Whether attracting future scientists or offering updates on COVID research, it’s vital to pass along a school’s research stories
Part of the Marketing News Higher Ed Marketing Special Issue
April 12, 2020, marked the 65th anniversary of a critical announcement in the world’s fight against infectious diseases: The University of Pittsburgh, under the scientific leadership of Jonas Salk, shared that the polio vaccine it had been working on was deemed “safe, effective and potent.” The school has long worn this discovery as a crown jewel and holds it up as an example of how university research programs can make a global impact. Now, it’s pointing to this historical success as proof that research institutions will once again help the world overcome a health crisis.
Universities are emphasizing their leadership and research capabilities during the pandemic, reminding both current and prospective students, as well as the world at large, about the impact of higher education institutions on our daily lives. Whether it’s attracting the next generation of front-line medical workers, communicating about the lab work to discover a vaccine or bringing together resources for the greater community, higher ed marketers and communications teams are telling stories of their school’s efforts. Highlighting these stories helps to motivate prospective and current students to get involved in the fight against the pandemic, while reassuring the rest of the world that the brightest minds are hard at work.
So Students Can See Themselves in the Solution
About half of the University of Pittsburgh’s fall 2020 incoming undergraduate class plans to major in a health-related field. According to Molly Swagler, executive director of enrollment outreach and assistant vice provost for enrollment, the school had this in mind when it set up a first-of-its-kind Pitt Interprofessional Center for Health Careers for undergraduate health and pre-health interprofessional education. As a leader in producing graduates in the healthcare fields even before the pandemic began, the center seems particularly important now to shore up a great need for such professionals.
“Undergraduate research is a big component of why a student would choose the University of Pittsburgh, because they’re going to be able to work on major research,” Swagler says, noting that the school was one of the few in the U.S. to receive the live coronavirus early in the research process, and that Pitt was the fourth-highest National Institutes of Health-funded institution in 2019, receiving $217 million through 472 awards.
“There’s hundreds of ways to fight this disease or to even be a part of the solution,” Swagler says, explaining that the interprofessional center helps connect the dots for students early in their academic careers to where they fit in the healthcare ecosystem. “There are hundreds of ways to be a doctor. And that can mean so many different things, from dental to rehab scientists, physical therapy to pharmacy.”
Swagler says the school works to personalize the stories it shares with students to help them imagine how they can play a role in overcoming the crisis. “‘How are you going to be a part of the solution?’ We absolutely use that language,” she says. But it’s important that they tell the daily stories as well, not just the big-picture final solution. “We also tell the stories of the undergraduate researchers and what they’re doing. We’re connecting our students in a virtual realm with faculty and other students who are studying so that they can see what it’s like and ask questions.”
In sharing the story of what their role may be, the school is also being transparent about what this looks like in our current environment. For example, how does lab research work amid social distancing guidelines? Yes, the University of Pittsburgh wants current and prospective students to see themselves following in the footsteps of Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine, but they also want to be clear about how their own story may be different.
There’s an opportunity for students to bring their talents to a well-funded and lauded university, but Pitt’s also being transparent about how the nature of this research is different today. “We are all still trying to figure out how to do research safely in this pandemic, and what that looks like and how we manage the safety first of our students, researchers, staff and faculty,” Swagler says.
The school posts its updates to Pittwire Live, which highlights school-developed communications and news involving university research and experts. In addition to COVID-19 vaccine-related research, the site includes information on how others at the school are lending their hand to fight the virus: Tips from an organizational behavior professor on helping teams manage fear, suggestions on how to move your body during distancing from a professor of health and physical activity professor and news on the founding director of the school’s Institute for Cyber Law, Policy, and Security taking a leave of absence to oversee how federal COVID-19 relief funds are spent.
As Swagler explains, the news, tips and updates help the university’s community see how they can play a role in the crisis—even beyond researching a vaccine or becoming an epidemiologist.
So the World Can See the Important Work Being Done
It’s soothing to know the brightest minds are hard at work finding solutions to our problems. Similar to having the best pitcher in the league playing for your favorite baseball team, it means the chances for success are that much higher. It’s yet another function for higher ed marketing and communications professionals: to let the world know how a school’s research teams are working toward not just a vaccine, but solving the problems created by the coronavirus, such as redesigning high-touch areas or tracking the rate of contamination.
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are working on a contact tracing solution to help determine who may have come into contact with a person infected with the coronavirus. Adam Conner-Simons, communications and media relations manager and senior officer at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, says it’s been his job to spread the word about the team’s advances.
Of course, he’s not the only person pitching stories to journalists about COVID-19. To cut through the noise, Conner-Simons is intentional about who he contacts, a list that includes journalists with whom he has existing relationships, but also considering how he can pitch the many ramifications of the research itself.
“[We’re] not just pitching the folks who are just generally writing about contact tracing, but we can reach out to a number of privacy-related reporters who cover privacy, computer cybersecurity, other topics like that,” Conner-Simons says. “That’s one way that PR professionals can think more creatively and have better results, to be able to think, OK, where are the cross sections where I could pitch this to multiple different types of reporters who have different types of goals?”
The goal for these communications efforts, Conner-Simons says, is for the lab to be seen as a hub of innovation in its space and leading the charge on globally important issues. While it may sound a bit hollow for a company that makes packaged foods to tell customers, “We’re here for you,” quite the opposite is true when schools that play host to some of the brightest minds in the world say, “We’re working on it.”
“Hopefully it’s inspiring for people to hear the extent to which researchers are collaborating across disciplines to try to solve these problems,” he says. “When a global crisis emerges like this, it is heartening to see that people are really coming together and doing the difficult task of working with people who have very different vocabularies and interests and trying to figure out how our respective expertise can be combined to create something that’s larger than the sum of its parts.”
Whether the goal is to drive students to come be a part of the solution or reassure the public (including taxpayers likely funding some of the research) that the top researchers are hard at work, higher ed marketers can promote their schools’ expertise as a beacon of hope in a foggy time.
Illustration by Bill Murphy.