Who Writes These Emails, Anyway?
A walk through the College PR operation, from start to finish.
“I’m waking up every morning thinking about how we can tell the story of Dartmouth,” vice president for Communications Justin Anderson said. Along with the rest of the Office of Communications, Anderson helps to facilitate administration messages to the Dartmouth community — from campus-wide emails to the “Community Conversations” livestream. This year more than ever, campus life has been shaped by College communications dispensing information about COVID-19 regulations, quarantine restrictions and more. I spoke to Anderson to explore how the College disseminates essential information to the community, step by step.
Anderson stressed that there is no single way that the College communicates with the multigenerational Dartmouth community. Some information may be relevant to both current students and older alumni, but Anderson said that the two groups “are going to consume [the news] in a completely different kind of way.” In recognition of the diverse ways in which community members receive news, the Office of Communications works to circulate information through multiple channels over the course of a single day.
“We are writing Dartmouth News stories that are on the Dartmouth website, and they also are used to populate a series of e-newsletters that are emailed to students, to faculty, to staff, to alumni, to the media, to the Upper Valley community,” Anderson said. “There is social media that we are doing every single day. And there are, of course, the community messages.”
Community messages, which include unscheduled emails from the President, the Provost, and the Dean of the College, are generally employed to convey “breaking news that impacts either the entire community or a large majority of the community,” according to Anderson. The process of crafting these messages varies on a case-by-case basis, but the Office of Communications generally begins by investigating the breaking news.
“We hear something happened, and then we try to gather as much information as we can [...] depending on the nature of the event,” Anderson said.
The Office of Communications rarely works alone; it will usually cooperate with other campus offices relevant to the news occurrence to gather this information — often the Office of the President, the Office of the Provost or Student Affairs.
“You want to get the people who have the most information together so that we can share what we know, try to make sense of it and figure out if it's something that merits a communication to the broader community,” Anderson said.
Anderson believes that the Office of Communications’ most difficult job lies in determining the most appropriate time to release a message if there is still unknown information.
“Is it better to wait for more information, or is it better to communicate what we know at the moment and indicate that there will be follow-up information?” Anderson said.
Usually, the Office of Communications will opt to release information as quickly as possible for an event that directly affects those living on campus, such as a campus power outage. There are also times when the College wants to be the first to present breaking news.
“We realize that we don’t have the luxury of a lot of time, particularly when something may have happened and it may cause rumors,” Anderson said.
However, if off-campus breaking news does not present an immediate obstacle in students’ daily lives, then Anderson said the office may take more time to gather relevant information.
Once the office has decided to release a message, someone from a relevant department — typically either someone in the Office of Communications or the Office of the President — will be tasked with drafting the message. This message will then be reviewed by whichever group is most knowledgeable about the news occurrence, and the Office of Communications will deliberate whether the message should be sent by email and which groups should receive it.
“Some messages that [undergraduate students] receive might not be received by the professional schools. [...] Some might not go to all alumni. Generally speaking, we’re communicating about what’s happening on campus, and therefore, the audience is most frequently on campus,” Anderson said.
Following the release of an email to the community, Anderson said that the Office of Communications will generally reformat the information into a Dartmouth News story and a social media post.
“The email comes first, and then all those things will follow to reinforce that initial message and to try to hit audiences that we might not hit with the email, or to reiterate to those same audiences the importance of this message,” Anderson said.
These mediums are not the only platforms that the College uses to communicate with the greater community. Anderson said that due to the pandemic, there was an “overreliance on digital communication, on social media and email [...] and there was no way to connect with a face or voice.” To combat this, he worked with former Provost Joseph Helble to pioneer the “Community Conversations” livestream, which allowed Dartmouth community members to ask questions about the College’s pandemic decisions in a live broadcast.
“The idea there was that the community could see and hear the provost sharing what he knew, and then see and hear the provost talk to different people in the community about their response to COVID, about how they are experiencing COVID,” Anderson said.
Although Helble is preparing to leave Dartmouth as the College is shedding its COVID-19 restrictions, Anderson and interim Provost David Kotz intend to continue “Community Conversations” once per month to communicate general campus news to the wider community.
“I think he found it to be very useful as a viewer when he was away from campus, away from Hanover and then back in Hanover,” Anderson said. “He found ‘Community Conversations’ to be a very helpful connection to what was happening on campus.”
Just as the media landscape changed due to the pandemic, Anderson reflected that the College audience is also constantly changing as students graduate and new classes enter. This constant change pushes the Office of Communications to experiment with different ways to deliver information.
“It never stays the same, and that's why there's a whole suite of things that we try to reach people because people's consumption habits or the community's consumption habits are constantly changing, '' Anderson said. “That sort of dynamism makes it really challenging, but it's also what makes it fun and and and interesting.”