In normal times, every other Wednesday morning, dozens of campus communicators supporting colleges, schools and other units meet to discuss common challenges and share news from their areas. The communicators tell the good stories that abound on Wayne State’s campus.
But these aren’t normal times.
Since early April, the communicators have met remotely every Wednesday at 9 a.m. in an attempt to stay connected during these unprecedented times. The coronavirus pandemic forced everyone to work from home, presenting new challenges for the communicators.
Associate Vice President of Marketing Carolyn Berry, who manages the meetings, felt coming together virtually every week was a good way to stay connected and support the new communication challenges posed by the pandemic.
“We have found the increased frequency of our meetings to be a great opportunity to share best practices and peer training,” Berry said. “The communicators have stepped in to help with a variety of engagements that are now virtual. The weekly connection offers opportunities to talk about the pros and cons of new technologies, review metrics and celebrate successes.”
Berry said she thinks the weekly meetings offer greater engagement for communicators. “One benefit of our additional meetings is the personal connections. As a community of marketing professionals, we are typically highly engaged on campus — meeting with faculty, students and staff to create stories and share the good news of WSU. Frequent connections, even virtually, provide an outlet for us to build community and celebrate our WSU pride.”
Jessica Archer, associate director of marketing and communications for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, knew immediately that the new communications landscape presented unique ways to perform the work of a communicator.
“When we first went remote, everyone turned to their communications teams for support,” Archer said. “Everything from recruitment events to commencement went virtual, and it was up to the marketing staff to see it through. When we weren't planning virtual events, we were helping our co-workers navigate tools like Teams and Zoom. Looking back, it was nice to show up and help people when there was so much uncertainty in every other aspect of life.”
Archer said one of the biggest changes involved telling stories related to the coronavirus pandemic. “We've gone from filming lab spotlights to writing about faculty and students who've gridlocked their research to support first responders and help us all make sense of this. If you would've told me in January that I would, just months later, get excited about writing a story about hand sanitizer, I would've laughed.”
Da’Stanza Murphy, information officer for the College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts, said one of her challenges was adopting new time management skills.
“It was important for me early on to recognize that I could not just hold on to the 'temporary' outlook of my days, but create a new work life that could be easily adjusted as we were working with constant change due to uncertainty. It is truly nothing for me to start answering emails from the moment I open my eyes until I’m “winding down” for the evening. I learned quickly that time management and setting expectations were key to a healthy transition.”
Murphy said adopting innovative work strategies to fit the new working model was important. “Life isn’t the same and we need to continue to think of engaging ways to showcase our work. I truly appreciate my colleagues that have ‘leaned in’ with me as many days we’ve had to bounce what seems like crazy ideas off of one another to create really exciting opportunities for our main focus - the students.”
For Phil Van Hulle, associate director of communications for the Wayne State School of Medicine, the transformation from a frenetic day in a busy office setting to working from home was eye-opening. “The last day I was on campus was the Tuesday after we were told to work from home. I had to get a number of files I could not access from home. I recall how eerie it was to drive a nearly empty I-75, and how quiet it was on a practically deserted campus. I’d never seen Scott Hall so quiet.”
The focus of the communications work Van Hulle and his colleague Andrea Westfall handled shifted immediately to finding medical experts for media officials hungry to explain what COVID-19 was.
"We never missed a beat in terms of writing articles for the website, producing newsletters and interacting with the media. We received a multitude of calls and emails from reporters across the nation and the world who wanted to interview physicians about COVID-19 and its effects," Van Hulle said. "We were fortunate to have access to some of the finest physicians in the country, who made themselves available at all times throughout the week to give interviews on behalf of WSU, putting the university and the School of Medicine at the forefront of providing information on COVID-19 around the world.”
Jill Wurm, associate director of marketing and communications for the Wayne State University Library System, said that much of her focus has moved to internal communications.
“In a virtual environment, you aren't running into people while grabbing coffee or passing them in hallways. You lose all those tiny interactions that can sometimes result in small bits of information that help you better understand what's going on across the organization. As communicators, it's on us to try to fill a lot of those gaps," Wurm said. "As the experts in communication, a lot of the responsibility to share information has fallen to us, but in a much more extreme way than pre-pandemic. Where we used to research stories and interview people, now we might be researching information or using our communicator contacts to better understand what's going on in other parts of the university so we can share with our own groups. It's a different kind of investigative reporting, but it uses the same skills.”
Steve Townsend, associate director of marketing and communications for the Mike Ilitch School of Business, said the new work model initially involved a bit of a learning curve. “The first few weeks once the pandemic hit were spent communicating about postponed events and developing effective communications to help our students and faculty safely and successfully complete the winter semester. After that, we shifted to figuring out how best to keep everyone engaged with the Ilitch School and one another through the summer and into a new school year.
“It took a while to adjust to working from home every day, but I think I’ve found a groove. I have a weekly call with Dean Forsythe that keeps me abreast of communications issues that might be coming my way, and our weekly communicator meetings are great for keeping up on what’s going on across the university. My marketing coordinator Madeline Whims and I also chat throughout the day via text, email and Microsoft Teams, which helps us both plan out each day and feel a little less disconnected from the office.”
Townsend said he has found a silver lining in working remotely. “While I miss seeing my colleagues every day and the accidental connections and opportunities that arise when we are all physically in the same place, I actually have found that it’s easier for me to dig into more in-depth writing and editing projects without the daily distractions of the office.”
Much has changed in the world of campus communicators in this time of COVID-19, but one thing has remained constant: They are still passionate about finding and telling Wayne State’s great stories.