Universities have moved on from the immediate crisis communications response, but the reputational challenges of on-going pandemic reputation management are no less complex, according to the latest W100 survey.

Colleagues in universities across the world have continued to contribute to our longitudinal survey, Taking the Temperature of the Crisis, with the latest results showing a strong shift towards future-focused engagement.

Much of the focus is now on clarifying plans for students and staff to return, gradually, to campus or some form of blended learning when the next terms/semesters start.

An Asian university indicated that its biggest focus was “Planning for Back to School communications.” Meanwhile, “The challenge is how to motivate prospective students as we do not know what the sanitary situation (and what kind of teaching) will be,” according to a European university.

The focus is also increasingly on supporting future student recruitment and external stakeholder engagement, whilst balancing the continuing need for clear, agile internal messaging.

Most respondents to the latest survey, covering the period up to the end of June, continue to report that their universities are impacted in a major way by the pandemic, but that they have been able to deliver consistently strong communications.

Focusing on the biggest challenges, one UK university described it as “Reducing focus on staff comms to accommodate prospective student comms; plus policy clarity on next academic year ahead of being expected to communicate on it.”

Many universities are reporting that they have been able to focus more on strategic communications. A UK university has “Established a comms framework for coordinated, scheduled comms across institutions.”  Another reports “shifting our campaign activity from coronavirus response to rebuilding.”

Financial challenges continue to be top of mind for many respondents. More than half the sample stated that they had suffered further budget restrictions, and most indicated that non-COVID-19 projects had been cancelled.

Turning to the main learnings from the latest period of pandemic response, many universities highlighted the challenges around continuing to maintain consistent, joined-up communications in an evolving environment.

Ensuring the effective engagement of institutional leadership remains a challenge, according to one European university who bemoaned the lack of senior team buy into comms recommendations including proactive and reactive response to issues and opportunities – “[we need a] swifter response and better tone of voice to meet audience needs, but Senior personal preferences take preference.”

Finally, many respondents reflected the toll that months of hard work are taking on reputation teams. “The biggest challenge is to keep going,” reflected one European university. “Are we going to be able to take holidays?”

We’re all aware that things are likely to get yet more complex before they get easier: so we hope everyone does manage to take some much needed time away before facing the next challenges.