It’s hard enough to start a new job when there isn’t a pandemic sweeping the world, but starting your new comms job remotely when you’re supposed to be on a college campus has additional challenges. Most campuses are tight knit communities and full of opportunities to see scores of professors and students each day, as well as other seasoned staffers.
When I worked in media relations at the College of the Holy Cross, my office was in the campus center—where everything happens. It was an ideal location for someone in communications. I couldn’t even go to the ladies’ room without having five hallway conversations. I always looked at these discussions as a good way to mine for stories, but I did occasionally find myself in the weeds talking about Jersey Shore or Keeping up with the Kardashians.
Times have changed. Now entire campuses are at home trying to keep a community alive, online.
For anyone starting a new job in a campus communications department during a pandemic, doing so remotely can seem impossible. You need to know everyone on campus, and yet you haven’t been able to meet most of them. How are you supposed to work with them to story mine, media train, and pitch reporters? Here are few tips to get you started.
1) Set realistic expectations.
Be realistic about what you can accomplish at home, since you are probably juggling other responsibilities such as homeschooling children or taking care of elderly parents or relatives. Most likely you’ve been thrown right into communications surrounding COVID-19 and what is happening on and off campus to media, students, staff, parents or alumni. Offer support where and when you can to these communications, but also be on the look out for stories that are coronavirus related, such as things your community is doing to help in the fight, or faulty experts who can weigh in on different areas of the pandemic, whether from the medical side, safety issues, or from an economic standpoint.
2) Get out there (virtually).
You can’t meet colleagues, staff or faculty in person right now, but you can have a quick phone call or Zoom call to introduce yourself and learn more about areas of expertise and responsibility as staff members. Are there new or interesting things they are doing for students working remotely that you might be able to pitch? These answers may good way to introduce yourself to members of the media as well, especially since not all reporters are not covering their traditional beats. . Many are jumping in to help colleagues and others in the newsroom. Be mindful that layoffs are impacting journalists as well. Do your research before pitching or reaching out; you don’t want to pitch someone that has just been laid off, but you can send them a message of support. Reach out to reporters with only the intention to introduce yourself, or to let them know you liked an article they just wrote; this is an easy way to start building a relationship.
3) Take the time to listen and sit in on class.
Faculty are adapting rapidly right now, and changing courses to meet online needs. Try to sit in on a Zoom class or two to learn more about faculty expertise or hear student experiences. Many faculty are incorporating the pandemic into classwork, so you might find another angle to pitch. You may also hear valuable information about what students are going through, which can help improve communications needs in your office. You aren’t going to be pitching anything unrelated to COVID-19 for quite a while, so look for what you can pitch connected to the pandemic that still advances your institution’s priorities.
4) Ask to shadow colleagues and others.
Start by asking to shadow some of your colleagues through Zoom or on the phone, to learn daily routines and more about the campus. Try reaching out to other departments to better understand how they work with communications and learn more about other aspects of the campus. It may also be helpful to reach out to your counterparts at other colleges and universities to see how they are handling the crisis. Be sensitive of everyone’s situation, which is always important but especially now since people could be sick or dealing with other responsibilities.
Starting a comms job during a pandemic won’t be easy. But one of the perks of working at a college is the instant community that will surround you and will help you through tough times, whether you are there in person or virtually.