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SickTok: PR Lessons Universities Learned in Campus Reopenings

Published on September 18, 2020, at 9:51 a.m.
by Kathleen McManus.

As universities prepared to isolate students who tested positive for COVID-19, did they anticipate how students would use social media? Students immediately shared a steady stream of content on TikTok For You pages and Twitter feeds about life in isolation dorms, highlighting how schools often were not adequately prepared.

These videos and images shed light on some of the mistakes universities made during these reopening efforts. The user-generated content created during COVID-19 campus reopenings caused communication issues and opportunities, illustrating three public relations lessons:

Control the message
Since school began, many students who tested positive or were exposed to the virus moved into quarantine dorms. While isolated from human interaction, they were not cut off from social media and often used it to share their experience, especially when conditions were less than expected.

An onslaught of negative TikTok videos from New York University depicted nearly inedible meals. Following the crisis communication model of controlling the message, established by Johnson & Johnson’s response to the 1982 Tylenol poisonings, NYU took quick action and communicated immediately. The school issued a statement to students apologizing and outlining how it was working to correct the mistake.

In using TikTok, students created widespread awareness of the situation and a negative impression of NYU’s preparedness. NYU’s quick response changed the narrative by showing its concern and willingness to take care of isolated students.

Lesson learned: Take action and communicate quickly to control the message.

Keep publics informed
As campuses reopened, students and their parents demanded to know how universities would keep students safe. Schools published isolation plans on their owned and shared media platforms.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

According to many university reopening plans like NC State University’s and University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s, students on the dining plan are guaranteed meals while in isolation. Students at these universities, however, revealed on TikTok that the schools failed to keep this promise. Students shared that their rooms were skipped when meals were delivered, leaving them isolated and hungry.


Today, publics demand that brands deliver on their promises. As universities experienced difficulties implementing their isolation plans, students were quick to publicize their shortcomings and generate a negative impression of the universities’ efforts.

Lesson learned: Keeping publics informed is essential, but be prepared if you cannot deliver.

Social media provides connection
Social media was initially created to connect individuals. In creating content, isolated college students are seeking interaction, whether through empathy or acknowledgement. Universities have the opportunity to leverage social media to create a positive connection with students.

The University of Florida used a fun TikTok video to highlight the contents of its Gator Care Kit. Saint Louis University showcased on Instagram the care packages distributed to quarantined students. Both schools used social media to create a connection by demonstrating their care for students.

Lesson learned: Leverage social media to engage publics.

While student response to campus reopenings sparked public relations challenges, it also provided key lessons for controlling the message with actionable content and making connections with key stakeholders.

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