How a college’s spirit—and spirituality—came forth amid the pandemic

At Wheaton College in suburban Chicago, the brand journalism team pivoted its storytelling to connect alumni and administrators, students and faculty, and the community at large.

An academic community extends far beyond the school’s physical campus, as the adaptations necessitated by COVID-19 have made crystal clear.

When the pandemic hit, my Wheaton College teammates and I had to adapt our brand journalism strategy to reflect the changes that had altered the social landscape almost overnight.

With students suddenly gone from campus and the institution’s energy focused on the transition to online learning, plowing ahead as normal would be tone-deaf—potentially alienating internal storytelling partners and losing an opportunity to appeal to prospective students, whose interest and enrollment are essential to the bottom line.

We chose to add value by providing our client-facing colleagues in admissions, development and alumni relations with compelling content that answers the question: “What are you doing about COVID-19?”

Our solution was to develop “COVID-19: Wheaton Responds,” a content hub focused on COVID-19 storytelling. Here’s how we did it:

Curate materials that tell your brand story.

As an initial step, we curated existing content that communicates Wheaton’s brand personality and demonstrates its relevance amidst the crisis.

For example, thrice-weekly chapel services are a hallmark of the student experience at Wheaton, the country’s leading Christian liberal arts college. We posted videos of talks on themes that provide encouragement and inspiration, especially those that highlight the pastoral voice of our president.

A TED-like series produced with faculty speakers yielded short videos on topics like community, positive psychology and endurance, which emphasize Wheaton’s intellectual and spiritual leadership.

We also gathered and amplified content that professors had created independently. A professor in the Biblical and Theological Studies department wrote a compelling opinion piece published in The New York Times arguing that staying home was a way for Christians to love and serve our neighbors.

Another wrote daily devotionals reflecting on fear, anxiety, isolation and suffering. Playful movie trailers made by professors previewing their newly online courses offered lighter content to balance the serious themes.

Curating this content on our hub, and promoting it through social media, helped us to stay top of mind in relevant and valuable ways.

Focus on the people who live your brand story.

For high-touch organizations like educational institutions and nonprofits, the people who live your story—in our case, faculty, staff, students and alumni—are essential to your brand.

My colleagues and I identified people we knew through our various networks, and we categorized ways they were living the college’s mission: as experts, educators, inspirers, multitaskers and more.

Those themes created a framework for profiles of leaders whose voices shaped national and international conversations, professors who reconfigured studio art classes for digital delivery, writers and thinkers whose work offered light and hope, faculty families who balanced the new demands of life under lockdown, and alumni who worked to heal patients and to develop a vaccine.

Our goal for these stories was to extend the Wheaton College experience for our audiences—especially our students, now spread around the world—by reminding them that our campus ethos transcends place. We worked to invite prospective students to consider joining our community, to encourage the donors who invest in it, and to engender pride in the alumni who proudly claim it.

We accomplished these aims by telling the stories of people who, whether they know the term or not, serve as brand exemplars—and by giving brand advocates a way to quickly reinforce that message by sharing reflective, empowering content on social media channels.

Emphasize your positive contributions amid the chaos.

The tragic circumstances caused by the pandemic, though unwelcome, provided an opportunity to demonstrate Wheaton College’s contributions to our local community. Write-ups about agreements the college made with local health officials and first responders to quarantine personnel in empty residence halls landed positive earned coverage, and the county health department featured a biology professor’s donation of unused masks on its social media channels.

Although we didn’t take those actions with the goal of gaining positive attention, they reminded our community that we seek to be good neighbors.

On a larger scale, we highlighted the unique work of influential academic centers like the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center and our Humanitarian Disaster Institute. These centers shifted to a higher-than-usual gear, rapidly creating spiritual and psychological resources, convening digital conferences, and producing training content to help the helpers. Our team’s pitching and reporting on their work demonstrated that our academic mission serves a hurting world.

So far, our efforts have paid off. A third of the traffic to the hub has come from new users, and 70% of visitors went on to consume additional content. Anecdotally, client-facing employees have thanked us for generating content that helped them connect with their audiences.

No communicator wishes for the instability and devastation of a worldwide pandemic. However, as with any crisis, even unwanted circumstances can provide an opportunity for PR practitioners to sensitively and responsibly tell their brand’s story. In this case, our task was to demonstrate that our institution is what it claims to be—even under challenging circumstances.

LaTonya Taylor is a PR practitioner in suburban Chicago.

Looking for more insights on crisis response? Join Ragan’s Crisis Leadership Board to network with peers and learn the latest best practices.

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2 Responses to “How a college’s spirit—and spirituality—came forth amid the pandemic”

    Ronald N. Levy says:

    Good luck to the dedicated collegiate leaders who want to tell a “brand story” about Covid-19, and to political leaders who say that burning down shopping centers is “unwarranted, intolerable and unacceptable.” But in addition it’s time for one of the great PR firms to volunteer a team to write write speeches that say:

    “I can’t breathe!”

    Recent college graduates with college loan debts but no jobs and no money, they are thinking “I can’t breathe!” A suddenly unemployed single mother who needed her job in the burned-down shopping center so she could buy food for her children, she’s feeling “I can’t breathe!”

    The store-owner who lost almost all his life savings–all those yeas of hard work–because of arsonists and violent looters, he wants the rioters to know “Please I’m begging you! I can’t breathe!”

    Many parents, customers and neighbors also feel they can’t breathe. A volunteer PR firm can help with this.

    The National Guard has a role but so does PR.

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