their communities during this once-in-a century pandemic? What efforts were they taking to protect campus health and contribute to public health efforts? How did they reassure anxious students? Our analysis is ongoing, but we share some highlights of our research below:

All universities communicated their crisis response in three phases: pre-, ongoing and post-crisis

Chinese universities reacted quickly to the outbreak of the pandemic during the winter vacation in late January 2020. They postponed the reopening of campuses for the spring semester and maintained strict health measures guided by national and provincial guidelines until mid-May, when the curve had been flattened and new daily infections had fallen to single digits. The first COVID-related messages from U.S. and Canadian universities came in late January and warned of a new virus emanating from Wuhan. Campus leadership mostly reassured students that threats from the virus were unlikely, as public health officials monitored the situation and suggested common-sense health measures like regular hand-washing. Universities began to progressively restrict travel, first from China and then from other virus hotspots. With few or no cases locally or on campus, there was hope that the virus might be contained.

This cautious optimism of the pre-crisis period was shattered on March 11 when the World Health Organization declared the crisis a pandemic. Following the announcement and with guidance from national and local health authorities, U.S. and Canadian administrators began sending students home and steadily restricting campus access as local case counts began to rise. Community members would have received a flurry of messages around this time that told of shuttered research labs and how to continue their learning online. Universities pivoted, forming crisis management teams and announcing neatly phased reopening plans, mirroring some of the efforts of cities, provinces and states. Many also found ways to help their communities, from working on COVID-19 treatments and rapid testing to manufacturing personal protection equipment and ventilators.

By June 2020, the end of our study period, it appeared that China might be nearing the end of the crisis period and Canadian and U.S. institutions could follow by the fall semester. China had succeeded in flattening its curve following its initial outbreak and university leaders began bringing students back to campuses in mid-May. After appointing COVID task forces, U.S. and Canadian institutions proposed phased reopening plans for summer and fall 2020.

However events since the end of our six-month period have shown that no country or higher education system in our study has entered a post-crisis phase. As cases surge around the globe even as new vaccines offer some hope, Chinese university leaders remain vigilant while public health officials maintain aggressive health measures to keep new outbreaks at bay. Canada faces a winter surge of COVID-19 cases and new lockdowns, and the United States continues to set grim new records for deaths and new infections.

What happens nationally will necessarily affect reopening plans of institutions. In Canada and the United States, universities walked back fall reopening plans and paused implementing task force recommendations. For most universities, even those who welcomed students back to campus, instruction is still online or a hybrid of in-person and online learning, according to the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College which tracks university responses to pandemic.

University responses were characterized by varying degrees of decentralization and reference to government guidance

What is striking is that every university, even large public institutions in authoritarian political environments, communicated a slightly different crisis message tailored to its communities. And even as students, staff and faculty watched national and international news or received instructions from their governments, they also looked to their places of learning and their employers for guidance.

All institutions looked to public health guidance from different levels of government. Chinese universities referred to guidance from the central government, while Canadian and U.S. institutions referenced local, provincial and national guidelines, along with guidance from the World Health Organization. Institutions in all three countries instituted steadily more restrictive measures as the situation worsened, such as shifting courses online, sending students home or extending vacation. In spite of a famously decentralized national response to COVID-19, U.S. school leaders undertook similar measures to contain the virus in the early going.

As the crisis and scientific understanding evolved, university responses changed, too, often with uncomfortable results. Two U.S. universities, following the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control early in the pandemic, advised students not to wear face masks: “If you are well, the CDC does not recommend wearing a mask to prevent catching illness.” In Canada, one university assured its students that the “consensus of international health experts is that the risk for Canadians is low.” We cite these examples not to shame any one institution, but to point out how quickly the crisis evolved and public health guidance changed; universities were stuck in the middle, communicating shifting public health recommendations to their communities.

All institutions made various emotional appeals in their written communications

A crisis provokes not only physical danger but also psychological danger. Frequently these emotional appeals were meant to reassure anxious students and remind wary faculty that their schools would survive the pandemic together. In China, while nearly all universities acknowledged the health and safety of every community member, some used more appealing quotes to trigger the emotion of collectivism and social responsibility. For example, one Chinese institution called on its community to “Protect life with life, light life with hope, and fulfill promise with action.” Another Chinese university urged its campus: “Let us unite and help each other to fight for the final victory of such a war without gunpowder.”

North American universities similarly relied on emotional appeals in their messaging. In Canada, one urban research university informed its community in late April that, “These are truly unprecedented and challenging times for all of us both professionally and personally.” As the crisis worsened and schools steadily restricted on-campus activity, leaders often thanked the community for their endurance and patience. Often these messages reflected the culture of the schools and sometimes the particular personality of their leaders. For example, the president of a small U.S. liberal arts college wrote in an email: “You made history. You’ve shown everyone just how resilient and adaptable you could be.” The leader of one Canadian institution was moved to near poetry when she reminded students to “instill optimism for the future, and shine a light on what is possible when we as a community come together.”

Our work is ongoing, but our analysis shows some surprising divergence and convergence of university responses and messaging across countries and political systems. Guided by different public health guidelines, all universities tailored their crisis communication to the physical and psychological needs of their communities and demonstrated an awareness of their responsibility to care for their communities in face of a crisis unparalleled in recent memory.

By underscoring the importance of crisis communications, we hope our findings can inform future university responses to this crisis — and whatever the next crisis will be. How leaders communicate to their constituents during a crisis, especially in the face of incomplete and rapidly shifting public health information, can be every bit as important as the crisis response itself.

Michael O’Shea is a PhD student and Leping Mou is a PhD candidate at the department of leadership, higher education, and adult education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. They gratefully acknowledge support from the University of Toronto COVID-19 Student Engagement Award that made their research possible, and the support of tireless collaborators at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Ross Aikins and Lu Xu.

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  1. Mark Mercer / January 20, 2021 at 13:36

    What struck me about the messages my university sent was the bad writing and the self-congratulatory tone. Particularly in the early months, the messages were rife with grammatical errors and stylistic infelicities. Well, most public communication at my university is poorly written. The bad writing during this health crisis, though, led to confusion. Were classes cancelled for the week or are we to conduct them remotely? May we use our offices or not? Self congratulation, likewise, is far from unknown in public communications at my university. Yet, during the early days of the pandemic, the tone of the messages gave us the impression more of public relations than public service.