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The Lessons in Digital Empathy We Learned in 2020

I write this post caught somewhere between reflecting on the heavy emojis of 2020, attempting to cultivate the magic of the holidays, and pursuing optimistic hope for 2021.

I’m all up in my feels. And I know I’m not alone.

2020 was a year like no other – and every other cliche you’ve heard, too many times to count. I won’t repeat those here.

This year has brought us relatable GIFs, new routines and schedules that integrated our home and work lives, a newfound respect for the importance of a strong and humanizing digital strategy, and last but certainly not least, we’ve learned to build, strengthen and echo empathy throughout our communities, especially in how we communicate online.  

“Empathy: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”Webster Dictionary

In addition to shifts within the digital world, it also brought us more conversations around social injustice and women’s rights, the passing of giants like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, an unprecedented election, and a pandemic that has shaken the entire globe. It has been a rough ride but here we are, on the cusp of 2021.

In this post, I’ll share lessons learned in 2020 that lead us, especially in higher education to communicate and lead online with empathy. From the good, the bad, and everything in between, we’ve all grown from our experiences this past year. I hope you’ll find a laugh or two, feel seen, and maybe even get inspired to reflect on your lessons from the year. I invite you to comment or tweet your response to the “think back” prompts throughout this post – I’m @josieahlquist.

As a researcher and consultant, I can’t help but widen my understanding and practice by curating the stories of others. So, I reached out to dozens of higher ed pros –  marketers, higher ed leaders, and student affairs professionals –  to gather their lessons, moments, and hopes. My goal is to encapsulate all the feels from this past year. 

Because, let’s be honest, we are going to need more understanding, awareness and empathy as we enter 2021. 

TL;DR ? I get It. Here’s your sneak peek/cheat sheet on the 10 lessons in digital empathy:

  1. Find the content that makes you feel
  2. Escape into stories
  3. Invest in support systems
  4. Recognize the good
  5. Understand your communication challenges
  6. Navigate living at work
  7. Define the new college experience
  8. Practice self care x 100
  9. Talk with your audience, not at them
  10. Transform the tools, tactics and trends

We all had to find the good in 2020 – sometimes we had to look hard, other times it randomly appeared in our feeds and timelines. We learned to embrace these bright spots in the darkness, to pause and reflect, and yes, even to celebrate. Some of these moments were small, others were startling, all were significant. From recommending binge-worthy shows to finding a go-to person to help us make sense of the world, the way we interact in our work and with our family and friends has changed.  Let’s look back at some lessons in empathy that shaped digital communication in 2020.

The first good news? The first two are pretty fun.

LESSON 1: Find Content That Makes You Feel

Out of all the intense information and emotions we experienced this year, some things made us chuckle and we had to share the sentiment with our colleagues and friends. Finding digital content that was relatable, made us feel good, and offered a nice break from a lot of the not-so-happy news in our feeds helped us cope.

Here are some favorites submitted from the higher ed community:

Dreams + Ocean Spray + TikTok

Ocean Spray surprises Tik Tok star with a new cranberry-colored truck after his Fleetwood Mac video went viral

This is fine GIF
  • Submitted by RJ Thompson, Associate Director of Student Engagement, University of Pittsburgh- Katz Graduate School of Business and Katy Spencer Johnson, Content Strategist, Educator and Consultant 
Social Distancing Memes
A picture containing text, outdoor

Description automatically generated
  • Submitted by Dr. Regina Young Hyatt, Vice President for Student Affairs, Mississippi State University 

Let’s also make note of the content powerhouse that provided hours of entertainment during those months in quarantine: TikTok. Even though the platform has been around for some time, it gave us so much this year. From new dances to learn, tricks and tips for navigating the kitchen, and so much creative inspiration for our newfound “downtime,” college campuses were no strangers to viral TikTok content. While campuses did create some really fun and interactive perspectives to showcase the remote learning experience, they also had a big opportunity to help prospective students find their institution. 

Check out these examples and resources for higher ed on TikTok: 

TikTok’s revealed their new #LearnOnTikTok partner, Times Higher Education where students can learn about colleges and how to prepare! 

Be sure to check out my blog, TikTok is Going to College, to learn more about higher education content on the platform, as well as my Campus and University TikTok Directory to find your favorite schools. 

Think back: Was there a piece of content that defined your 2020? 

LESSON 2: Escape into Stories

Digital communication is a tool for storytelling – from memes and emojis to blogs and looping Tik Tok’s. But we found so many other good pop-cultural escapes to latch onto and to make meaning of the year. Streaming shows like The Queen’s Gambit, Schitt’s Creek, The Crown, Cobra Kai, and many more were at the center of our conversations and a chance to take a break from the current situations haunting our campuses and the world. 

Out of everyone I reached out to as blog contributors, the show Schitt’s Creek by far was mentioned the most. Could 2020 be the year of … OMG DAVID?!?!?

Let’s also not forget that 2020 could be its own movie title or streaming show. Here’s what we might call 2020 on the big screen:

2020: You’re on mute.

Keith Humphrey, Vice President for Student Affairs, Cal Poly & Kimberly Stern, Director of Social and Digital Media, Colorado State University

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. 

Kasandrea Sereno, Founder, HigherEdSocial 

Just Freaking Wear a Mask 

Jon McBride, Associate Athletic Director for Communications and Media Strategy, BYU

Love your neighbor

Edwin S. Darrell, Director, Residential Student Experience, Florida State University

Think back: What would you title 2020? How do stories help you process and make sense of things?

LESSON 3: Invest in Support Systems 

Perhaps more than ever, we’ve had to rely on others. We’ve found that living at work has been both a challenge and an opportunity, We’ve appreciated spending more time with our family and friends (safely, and sometimes in limited timeframes). We’ve discovered or re-discovered hobbies and pastimes. Oh, and let’s not forget the new furry friends some of us have added to our families! This year has forced us to find the good and find ways to connect and engage more with others, even if it had to be virtual. Read on for some good investments.

Mayra Olivares-Urueta, Vice President of Student Development Services, Tarrant County College shared:

  1. Working from home in workout clothes or even pjs (shhhhh)
  2. Snuggling with my kids at random
  3. Having my girls see me work and become unofficial VP interns
  4. Learning to appreciate outdoor workouts
  5. Becoming a runner 
  6. Having family time unlike anything I might have made happen before
  • I perfected baking the chocolate chip oatmeal cookie. I tried many recipes and tinkered with one until I got it just right. Baking is chemistry, so every detail matters, much like a comprehensive email communication I may be drafting for my president on COVID-19 planning and response. I need the right flour, I want a very specific chocolate chip, and don’t forget to use parchment paper because nobody wants a burned bottom. Melissa Farmer Richards, Vice President for Communications and Marketing, Hamilton College

We all deserve a lil credit this year and I want to make sure the people who helped enhance the higher ed community get the credit that they deserve! 

Think back: Who inspired your community to greatness? Let’s give them a round of applause!

LESSON 4: Recognize the Good

This year, we had to learn to admit when we needed help or even a breakaway at times from our devices. It is not always easy. In previous years, it was not a common practice in the workplace. 2020 changed that. We needed our support person to listen to us or recommend a practice to help us get through our days. We’ve learned new ways to cope and adjust. Now we must take those new findings with us into the new year – and beyond – as we plan our strategy for our campus communities. This lesson is all about recognizing that we did experience a lot of good despite the tough times. 

It’s okay to press pause.

Jenny Li Fowler, Director for Social Media Strategy, MIT 
  • Patience. From all aspects of my life. I need to be patient with myself as I work through the pandemic-related frustrations. I need to be patient with my family who is also struggling and working to overcome our present “normal.” I also need to be patient with my colleagues and peers who are also trying to figure their lives out and their jobs, which have all changed on some fundamental levels. Higher ed generally moves pretty slow and this is counter to how I work (strategy, research, and data-driven but at a quick pace) and this continues to be a struggle point. RJ Thompson, Associate Director of Student Engagement, University of Pittsburgh- Katz Graduate School of Business
  • I had to learn to reset boundaries that had crumbled. And I learned because I wore myself down to my very core, ended up crying in meetings, and generally struggling to get out of bed. Because although once upon a time, I had set boundaries, I had started letting people/work creep over them without noticing. So at times, I have not only had to reset them, I’ve had to do a hard reset – so taking a mental health day to clear my calendar, then digging back in the next day and being firm again. Kristen Abell, Interim Director of Communications, Virginia Tech Student Affairs 
  • We use 20/20 to describe the near-perfect vision. That’s what this year has given us, vision. We could see all of the simple joys that we take for granted, we could see what really mattered. But we also could see injustices that had remained invisible to many: healthcare disparities, income inequality, and racial injustices that were not new this year, just more visible. If we are able to “go back to normal” next year, we really need to decide what things we don’t want to go back to. Adam Peck, Assistant Vice for Student Affairs, Illinois State University 

It’s okay if it’s hard to see the good

This past year has tested us, tried our patience, and demanded we persevere through our struggles to find some semblance of success in our work. This year, we’ve had to deal with the need for a widespread digital learning environment instead of in-person on our campuses, a tenure of crisis-level communications, and an evolution of our communication strategy as we all worked to get back to our regularly scheduled programming. 

Let’s not discredit the toll on our family and loved ones that this past year has taken. This global pandemic has been no joke and we’ve been forced to carry on and solve our problems in the workplace and at home, as we would in a “normal” world. 

Everyone is grieving right now. We are all mourning lost experiences, family we can’t hug – and for some, loved ones gone too soon. We have to give one another grace and benefit of the doubt as we all make our way through this pandemic.

Jaime Hunt, Vice President and Chief Communications and Marketing Officer, Miami University (Ohio)

Think back: What was the biggest lesson you learned this year about yourself this year? 

LESSON 5: Understand Your Communication Challenges

When it comes to connecting with our communities this past year, we’ve all had to change how we communicate, and at a very fast pace, to say the least. Campus communicators and higher ed leaders experienced this firsthand and have continued to work every day to make the experience better, but it hasn’t been easy. As the title suggests, this blog is about how we built empathy, particularly within our campus communities. A mutual understanding of what empathy means takes time and patience to learn how to build it. 

  • Social media, digital communications and virtual tools leveraged effectively are the MVP for 2020. We were asked to pivot quickly, to translate in-person interactions into digital engagement, support our community, and provide the critically needed transparency, and communication with empathy, efficacy, and clarity. Our social media foundation quickly became a strength for our organization and our colleagues proficient in digital communication are our advocates.” Katy Spencer Johnson, Higher Ed Content Strategist, Educator, and Consultant
  • Communicating how to operate a college safely in a dual in-person/online environment (where everything is a precedent) is difficult to do in a way that informs without overwhelming. There is often a gap between “putting out information” and actually informing the people you wish to inform, and that gap has been exacerbated by the volume and complexity of running a higher ed institution (or any institution, for that matter) in a pandemic. Ken Anselment, Vice President for Enrollment and Communications, Lawrence University
  • This situation is so complicated and presents new challenges every day. We continue to struggle with keeping community messaging simple enough for our stakeholders to grasp but with enough detail so they know what to expect next. It’s a challenge. I think we also struggle with truly expressing empathy for the challenges our students, faculty, and staff are facing. — Kelley Tuthill, Vice President of Marketing and Communications, Regis College
Resources for Campus Communications: 

Think back: What are some challenges your campus has handled and what did you learn from those difficulties? 

LESSON 6: Navigate Living at Work

I’m just going to say it: working from home is hard. Adapting to a new routine, familial responsibilities, job insecurities, and so on can make it even harder. That being said, we all made the shift and got to work, literally. Of course, there were the good days and the not-so-good days, but we are surviving and thriving the best way we know-how. 

Here’s what we have learned about working this year – wherever we logged in: 

  • Work felt like part of my life instead of the reason for my life. I got to spend more time at home with my family and my dog. Not having to commute an hour+ each way gave me back so much time. Kasandrea Sereno, Founder, HigherEdSocial

Even though we have all been home for almost a year now, there is still a lot we need to learn. Here are a few resources that can help: 

Think back: What did you learn about the remote work lifestyle – love it? Hate it? Will you miss it?

LESSON 7: Define the New College Experience 

Campus looks different than what we were used to. Our classrooms are different, our face-to-face interactions are through a screen or plexiglass and many campus traditions have had to transform. Although it’s been a trying year, higher ed leaders have been one word: resilient. 

They’ve been resilient in their efforts through extremely tough times and have continued to work for the students, faculty and staff that make up our campuses. 

The student experience has been dramatically altered, but these leaders are making sure that students can experience as much as possible given the constraints we’ve faced. 

  • We are rethinking our home page. With so many people unable to come see the campus, we need our home page to be as compelling as possible. We are also redoing our virtual tour. Again, we are grateful we had updated both in the past few years but now they have to be incredibly user-friendly in this environment. Kelley Tuthill, Vice President of Marketing and Communications, Regis College
  • The pandemic has been an equalizer of sorts, giving students more access to colleges they otherwise might not have the opportunity to build a relationship with a college admissions office because they don’t live in areas where colleges routinely travel. Also, our digital programs to create connection and engagement have helped us welcome more people “to campus” than we have typically been able to do because we are not bound by the physical and financial limitations of travel or space. That has been a welcome change that will stay. Ken Anselment, Vice President for Enrollment and Communications, Lawrence University

The campus experience will be forever changed; however, we are going into the new year with more experience and wisdom on how to navigate it. Here are a few resources on how to continue adapting and some examples on how campuses adjusted: 

Think back: What are some ways that you’ve had to learn to navigate the new campus experience?

LESSON 8: Practice Self Care x 100

Disconnect, pause, take a break. This is what we had (and continue) to learn this past year. It’s not always easy, but it was the only way we could continue working at the levels necessary to survive this year. In our own work, we had to define what self care meant and if we managed a team, we had to make sure we helped them define what that meant for their work. Empathy, patience, flexibility and grace were among the top keywords used by our community to describe how they led in person and online this year.

More specifically, in higher education communications, we had a good look at what we were dealing with thanks to Tony Dobies and team at West Virginia University. Their comprehensive report regarding expectations while working as a higher ed communicator and mental health is a must-read. 

Here are some other tips on how our community learned how to take a pause: 

On the flipside, higher ed leaders and campus communicators also found that they needed to be there for their students, faculty and staff by providing educational content regarding mental health: 

  • As the landscape of our teams changes, our roles pivot, and our organizations adapt to COVID, this may actually be an opportunity to discuss how to scale social media support within your organization, cross-train, and encourage your teams to take breaks. I’ve seen more organizations being open about communicating mental health and even publically taking breaks on social media. Setting that expectation with your audience, embracing this best practice, and putting the processes into place to support has been so critical for the health of our organizations, and the health of our colleagues and teammates. Katy Johnson Spencer, Higher Ed Content Strategist, Educator and Consultant

We will all need to focus on our mental health as we continue in 2021. Here are a few resources and apps to help you along the way: 

Think back: How do you focus on your mental health and how do you plan to focus on it in 2021? How will you share information with your digital community about the importance of mental health? 

LESSON 9: Talk With Your Audience, Not at Them

We can all agree that we’ve had to share information at alarmingly fast rates while grasping to understand it ourselves, package it per platform and ensure that it provides value to our audiences. Even though we are working hard to get this information out, we have to keep in mind the person on the other end of that message and how it may affect them. Whether it be an update on remote learning, housing and dining, or possible furloughs, we have to remember that they are individuals dealing with changes that are new to them.

  • Digital communication strategies had to shift to accommodate for an increase in comments, direct messages, emails, and other replies related to what was going on in the world at that point in time. Just keeping students engaged in general during a pandemic and finding ways to be creative when I’m just mentally exhausted. Alexa Heinrich, Social Media Manager, St. Petersburg College
  • Social media is no longer just a way to make your campus look cool or your president seem hip. It’s an essential way to keep stakeholders connected while they are physically apart. It’s also vital to create a sense that leadership knows what they’re doing and can effectively (and safely) get the community through this crisis. Jon McBride, Associate Athletic Director for Communications and Marketing, BYU
  • We’ve learned this past year that it’s okay to be silent when necessary. We wanted to make sure that we respected the voices of other channels whether the conversation was related to sharing safety communications for COVID-19 updates or the racial injustice movement this past summer. Our audience did not need to hear from us all the time and we also wanted to respect the information overload that we all are experiencing. Hillary Smith, Social Media Strategist, Clemson University 

Common themes included incorporating social media into institutional communication strategies, ensuring content provides value, being available to handle one-on-one situations in direct messages, and getting your audiences the information they need as timely as possible.

Here are a few resources that can help: 

Think back: What are some strategies that you and your team implemented to provide value to your digital community?

LESSON 10: Transform the Tools, Tactics and Trends

From new tools to support social listening, tactics that helped provide value for our audiences to some of the trends that reminded us all we are all just people behind the screens, every little bit helped. We also came together as an industry support system. Finding solace in others, checking in on our team, relating to them and sharing our stories helped us realize that we are all in this together. 

  • Talking directly to our audiences really worked for us this year. Use the pronouns, you, we, us…there is something about breaking the fourth wall effectively and with empathy that audiences love. And everything was not okay this year and it was more than okay — necessary — to reflect that in our social posts this year. Jenny Li Fowler, Director of Social Media Strategy, MIT
  • The most effective communications were the ones that leveraged social listening, understood the tone and tenure of the crisis and evolved with clear messaging even if that messaging was “we don’t have all the answers but here’s what we know and here’s when we may know more.” Video helped us connect with each other and with our shared experience but as a crisis comms tool it was often a little one-sided in it’s communication. Social media proved a valuable tool for us to not only communicate, but listen and respond. Katy Spencer Johnson, Higher Ed Content Strategist, Educator and Consultant 
  • Check in on your staff (and not just the directors). These types of actions matter and could make all the difference in the moral of your organization. Our VPSA regularly encourages the leadership team to do what they need to support their teams and offers to engage with each unit in meetings to listen (to both the good and the bad). Edwin S. Darrell, Director, Residential Student Experience, Florida State University

Think back: What tools, tactics and trends did you employ, and which will you take forward into the new year?

Keep Going, With Grace

I want to emphasize how proud we should all be for the year we endured. Give yourself a pat on the back, a hug, a toast to the long days, sleepless nights, and having to share crisis communications messages for nearly an entire year. Through it all, we have experienced growth, compassion, and most importantly, empathy. 

They say hindsight is 20/20. Given all that we’ve been through in the year 2020, we cannot simply return to the way things were. We cannot unsee what we’ve seen: the digital divide among our students, the blatant contempt for people who are “other” (be that race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or any other element of diversity), the promotion of the individual over the rights of the community, and so on. And let us not forget the kindness of strangers, the confluence of factors that brought us two viable vaccines in a matter of months, the sacrifices we’ve all made to keep each other safe.

But for today, right now, I hope that you have what you need to persevere. For a little joy and inspiration, please check out the grace-filled content shared by Ken Anselment, VP for Enrollment and Communications from Lawrence University.

Ken reflected, “The Keep Going Song, part lament, part invocation, part benediction, it struck the right note, quite literally, for me in the fall.”

Let’s Work Together in 2021

As we cross the threshold into 2021, I’m here to help support you and your campus community. I use a humanizing and empathy-fueled digital strategy as a consult, speaker, and coach.

If that is something that you, your students, and your campus are hungry for – let’s work together! Reach out here to schedule a time to connect.

Thank you to all who helped contribute to this 2020 post. Sending all digital hugs and elbow bumps!

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 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.

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