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Lessons from a pandemic: stories have never been more powerful

I’m a marketing guy. I’ve run international education and exchange programs, but I think of myself as a marketing and communications guy. So now, there’s a pandemic! This is said to be a hundred-year occurrence.

Covid-19 is shaping strategies in business and communications. Photo: Gustavo Fring

"The pandemic’s students need brands they can trust...brands that care about them and their world"

A century ago, The Pittsburgh Press ran a newspaper ad that encouraged “Whenever you come in from the street … you must wash properly.”

“We learned communications lessons from the 1918 pandemic…what are we learning from Covid-19?”

The Bell Telephone Company of Missouri’s ad read, “People who are in quarantine are not isolated if they have a Bell telephone.”  I like the headline from the Louisville Courier-Journal 1918 ad: “Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases.”

Sound familiar? A hundred years later, we still see, hear, and read about washing hands, keeping in touch via the latest technology, and the proper way to sneeze to avoid disease.

I look at things from a perspective of strategies and tactics, statistics and data points.  I believe that marketing is what drives every kind of business, even education and exchange. Marketers thrive on challenges and know there is a logical answer to any problem encountered.

We learned communications lessons from the 1918 pandemic; from the extensive use of advertising for public service and helpful products to stressing the role of the telephone in fighting isolation, to embracing what we would today call content marketing to build trust in a company.

What are we learning from Covid-19? It’s a bit of on-the-job training, but we are shaping relevant strategies in business and communications. My own learning (ongoing as it is) seems to focus on recruiting, communicating, marketing and strategising.

Recruiting: It will never look the same. Short-term or long-term. Gone are the days of hopping on a plane for interviews in a hotel or school meeting room.  Gone are the traditional job and recruiting fairs and tours. Welcome to Zoom and Skype and Google Hangouts.  Get used to social distancing, face coverings, reduced interaction, elbow bumps, hand sanitiser.

“Recruiting will never look the same. Short-term or long-term”

Gone too, are the recruiting budgets we got used to.  Decreased revenues equal smaller staffs with fewer skills in our arsenal.  We will need to incorporate online, on-demand modules to help us recruit the best students and hosts.

Communicating: What to say? How to say it? What are today’s consumers looking for? Trust. Emotion. Connection. Empathy. Social involvement. A relationship.

During the pandemic, the student consumer allows you to use more words to tell your story… and stories have never been more powerful.  Content has never been more critical. The values you communicate today will be the value of your organisation tomorrow.

Marketing: Face-to-face is out. Online is in. Young people increasingly absorb social media. Email inboxes are expanding, and that’s okay. Webinars are offered everywhere.

Students sit in front of their computers and on their handhelds for endless hours, the only friends they can visit without a mask. Our brand is what people think of us. It’s our responsibility to shape that brand, as the pandemic’s students need brands they can trust, are authentic, empathetic… brands that care about them and their world.

Strategies: Health scares, recessions, currency crashes, disruptions in the way we do (did) things …we need to rethink our strategies.  The landscapes of organisations change.

“People may not remember you for your product, but they’ll remember if you made them feel good”

Some disappear, some combine into new entities, some get swallowed up… survivors re-tool products and learn to cooperate.  In this pandemic, we look to our colleagues, and even to our competitors, to see if there are ways to work together.  With disruptions, comes talk of synergy, a cyclical and cynical word that is forgotten in the good times.  We need to leverage our potential partnerships and cooperate.

Yes, in tough times, we are learning lessons. Those of us who learn them quickly, and lead with them, will be true survivors.  We’ll be remembered as authentic, authoritative and inspirational.

All of the above is about building and maintaining relationships and keeping in touch using relevant content. Showing we understand. In these days, people may not remember you for your product, but they’ll remember if you made them feel good.  I have a sign in my office that directs my writing: “Did I make you feel good today?”

Kevin Morgan is chairman of Academic Language Solutions (iTEP) and The GeoVisions Foundation, and a veteran of international education and exchange since the 1970s.  He has a MA from Fairfield University’s Graduate School of Corporate and Political Communication, and has founded and managed companies over the past 45 years.  





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2 Responses to Lessons from a pandemic: stories have never been more powerful

  1. Yes, this pandemic shock has given us a real reason to do things differently. Not innovation for innovation’s sake, but find the best way to keep fulfilling your mission and serving your (prospective) students.

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