Supporting your audience during a crisis: Amy Ortega at University of Phoenix shares how her team is connecting and engaging with their audience during the COVID-19 pandemic

We wanted to identify what we can do right now to show people we're here for them and care for them. Amy Ortega
Several weeks ago, Director of Social Media Marketing Amy Ortega and her team started noticing the volume of their listening mentions increase on Twitter — by 7,500 percent in a single week — as universities across the country were going online.

“It really started to blow up when someone tweeted a meme about University of Phoenix watching everyone copy their flow,” she said. “So, we shared a lighthearted response, and people thought our reply was witty, but it was still sensitive. It was one of our most engaged-with tweets.”

But then, as the COVID-19 outbreak started to grow around the country, Amy and her team started quickly honing in on how they could effectively communicate their response plan with their audience while offering them support and comfort in this difficult time.

In the beginning, Amy worked with their PR team to broadly share what the University of Phoenix was doing across their social media channels.

“We created a micro site where we are sharing the most up-to-date information, and we quickly moved all our ground campuses to online-only,” said Amy. “We would decide on the channels where each piece of relevant communication should go, and then in Sprinklr we created a special coronavirus topic where we've been sharing messaging, results, and responses up to our C-suite level.”

After initial news and message sharing, the first thing Amy and her team did was conduct a content audit to see what they should and should not be promoting.

They looked at their upcoming content calendar and took out campaigns and messages they didn't think they should be sharing.

For us, it was about what we can do quickly that already fits into our social strategy. Amy Ortega
“Then, we wanted to identify what we can do right now to show people we're here for them and care for them,” she said.

They looked at content they'd shared in the past that would offer a supportive message to their audiences. For instance, they had content around Stress Awareness Month that focused on yoga and meditation.

“We found what we can easily repurpose, and then what content we could easily create or share that didn't need much production behind it,” said Amy.

Because much of this content had already been approved and their direction was supported by their Chief Marketing Officer, Amy and her team were able to act quickly.

Aside from their work with PR, they looked to internal partners to brainstorm the university messaging, what they are publicly sharing right now, and what makes the most sense for supportive, engaging content.

“In a large company, the more people that have to be brought in, the longer it's going to take,” said Amy. “So, for us it was about what we can do quickly that already fits into our social strategy.”

According to Amy, the common thread across their response strategy was relationship building — a natural fit for the brand.

We already use social media to build connections, and we always have. So our goal was to take that even further. Amy Ortega
“We already use social media to build connections, and we always have,” said Amy. “So, our goal was to take that even further. At times, as a brand or a company, everyone talks about your core audience, but many times you may not even fully relate to them. But this is such a unique experience where everyone is truly in this together. Our most immediate goal was to bring people together and put a smile on their face.”

Once their strategy was confirmed, they organized how they were going to approach their different content by social media channel.

“On Instagram, right away we were sharing stories of our students and alumni and what they're doing right now with social distancing,” said Amy. “Then, we started using Instagram stories to have interactive content where people could share inspiring words with each other.”

The biggest thing they noticed right away is that their audience, particularly their students, were feeling stressed and overwhelmed.

People are starting to feel fatigued by the COVID-19 focus, so we have a different strategy for each platform we use. Amy Ortega
So, Amy and her team wanted to be sensitive to that and connect them with others who understood what they're going through.

On LinkedIn, they've been sharing thought leadership content to help support people as they transition to a virtual format. On Twitter they're sharing advice, tips, and real-time content around how things are changing. And, of Facebook, they created a Facebook Group for students to use as a place where they can be connected to each other 24/7 and support each other beyond the university.

With all this content, Amy said it's a priority for her team that they don't overwhelm people by over publishing.

“People are starting to feel fatigued by the COVID-19 focus, so we have a different strategy for each platform we use,” said Amy. “You won't see the same message twice on any given platform.”

She said they're posting around twice a week on Facebook and LinkedIn, five times a week on Twitter, and three to five times a week on Instagram — which is their primary hub for community building.

With the social team playing an instrumental role in University of Phoenix's response strategy, Amy said it has also become important for them to hold the line and not overwhelm themselves.

“We need to prioritize what's most important and continue doing our normal content as well,” said Amy. “We have a strategy in place for why we do things the way we do. Standing firm to what our strategy is and why has been so helpful these past few weeks.”

So far, Amy and her team have seen positive responses to their messaging — both internally and externally.

Using social listening and knowing how your audience typically engages is invaluable. Amy Ortega
Especially on Twitter, where she said they typically see more negativity, they've seen a growing respect for what University of Phoenix does. She said the response has also shown that they're not over-messaging and that what they are posting is connecting with their audiences.

“Once this happened, brands everywhere were updating their messaging to say, ‘We're here for you, we're in this together,'” said Amy. “But, that's how we've always approached social media, so it reinforced that what we're doing the right thing.”

In the coming weeks, they will also start incorporating more integrated, broader marketing efforts across their social media channels.

One of the first integrated marketing campaigns will be a webinar series with university leaders covering topics around virtual learning and providing support. Amy said they're also looking at incorporating more stress relieving content and leaning into their Instagram Stories moving forward.

Amy said this experience taught her that, for times like this, efficiency is paramount for an effective response.

Don't feel like you have to bend over backwards to do everything that everyone's talking about that should now be on social. Stand firm on what your strategy is. Amy Ortega
“From a social lens, think about what you can act on fast.” she said. “Know your brand and know what's going to feel genuine for your brand. If it doesn't feel like it makes sense for your brand, it almost feels like you're trying to take advantage of a bad situation. Using social listening and knowing how your audience typically engages is invaluable.”

And, to keep up morale internally as a social media leader, Amy advised sharing any and all little wins.

In their daily reporting, Amy said her team is constantly sharing notable comments with their leadership.

“Those are the things your C-suite will need to see to reinforce that what you're doing is working and helping,” she said.

She also said, as everyone is feeling overwhelmed, prioritizing what you're working on becomes all the more important. “Don't feel like you have to bend over backwards to do everything that everyone's talking about that should now be on social,” she said. “Stand firm on what your strategy is and why.”

Amy Ortega has been a member of SocialMedia.org since 2019. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.