An astute 1930’s era American actress by the name of Dorothy Sarnoff, (who I’ll admit I’ve never heard of before until now), once commented, “…make sure you’ve finished speaking before your audience has finished listening.” It’s undeniably good advice, but when are students are being bombarded 24-7 via Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Email, Instant Messaging and even good old fashioned snail mail, what can we do, as student affairs professionals, to make sure our messages – especially the most important ones – are getting through?
Within my own department earlier this year, we asked ourselves this very question, and in doing so, we developed and employed a simple three-step plan aimed at not only enhancing, but streamlining, our communication practices to benefit both our staff and students.
Step 1: Review
As simple as it sounds, step one is reviewing and assessing the current state of play. Conduct a matrix style communication audit – list what tools are in use, their purpose, and their strengths and weakness. Simultaneously consider what analytical or metric data is available that could assist in determining their effectiveness (think: number of followers and level of engagement and interaction). In some cases, this may mean identifying where data is NOT being collected or tracked at all.
Step 2: Research
Step two is jumping into research mode, investigating three key areas – 1) communication theory, 2) best practice in the higher education sector and 3) practical application – in other words, what are your student cohort’s needs or preferences? An abundance of literature is available regarding current communication trends, and having a basic understanding is critical to developing and implementing your own department’s communication strategy. A great starting point is the often comprehensive research produced and marketed by large communication companies, including Google, Apple and many mobile phone providers.
Examining best practice within the higher education sector is also helpful. The easiest way to do this – pull out the address book and draw on all those connections you’ve made in the industry. Find out what channels they’re using, what’s worked, what hasn’t, and what they’ve got planned. Personally I’m a big fan of not reinventing the wheel – so if something has worked elsewhere, it’s worth exploring to see whether the same principles can be applied in your own department.
The final piece of the puzzle is looking inward at your own student community and exploring, through surveys or focus groups, what forms of communication they most value (think: what grabs their attention!) and what new initiatives they might welcome. In some cases, it might be as simple as a more coordinated approach rather than the addition of new channels (and subsequently more work for staff!).
Step 3: Reinvigorate
Having obtained the research and data on what works (and what doesn’t!), and an understanding of your student cohort’s preferences, it’s time to map out the final step in the process – reinvigoration. Whilst the look of your ultimate departmental communication strategy will vary and involve a range of communication channels, it’s worthwhile ensure your final plan ticks the following four boxes:
1. Is it accessible? At least one of the communication channels used should be easily accessible and mobile – think Facebook, You Tube or a specialized App.
2. Is it interactive? The information you present whenever possible should be interactive and engaging – students want to play an active role in communication, as authors or blogs on media sites, or at the very least, conversing and interacting through the mediums they use.
3. Is it responsive? Students are captivated with online media – they’re savvy and demanding users, and they expect communication to be relevant, up to date and responsive. Have you included a communication channel which provides a speedier response to student enquiries?
4. Is there balance? Whilst online communication is the undeniable go-to in this day and age, it’s still important to find a balance between technology and face to face interaction. Take into consideration what other channels you can employ to communicate with your student cohort – be it through a regular ‘open house’ forums, committees, front desk staff, or your student leadership teams.
Communicating effectively is certainly no easy task – but taking into consideration some of the above will hopefully help to ensure there is a strategy behind the channels you’re employing to get the important messages across. Of course, once you’ve got your audience listening to what you have to say, then you have to think about how you’re going to keep them – and that’s another long and lengthy blog altogether!
What are your thoughts on effective communication? And what hints and tips would you provide on the channels and mediums which work best – and the ones to avoid!