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Austin Peay State University Crisis Communication class takes on deeper meaning during COVID-19 Pandemic

APSU SportsClarksville, TN – COVID-19 Coronavirus has changed the way we interact with each other.

Going to get a gallon of milk requires warlike preparation. We don masks and gloves. We stand on tape markers to make sure we are not too close to anyone.

Austin Peay State University's Dr. Tracy Nichols, left, snaps a photo during a recent service-learning study abroad trip to England. (APSU)
Austin Peay State University’s Dr. Tracy Nichols, left, snaps a photo during a recent service-learning study abroad trip to England. (APSU)

We have had to look at our lives in a different way, and the way we communicate has changed. The way we are communicated with, on a large scale, by the government or from company public relations departments, has changed.

Dr. Tracy Nichols, assistant professor at Austin Peay State University, steered into the skid with her graduate course named Organizational Communication. As the pandemic affected everyone’s life across the globe, including students at APSU, Nichols adapted the class to focus on crisis communication.

“I examined recent crises that had various components that included perspectives from different types of organizations and themes,” Nichols said. “Communication during natural, manmade and social disasters that create crises due to our lack of effective communication. I really wanted to focus on how people and organizations were navigating crises in real time with the current pandemic.”

Nichols has been teaching full time at Austin Peay State University since 2007. The graduate course typically introduces theories and functions of organizational communication.

“I’ve always had had a unit on crisis management in the course but have never worked the class to focus entirely on it,” Nichols said. “I thought navigating the crisis would help students understand how to apply theories and concepts in real time.”

Finding catharsis during pandemic

Nichols sees it as an opportunity to approach the pandemic with “catharsis.” It was a unique opportunity to bridge the elusive gap all students come to know. Between what is taught in the classroom and what is usable.

When asked about the closest parallel to COVID’s impact on how we live and go to school, Nichols was at a loss.

“I don’t think there is one. That’s what makes this such a unique atmosphere to live and work in,” she said. “We are living in historical times that people will review and analyze for decades to come. In my career, there have been events that impacted living, work and school but not all at the same time. The flood in 2010 displaced many, including me.

“Any person or organization will experience crisis at some point. I had to teach my classes online during the flood under extremely challenging circumstances. When I worked in corporate America there was always a crisis,” Nichols said.


‘A need to connect with someone’

The important thing for Nichols is using the tools for effective communication that we often neglect. Its long-term impact is yet to be seen, but COVID-19 Coronavirus has made drastic experiments necessary. The way we view working from home will never be the same.

“When I came back to teaching in 2004, it was in the online format, so I am very comfortable with teaching online,” Nichols said. “What changed was the amount of time I spent responding to emails and having private or group video chat sessions. Students needed to reach out more and that’s what I focused on. I think part of impact of quarantine is the need to connect with someone, more so than in a normal online environment.”

This new way of working has put work and private life under the same roof. Work and family frustrations bleed into each other. Nichols is still working on finding the balance.

“Finding time to work and for everyone to be together has been challenging,” Nichols said. “I make sure my family eats dinner together and we don’t talk about school or work during this time. I don’t sweat the small stuff. I focus on my family needs and what I think my students need most.”

‘Empathy, patience, connection’

Nichols has a long history with Austin Peay State University. She completed two degrees here, her children enrolled here, and her husband is also an alumnus. She sees Austin Peay State University as her second family.

“I am passionate about Austin Peay State University,” Nichols said. “Knowing that anyone on campus in any role may be struggling makes me want to help them. This can create fatigue more than burn-out for me. The balancing act is still a work in progress.”

Nichols breaks down effective communication for her students like this: “Empathy, patience, transparency, honesty, accountability and connection. Be self and organizationally aware. Communicate often. It’s OK not to have the answers but let all of your stakeholders know. Document and plan. If your crisis plan didn’t work, what went wrong? Try to be prepared for the next unexpected crisis. Surround yourself with an impressive support team.”

Even if we aren’t trying to soothe stockholders, we could all use her advice to ensure we still want to talk with to our families when this is all over.


To learn more

For more about the APSU Department of Communication, go to https://www.apsu.edu/communication/.


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