In this case study, we’ll look at Imperial College London’s (Imperial) approach to adapting its communications strategy in response to Covid-19.
We heard from the Director of Communications at Imperial, Vickie Sheriff, who discussed the communications landscape at Imperial and their rapid reprioritisation process.
Communications at Imperial
The central communications team is made up of 30 employees. Their roles include covering community communications both internally and on main social media channels.
They are also responsible for media relations, issues, and research. The team head up the design and editorial decisions, including maintaining a brand image.
The team operate under a decentralised communications model, meaning that every member of the team has access to every channel of communication.
The team maintain Imperial’s Communications Network, which exists to bring together people who have a role in communications to:
- Share best practises
- Develop professional skills
- Support communications across Imperial
- Network 
The Communications Network hosts events, training sessions, and has guest speakers covering a range of topics across all areas of communications. The network is open to all staff with communications responsibilities, totalling roughly 140 people. 
Resetting Priorities in Response to Covid-19
Vickie and her team refocused the overarching strategy from seven broad themes to three clear priorities, providing a clear focus for a team with a wide-ranging remit. 
Maintaining a sense of community among staff and students, regardless of where they were was the first priority set by the communications team.
The team also prioritised providing factual information and reassurance, promoting and supporting Imperial’s research and researchers.
They also sought to provide expert commentary on events as they unfolded, speaking with those leading the research and relaying this back both internally, as well distributing the knowledge externally.
Realising the importance of remaining attractive to both potential and current students during such a disruptive time meant recruitment was also prioritised.
Supporting both domestic and international recruitment teams via communications was the third clear cut priority for the team.
Challenges in Reaching the Community
During the pandemic, it has been crucial to getting the right information to the right people at the right time, as the situation was constantly changing.
Not only was the pace and frequency of change a problem, but there were both staff and student-specific challenges that arose.
In terms of staff, all professional staff were working from home with very few academics and service staff still on campus. The university was also undergoing major organisational restructures that had to continue.
For students, they make up a wide-ranging community from undergraduates to post-graduate researchers, some of whom are very hard to reach with mainstream communication channels.
There was the immediate issue of switching and adapting to remote learning, and the even bigger challenge of assessments such as exams still needing to take place.
Then there was the problem of trying to maintain some semblance of the student experience, with many being deprived of any social interaction with their societies, classmates, and clubs.
Imperial’s Approach to Engaging Everyone
To disseminate information in a concise and timely manner, the communications team sent out a weekly bulletin to the whole community.
The bulletin contained the latest Covid-19 statistics and information, as well as resources to help deal with some of the challenges posed by the lockdown restrictions.
They also sent out senior leaders’ messages at key moments, to let the entire community know that they were in this together.
The university website was updated daily to offer the most up-to-date information and resources.
Imperial also launched several campaigns to try and engage their community, one being the Imperial@Home campaign which invited people to share their best tips and setups for remote working and learning.
Imperial@Home also offered the opportunity for students to connect with each other and try and enjoy the social aspect of the campaign.
There was also the Protect and Respect campaign launched to promote safer behaviours, highlighting the dangers of Covid-19 and how best to mitigate them.
They used a wide range of multi-media content to try and engage as many different segments of their audience as possible, including GIFs, animations, YouTube videos, and infographics.
These were displayed on all of Imperial’s social media channels, included in emails, and shown on digital screens around campuses.
This campaign drove a 500% increase in the website safety page traffic, with a high level of impressions, reach, and engagement on their social channels.
There was a good response from the community, with positive news stories coming from both students and staff as well as the innovative, collaborative effort that led to physics students receiving a “Lab in a Box.”
There were 51 community-focused news articles published on Imperial’s website in 2020, which aimed to inform, motivate, and comfort staff and students.
These stories also helped to highlight and raise the visibility of inspirational work that was being carried out during the pandemic by members of their community.
Challenges with Misinformation
As mentioned above one of the priorities was communicating factual information to provide reassurance and keep the community informed.
However, the university encountered both logistical and more sinister problems.
Firstly, their researchers were thrust into the spotlight and were participating in a lot more interviews than they had ever been required to, which put a drain on time and increased pressure on them to constantly be a source of wisdom.
The massive increase in demand for research and global media interest, in a time when many were working from home, was a huge hurdle for many staff members.
There was also the challenge of tackling deliberate misinformation that was rife from the outset of the pandemic.
This was particularly challenging on social media, which was exceptionally toxic around the topic of Covid-19, with many professors and researchers facing vile abuse.
The abuse on social media did materialise into genuine threats from Covid-19 deniers who claimed the pandemic was a hoax or conspiracy.
Dealing with the Increased Demand for Covid-19 Content
Imperial published over 1500 pieces related to Covid-19 in 2020. The number of media mentions Imperial received was double what they had done in 2019.
The articles and interviews sought to provide factual information, promote Imperial’s global research, and offer expert commentary.
Some of their most prolific and important work was securing funding for vaccine trials, spearheaded by Professor Robin Shattock.
The communications team targeted top-tier media to raise awareness of the funding gap for Covid-19 vaccine trials, as well as the capability of vaccine teams to produce a functional jab.
This campaign consisted of pitching the story to journalists, press releases, infographics, interviews, Twitter threads, and ‘Ask Me Anything’ sessions on Reddit.
The team secured a ‘Today’ programme interview and ITV News package, as well as extensive coverage on other UK news outlets.
The Government announced £22.5 million in funding for the vaccine trials to commence at Imperial as a result of the campaign, which was followed by a further government pledge of £18.5 million, as well as £4 million received in philanthropic donations.
To further raise the profiles of academics, spots were secured on ‘Question Time’ as well a host of other interviews from Robert Peston, and international news outlets.
On social media, Imperial’s Instagram page had huge increases in engagement as people sought out ‘nice’ content.
The university’s YouTube account increased the production of videos by over 50% from 2019, resulting in an increase of 66% in terms of views.
The communications team also put out a lot of photos from inside Imperial’s labs and from their College Photography Blog. 35 Covid-19 related shoots were undertaken to produce 1370 images.
Challenges to Recruitment
For many potential university students, the decision of whether to go into higher education during such an unknown period was a hard decision to make.
This was not made easier by the “A level exams fiasco” which put hundreds of thousands of students in difficult and anxious situations.
Not only was attracting new students difficult, ensuring current students would return for the 20/21 academic year was also proving exceptionally challenging, with many not wanting to risk being quarantined in their university accommodation only to have to learn remotely.
Establishing the Imperial Brand
In response to these challenges, the team went from passive to active recruitment, which meant instead of relying on the university’s impressive academic record, they had to create better brand recognition for Imperial.
The postgraduate brand redesign saw a 15% increase in applications across the Faculty of Medicine, as well as a 9% increase in applications for Engineering courses.
Throughout 2020 the communications team published 43 recruitment and retention focussed news articles.
These articles aimed to reassure prospective home and international students of Imperial’s ability to pivot its educational offer to the new remote climate.
Stories reported on new developments in online teaching and learning and showcased the university’s willingness to listen to the concerns of their target audiences.
 Sheriff, Vickie. Director of Communications, Imperial College London. 2021. Adapting Communications Strategies in Response to Covid-19
 Imperial.ac.uk. 2021. Communications Network
 Imperial.ac.uk. 2021. Lab in a box remote experiments