Keeping the messaging of a major university on an even keel during an unpredictable crisis is the subject of the latest “PR’s Top Pros Talk” video, a conversation between D S Simon Media CEO Doug Simon and Michael Schoenfeld, the vice president for public affairs & government relations and chief communications officer at Duke University.

Schoenfeld tells Simon that Duke got a head start on negotiating the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks to its partnership with Wuhan University in China. “Had it happened in any other Chinese city, we might have been a little less vigilant about it,” Schoenfeld says. “We were able to get our systems and processes in place.”

Those processes included such initiatives as testing regimens, “de-densifying” the Duke campus and planning for a mix of remote and in-person education.

Getting the message out was key to ensuring the success of the university’s efforts. “We communicated the details repeatedly,” Schoenfeld says, and while new channels such as video played an important role, it was an old standby—email—that assumed a pivotal role. “If people didn’t get an email from us about whatever it was,” he adds, “they didn’t believe it.”

Schoenfeld stresses the importance of being able to work with a degree of uncertainty. “Where we are today doesn’t look anything like what we expected it was going to look like in March, April and May.”

He also says that keeping all stakeholders in the loop is very important—and at Duke, of course, one of the major stakeholder groups is students. “Our students were part of the planning process, and part of the whole effort.”

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