Interview with Joseph J. Master, Drexel University

During today’s uncertain times, marketing and communications pros are being forced to operate through previously uncharted waters. To learn more about navigating this situation, we’ve interviewed communications experts across industries.

This interview is with Joseph J. Master, the Assistant Vice President, Marketing & Digital Strategy at Drexel University, a global research university located in Philadelphia.

What has been your overarching approach to communication in this time of crisis?

Empathy — for our students and their families; for our senior leadership and their families; for my team and their families; for my wife and son and parents and brothers. 

What we are dealing with is so human, so vulnerable. That’s why, in my role handling social dissemination of top-level university messaging, my team and I think long and hard about how to adjust each message for each medium to be sensitive, yet informative. To answer the questions we can and to allow commenters the space to vent. Empathy can be hard to achieve when there is vitriol. Yet, I chose higher education because I really care. I’d venture that the same is true for my colleagues, both at Drexel and at institutions across the globe. We read every comment — and we want to respond, even when we don’t have an answer.

Empathy can also mean temporarily losing the jargon for a while and recognizing other things. For instance, we do not mention anything about COVID-19 in our congratulatory posts to admitted students. They’ve had enough of their thunder stolen. They deserve to have their own electric moment.

What do you think has been your most effective communication?

In general, Instagram Stories have been huge for us in reaching people. We broke down our university-wide messages that appear on our coronavirus response site (drexel.edu/coronavirus) to digestible stories that link back to the site and individual announcements and FAQs. We all know our students are going to reddit rather than reading myriad emails in their entirety. We were kind of blown away by the ability of these ephemeral posts to reach people.

What advice do you have for people in marketing communications for whom this is their first crisis situation?   

Everyone is green until they’re not. Look to your mentors. Watch how they respond calmly when others jerk their knees. My boss appears to get calmer the crazier things get. 

I asked her two weeks ago: “How do you keep so calm?”

“Calm?” she said. “I’m not calm at all!”

To me, though, she handles it all so well. It is inspiring.

I recently watched the wonderful Flyers PR/digital media team (shout out to Sarah Schwab, Lauren Capone and Christine Mina) talk about those first 24 hours when they released Gritty out into the world. They had death threats. Calls for them to be fired. They’d never dealt with national media attention before. Yet, they got through it and were managing requests by late night talk shows within another 24 hours. And all because of one tweet telling a bird to sleep with one eye open.

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