Using Facebook Live to Reach Parents and Families in the Age of COVID-19
In March 2020, Coastal Carolina University joined hundreds of colleges and universities by moving to online instruction in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. That move, along with shutting down most campus operations and managing a mass transition out of student housing, presented a communication challenge. Despite frequent website updates, mass emails, and press releases, rapidly changing circumstances generated a thirst for timely, relevant information. In response, our Office of the Provost started holding Facebook Live sessions, going online regularly starting on March 15, 2020, with updates and question and answer segments. By the time we held our 100th Facebook Live session on October 15, 2020, we had answered more than 1,300 submitted questions.
The Facebook Live sessions were open to all, but they very quickly became the domain of parents and adults filling parental roles for students. It was rare that a student logged in and asked a question. The Pew Research Center reports that YouTube and Facebook are the most popular online platforms for US adults between ages 30 and 49. Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok attract students; Facebook is where you’ll find parents and other family members.
Prior to the pandemic, the Coastal Carolina University Academic Affairs Facebook page was a sleepy place, with 235 followers and the occasional post about deadlines and special events. As we held live sessions, and as other Coastal Carolina University social media accounts posted our links, we grew our page to over 1,700 followers within three months. At this writing, we’ve reached 2,969 followers. Not very impressive for a dedicated influencer, but for an institution of 10,000 students, that represents a significant percentage of our parents.
We noticed engagement spikes coincided with major pandemic developments. For example, our session on March 24, 2020—the day after Coastal Carolina University confirmed that classes would remain online for the balance of the spring 2020 term—generated 5,683 engagements. Whereas our June 28, 2020, livestream session generated a mere 130 engagements, with most questions pertaining to summer school and housing, our July 1, 2020, session, which took place after the university released its fall 2020 instructional plan, generated 4,374 engagements, as parents posed questions about masks, social distancing, and quarantines.
Our livestreams were hosted by the provost or an associate provost, and all three of us were well-prepared to address instructional matters. After a few attempts to remind inquisitive parents that we intended to disseminate information specifically related to academic affairs, we gave up and became a de facto university information clearing house. In these efforts we were supported by content experts for nonacademic areas who monitored the comments. The differences between academic and student affairs (or the provost’s office and the finance office) were not meaningful to our viewers.
With a platform and an engaged audience, we were able to direct attention to key campus resources. Between March 15 and October 15, 2020, our Academic Affairs Facebook page averaged 1,500 impressions per day, and with individuals directed to the right online resources, we provided a “signal boost” for our university webpages and social media accounts. There was also a fair amount of cross-pollination on social media sites created or managed by parents. For example, our messages were frequently cross-posted to a Facebook group moderated by families of our students. When concepts or announcements were confusing to parents, we often discussed them in subsequent sessions, allowing us to clarify information via an indirect feedback loop.
A potential downside of our livestreams was evident early: parents realized it was easier to visit Facebook and ask questions rather than try to research their own answers. University emails, webpage updates, and mailings were frequent and comprehensive, and it was necessary to gently remind parents that the answers they were seeking had been offered to them days or even weeks earlier. Almost every livestream included a LMGTFY moment.
Facebook also required us to learn how parents conceptualized higher education. Many parents held a binary view of instruction; a class was either face-to-face or online, with online the inferior mode. Coastal Carolina University entered the fall 2020 semester with a range of modalities deployed, and explaining that we were using a HyFlex model for some classes and a hybrid delivery for others meant that we had to unpack both terms. The word “online” appeared 77 percent of our live sessions, and much of our time was devoted to explaining how the term covered many different learning experiences.
If you want to run your own Facebook Live sessions aimed at parents and families, keep in mind the following:
- Parents will expect your sessions to serve as “explainers” for operational or policy changes. Review and be familiar with your institution’s COVID-19 operations (both academic and nonacademic). If there has been a transition to a new practice on your campus, whether a new mask mandate or modality change, you will be expected to address how it will affect students.
- Your audience will expect you to be familiar with events and developments outside your institution. If new CDC guidance is released, be ready for question about your institutional response. If legislation related to COVID-19 (such as the CARES Act) passes, you may need to explain how it affects your students.
- If you livestream, you are the voice of your campus, even if there are other voices on duty. Presidents and chancellors may make announcements, and university spokespeople may hold press conferences, but if you go live as an administrator, you have a responsibility to align with your university’s statements and policy decisions.
- Even if you present yourself as an academic, you must be interdisciplinary in your knowledge base. If a member of the university administration is online and willing to engage, parents expect that individual to be able to speak comprehensively about student life from the classroom to the dorm room. Be ready for questions about refunds, move-out dates, and testing protocols—even parking. The support of nonacademic staff to ensure accuracy is essential.
- Educate parents and family members. While avoiding condescension, it is worthwhile to describe to parents the steps they could take to find answers to questions such as “What are the new hours of the library?” or “How much is the housing deposit?” Q&A sessions run the risk of infantilizing the audience by giving answers instead of guiding them to existing information sources.
- Define your terms. We academics use acronyms, shorthand, and jargon among ourselves, but dealing with confused parents requires us to be specific when using terms. This is especially important when discussing to instructional technologies and course modalities. Having a link to a page that defines distance learning, hybrid learning, synchronous, asynchronous, and so on is useful, even if their meanings might be commonplace among academics. Even the term modality needs to be unpacked.
- Giving the rationale for a decision is just as important as communicating the decision itself. We’ll never please everyone. Some parents will find your campus safety measures prudent; others may find them unnecessarily restrictive. Walking your audience through the logic of a decision might not bring everyone over to your side, but it can give parents a better appreciation for your process.
- Take one (or many) for the team. There is no place to hide from the rare angry parent who is willing to be more confrontational from behind a keyboard than they ever would be face-to-face. Be ready to be attacked for decisions you didn’t make. Be ready to be held responsible for circumstances beyond your control. Students are stressed, parents are nervous, and we’re all tired. Accept that when going live, you will face some difficult moments.
- Share the credit. When things go well (and occasionally they do!), parents may lob praise your way. Name-check the folks behind the scenes. Remind families that there are hundreds of individuals working to keep their students safe.
Under normal conditions, academic institutions prefer to operate deliberately, putting a premium on shared governance and consensus building at the expense of rapid decision-making. The pandemic requires some quick decisions, many of which have to be announced without the unusual path breaking by white papers and town halls. Under COVID-19, higher education has had to be more flexible and responsive, and that includes using new communications strategies. Regular, frequent, and live availability is a useful tool in these times.
Daniel J. Ennis, PhD, is the provost; James Solazzo, PhD, is the vice president for student success, enrollment management, and student affairs; and Holley Tankersley, PhD, is the dean of the Spadoni College of Education and Social Sciences, all at Coastal Carolina University.