Ease your student supervision speed bumps.

Start with Empathy: Human-centered campus communications


I started to write this during hour 6 of what ended up being a 10+ hour flight delay-turned cancellation-turned next day reschedule. I was part of the massive Skywest server outage (one of the largest regional carriers in the US) that affected hundreds of flights and thousands of people.

As I went through the rollercoaster of pressing refresh on the United app, interpreting vague text message updates from the airline, and waiting on hold for the next customer service agent, I found myself looking for lessons in higher ed communications. 

It’s not if, but when the next server, platform, or website will go down.

We are guests on many of the platforms we use on a daily basis. In the terms and conditions upon registration, we typically sign over control of our photos, our videos, and our information. A hard pill to swallow? I hear you.

On Monday, October 4th, 2021, Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp experienced a 6-hour outage – worldwide. Many social media managers I spoke to secretly welcomed this outage, but anxiety came from the need to be at the ready whenever the platforms came back online. And eventually, they did.

There are probably some technology tools you wish would have a meltdown, like Outlook or Zoom (most have at least once, by the way ). Slack, a popular tool for teams and organizations, had an outage last month, leaving many with the realization of how much they relied upon it.

How do we not have our own internal meltdowns in a world where we rely so much on technology? 

Lessons from COVID communications include the need to re-define frameworks, as well as our approaches to crisis response. My approach to digital communications, whether in times of celebration or while troubleshooting challenges, remains human-centered. 

If we do not communicate in an ecosystem (or ethos) of humanity, then we are just screaming into an echo chamber. 

Because of this philosophy, my guidance focuses on people, starting with empathy.

Start with Empathy. 

In my research, the ability for leaders to be self-aware is directly aligned with their skill in activating empathy in their leadership, especially in communications. Skills in empathy have been found to be one of the most important skills today for leaders. 

So why is empathy competency left out of the equation in digital communications so often?

I’ve described the skill of empathy in online contexts as digital emotional intelligence, with the ability to read, interpret, and strategize around digital contexts, cultures, and emotions.

This empathy skill gap is why we get so many “thoughts and prayers” or emotionless emails in response to a recent campus crisis. It’s why I often advocate for video messages that can evoke emotion over blanket email statements. When timely written communication is necessary, how can you as a leader fill gaps with empathy? 

Empathy doesn’t mean you’re waving a magic wand. The problem you’re addressing may actually not be fixable or even in your full control. Many times a crisis results in community members feeling isolated and unheard. Your job as a leader is to fill gaps so your people feel seen. 

It’s using personalized language over perfect phrases or jargon. It is also what you personally are going to do now and in the future. Be specific. Be honest. Be you.

Slow Down and Get Tracking.

My grandma had a rotary phone. It was surprisingly installed high on the wall, even though everyone in my family is shorter than 5’6. When I was a child, she would often yell for me to answer its squealing ring, or I had to use it when calling my parents to tell them I broke another family heirloom. The numbers behind the dial were worn, so one had to memorize it, almost like a clock. Even into my early teens, I learned I needed to place a step stool nearby – and after many wrong numbers to take my time dialing.

Whether you are “running to the phone” in a crisis or recovering from a misstep – you need to consider tracking lessons, gaps, and resources. What “step stool” did you need? What mistakes were made that need a team approach? 

For example, when Facebook goes down again, your website must be ready to be the main tool for communication for your community. Is everyone following you on Instagram signed up for your email newsletter so that when Instagram goes dark you can keep the conversation going? Do you have an in-person help desk, a call center, or other types of messenger communications tools to supplement your online communications?

Sometimes our own inefficiencies or lack of systems cause misfires and meltdowns. These can range from getting locked out of a platform because your previous students can’t remember the password they created to an all-campus text message that was sent with a major typo.

Like the many times I dialed the wrong number on my grandma’s worn-down rotary phone, I would quickly apologize. Make your apologies immediately, then take your time to turn the tech issue into transformational change for you and your organization.  

Find the Easy Button. 

Despite all my travel delays, I eventually made it to my destination. After I learned my flight was canceled Friday, the United app made it easy to rebook myself on the next one Saturday morning. So simple that I did it while walking my dogs. 

 For your campus community impacted by the tech outage, campus decision, or any other setback, how can you make overcoming the challenge just a little bit easier? How easy is it to access your website on mobile-only? Can students actually use your LMS app to submit a paper? 

I’m not proposing appeasing your students with a food truck when your campus can’t access Instagram, but if your campus WiFi goes down, one of my first calls would be to your Provost to explore extending all academic deadlines for students. 

Who is on your campus “customer” care team? 

 While editing this letter, I received an email from United Airlines with the subject line, “Customer appreciation.” In the message, the Vice President of Customer Care, Bryan Stoller wrote, “SkyWest Airlines recently experienced a nationwide server outage that impacted numerous airlines and resulted in the cancellation of hundreds of flights, including yours. We know you put a lot of trust with us when booking a trip, so to help start off your next trip right we’re providing you a $100 travel credit.” 

When tech, events, or life goes in a downward direction, who is tracking your people and creating ease to get them through these difficult times?

Crisis communications needs to be a holistic and human-centered team approach, from central comms to student affairs and beyond. Don’t rely just on Twitter or your website and assume the job is done. Get real people solving problems – and sometimes a little surprise “credit” doesn’t hurt either. 

How I support Human-Centered Campus Communications

Behind the scenes, I work with campus leaders and organizations on how to navigate the constant change of technology, whether strategizing on a new platform or troubleshooting a long-standing communication channel that is giving them troubles. Twofold, leaders need to increase comfort on tech tools while activating people and processes around them. Communication professionals also need advocates and resources. So as a consultant, I serve as an educator campus-wide, especially for faculty, staff, and executives.  

Who is on your team when strategies aren’t resonating with your community? When your tools keep working against you? When the next crisis hits? 

In 2022, I am offering a limited number of year-long partnerships with campuses to help them transform how they communicate with their campus community. In my consulting services, while one-time projects or even semester intensives have been timely, I’ve found it takes a calendar year together to ride out both the good and the challenging times. 

It takes time and a team. To learn about this full-year consulting package, reach out to me here

*This post was originally created for my newsletter, Digital Leadership Download. Subscribe and keep up with everything I’m writing, podcasting, and speaking about!

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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Rebekah Tilley

Assistant Vice President, University of Iowa Center for Advancement

Rebekah Tilley is the assistant vice president of communication and marketing for the University of Iowa Center for Advancement (UICA). In that role she supports fundraising and alumni engagement efforts for the university, including its CASE Gold winning Iowa Magazine, and serves UICA in a variety of strategic communication efforts.

Previously she was the director of strategic communication for the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business, and the director of communication for the University of Kentucky College of Law. She is a Kentucky native and a proud alum of the University of Kentucky.

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