Not sure how to soften the blow of having to cancel commencement? Here’s some advice that your grads and their supporters will likely appreciate.
Those about to graduate from your college are feeling the most pain from the COVID-19 changes on campuses. With “Cap and gone?” headlines setting the stage for “the year without a graduation,” grads will likely not be surprised that you may no longer be holding an in-person commencement ceremony this spring. After all, everyone knows we are dealing with an unprecedented pandemic. Putting a temporary halt to life as we know it to minimize the potential spread of the disease. That includes having to cancel events planned in the foreseeable future that would put people’s health at risk.
But that doesn’t mean your Class of 2020 graduates and those who’ve supported them will find this easy. Think about the journeys they’ve made to reach this milestone. Many are first-generation college students. Others have juggled considerable work and family obligations. And so many have surmounted academic and financial hurdles. They have been so excited, dreaming about this day. And now we have to break the news that they cannot celebrate their hard-earned achievement as they had imagined.
It’s time to show compassion. Before we make any announcement, consider how we can best show we understand their disappointment and that we intend to honor them as they deserve. This leads to our second “C.”
Being courteous about this announcement is just plain common sense. Think about the last time you had to deliver bad news—or perhaps worse, were on the receiving end. Hopefully, you didn’t tweet it or bury it in a lengthy, fact-filled web page announcement. Who wants to get bad news that way? Most would agree face to face is certainly the best approach, but under current circumstances, that’s not possible. That doesn’t mean you do not have better options.
Look for ways you can deliver a compassionate message to your graduates and their families.
A critical first step is to ask them what they prefer. They are the ones impacted by whatever decision your college makes about canceling, postponing, or curtailing. Use your student email, app, or portal to post a poll for your graduates to indicate their preferences for the options you are considering, and provide them space to write in their own ideas. With everything they have no control over, letting them participate in shaping their “revised” graduation will go a long way in making them feel you sincerely care about them.
Consider Your Messaging
Then, once you have their input and determine how you’ll proceed, develop a communications plan to share the news. Consider message and timing with your audiences just as you would with any other major announcement.
With messaging, keep in mind that one word can make all the difference. A four-year university in Southern California learned this when battling the devastating Cocos Fire of 2014 that hit in the middle of finals week, just one week prior to commencement. The college originally announced they were going to “cancel” commencement, resulting in a social media outcry from students. The university ended up changing its language from “cancel” to “reschedule” and found a way to pull together the event a week later. It was amazing how much impact that one word had on the reaction of students.
With timing, your rollout should prioritize audiences. Communicate first to the graduates before you post anything publicly. Use media that is as close to face-to-face engagement as possible. In this case, consider a video message from your president expressing his/her disappointment in not being able to welcome them to the planned event while sharing his/her praise for their significant achievement, and how the college plans to still honor them.
Last but not least, be creative. This is your opportunity to think outside the box, or in this case, the mortar board. While nothing will be a substitute for the real thing, think about other ways you can create a bit of pomp and circumstance.
You may first want to create a miracle grad plan for an in-person celebration you could put together in 10 days or less, should the opportunity present itself. Consider throwing a virtual ceremony on the original event date, where you confer degrees and celebrate your grads. If you’d like some help figuring out how you could host a virtual event on YouTube, click here to access a downloadable guide, with video tutorials and other resources.
Create a “Class of 2020 Cornonamencement” Facebook group encouraging your grads to post video stories sharing what this milestone means to them. Produce a heartfelt congratulations video for the Class of 2020 that features the name of each of your graduates. Host a Minecraft graduation. (Seriously, this happened! Elementary-aged students stuck at home in Japan recently held their own graduation, complete with stage, seats, and decorative plants on the popular online Minecraft game.) It just goes to show, there are ideas you’ve never considered.
And don’t forget traditional keepsakes and memorabilia. Even if the in-person ceremony isn’t happening, you can still produce a commemorative print piece that captures each graduate’s name and is worthy of mom’s fridge. Even better, you could send it to them with a celebration kit, perhaps including a graduation cap, crafting tools, and an invitation to decorate, pose, and post to social media.
These are just a few ideas to get you going. You know who the creative thinkers are on your team and across your college. Now is the time to conference call with them to see what possibilities evolve. When you do, remind them of the ultimate goal in following the “3 Cs” of compassion, courtesy, and creativity: What can we do to make everyone feel the love?
And if you were not one of the nearly 400 who tuned in last week for Interact’s webinar about COVID-19 Crisis Communications for Colleges, take a break from Netflix and watch it here.
Hang in there, everyone! We’re all in this together!