Working Through a Pandemic

Alums and students get creative while telling stories during COVID-19.

By Amanda Fretheim Gates
Image from a series entitled "Behind Closed Doors" by Nicole Wolf

COVID-19 affected workplaces everywhere. Hubbard School alums are spread across many industries—a majority of them in charge of communicating to patrons, customers, fans, viewers, readers, employees and many others. One of the amazing developments to come out of this pandemic is how quickly people adapted at work. How do you promote an arts organization after it closes indefinitely? How do you run digital media for a sports team that’s benched for the season? How do you thoughtfully tell your client’s stories during a crisis that no one has ever experienced before? There’s no rule book for this, so many companies have had to make their own. Here are just a few examples of our alumni telling stories in the pandemic.  

Sports Come to a Stop

Shahbaz Khan (B.A. ’15) is the director of digital content for the Timberwolves and Lynx. At the time of publication, the NBA last played a game on March 11, 2020, and the Lynx had plans for a truncated season in late July. How does a sports franchise rethink its digital game when it doesn’t have scores, game photos, trades or drafts to share?

“First and foremost, we wanted to ensure we weren't forcing content during this period. Any of our plans to post content required us to ensure that there was a natural tie that made sense.

“Initially, this meant highlighting what our players were doing, sharing relevant information pertaining to team efforts to help combat the crisis, and finding creative ways to share messages that would promote slowing the spread of COVID-19.

“For us, like many others, not having an answer in terms of what's next has been a challenge from a digital perspective. Countrywide, we're all at a standstill in terms of how, when, and if our world will get back to ‘normal.’

“My team does a fantastic job finding content opportunities that come naturally, and I'm extremely proud of their efforts in this difficult time. We think of things from a content-first perspective, meaning we will only post if we feel like we're contributing something of substance.

“The WNBA Draft was held virtually, and as a build up to that, Taylor Nardinger, our social media coordinator (and U of M alum) put together a robust plan leading up to the draft that engaged our audiences. My favorite piece during that period was her idea to create custom Lynx wallpapers featuring fans' last names for their phones. Additionally, on the Wolves side, Cody Sharrett, our social media manager, put together an NCAA-esque March Madness bracket featuring Timberwolves uniforms over the years to determine which of our jerseys is best in our fans' eyes.

“The good thing for us working in sports is that we're used to planning for unknowns. We often have to prepare for several different outcomes from a game-night perspective, and given so, there's a level of familiarity with uncertainty that we have. Truthfully, I think it's these unknown scenarios that we work best in.” —Interviewed on April 24, 2020

Students Speak

“With classes moving online, it made it harder to be motivated to complete assignments or give value to the work I was doing because it didn’t 100 percent feel like I was in school. This lack of motivation wasn’t exclusive to academics either. Overall I took on fewer things which allowed me to process what’s happening in the world with COVID-19 and the xenophobia/racism against Asian-Americans. I know that we will get through this time with our community and supporting one another.” —Yoko Vue, Senior

Grocers on the Front Lines

Aaron Sorenson (B.A. ’99) is the senior communications manager for Lunds & Byerlys and is responsible for communicating out to 27 stores, two production facilities and one distribution center. During the pandemic, grocery store employees, including corporate employees such as Sorenson, were considered essential workers. Because the COVID-19 pandemic proved to be an ever-evolving situation, Sorenson’s job focus shifted primarily to the company’s response and to communicating frequent updates to staff, customers and the media.

“We have an incredible team that continues to deliver an exceptional level of service to our customers. We are communicating with them in a variety of ways with our internal social platform serving as our primary communication channel. This includes video messages from our CEO expressing gratitude to our staff and sharing updates about our COVID-19 actions. We also have a dedicated page on our internal platform that provides answers to our staff’s frequently asked questions and information about key resources available to them during this unprecedented time. We are also frequently sharing with our team the many messages of appreciation from customers, including sidewalk art in front of some of our stores and prominent “thank you” messages in the windows of buildings in downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul.

“Given the safety of our staff and customers is always our top priority, we want to do everything we can to ensure we’re here to serve the community in the safest environment possible. That means we need to quickly make decisions that align with ever-evolving guidance from local and national health authorities and then quickly communicate those updates to staff, customers and the media.

“This has further confirmed what a great team we have here at Lunds & Byerlys. Despite all of the stress and challenges this situation has presented, we have collectively never wavered from the key factor in all of our decisions—the safety of our staff and customers.” —Interviewed April 27, 2020

Students Speak

“Originally, I had a really hard time in quarantine, because I’m someone who is constantly on the go. But being stuck inside allowed me to spend a lot of much-needed time with my roommates, whom I adore, and also just spend some time with myself, without owing other people my attention as well. I was able to really focus on figuring out who I am, and what I want to do with my life. Despite being stuck inside, I was also able to reflect on what I’m grateful for, which has been a blessing, because I don’t really ever have the time to stop and think about it.” —Sammy Caldwell, Senior

Arts Go Dark?

Amy Nelson (M.A. ’02) is the communications manager at Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota. She oversees social media channels, writes press releases, conducts interviews, shares stories, and manages the internal and external communications for the venue. Because Northrop sits on the University’s campus, the venue had to follow the directives coming from the top. Nelson and her team had to shift messaging quickly once the venue couldn’t present the works of their partners and upcoming bookings.

“We wrote a very specific COVID-19 communications plan that aligned with the University’s key messages to help guide us on what content and stories should come from Northrop. We started a weekly ‘Northrop MOVES Online’ email newsletter written by Northrop Director Kari Schloner and we started posting daily inspiration resources on our social media channels throughout the workweek. We created a ‘Curtain Speech’ video specific to the event that was canceled and sent a link to that to ticket holders the day the event was scheduled. For example, the day that University of Minnesota Organist Dean Billmeyer was to perform his faculty recital, we created a video with a recording of Billmeyer previously performing on Northrop's pipe organ.

“I'm amazed at how supportive everyone in the arts has been with each other and how collaborative the dance companies and other performers who were to perform at Northrop have been with us. Many are willing to record personalized videos and offer other ways to stay connected with us and with their fans. A remarkable number of patrons donated the value of their tickets for canceled events, which we appreciate.

“It’s hard to stay positive while dealing with the disappointment of not being able to physically join together in the theater to experience live performances. There have been a great number of digital arts ideas shared but there's always something unique about experiencing the events live and all together in one location. “I know a lot of organizations are all thinking of ways to still present artists while offering social distancing seating options. We will need to keep everyone safe. Ticketing and pricing likely will change drastically. I suspect there will be a lot of stories about resilience and community, too.” —Interviewed April 27, 2020

Students Speak

“I understand that the consequences of the coronavirus should not take away from all of the hard work I’ve done throughout the past four years. I am incredibly proud of myself for persevering and building resiliency during this major transition period.” —Hamy Huynh, Class of 2020

A Museum Online

Tim Gihring (B.A. ’95) is the brand narrator at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (Mia). Gihring writes and edits for the Mia blog, documents the museum’s impact on the community, and ensures the stories they tell in the galleries and online are as engaging as the art. Gihring also writes and hosts Mia’s podcast The Object, now in its second season of exploring the strange and wonderful true stories behind museum objects. The museum closed its doors in March but has continued to share art in many different ways.

“We've put a lot of content online that would ordinarily be in the galleries: more art history, more images of art. But we've also tripled the number of stories we're telling on the blog and in social media—we have weekly brainstorms. What are people thinking and feeling this week? What seems relevant? We used to plan stories several months out; now it feels important to let the moment dictate the agenda.

“We often say that nothing compares to seeing art in person, and it's true. But we've also never had so much engagement online as we're seeing now. People want something beautiful and timeless and familiar, even if it's the size of a stamp on their phone, and we kind of had to be forced out of the museum to realize that. “But, at the end of the day, the primary ‘products’ of the museum are still physical objects and exhibitions that put them in context, and no amount of storytelling can make that available to us.

“A lot of people were already going to museums for solitude and solace, and now I think we'll emphasize that sense of refuge and generosity in the galleries and our storytelling. The podcast, for example, had already proven how popular a playful approach to museum storytelling could be, and it's only become more successful in this moment. I think the crisis will accelerate this kind of responsiveness to our audience, to really meet people where they're at—physically and emotionally.” —Interviewed April 24, 2020

Students Speak

“I had a strong feeling I wouldn’t like the online classes because I learn best through discussion and face-to-face communication, but the online forums held me accountable to still attend my classes. in an odd turn of events, I think they allowed me to create stronger relationships with my professors. Since we no longer convened for in-person classes, I couldn’t ask questions in the same way I did before. it was really on me to reach out and clarify or remedy any situations I might have.” —Christina Harisiadis, Senior

Showing Brands the Way

Luke Behrends (B.A. ’04) and his wife, Meranne, run a strategic ad agency called Words from the Woods in Maine. The two tag-team the work while also taking care of their young daughter. They have clients who are considered essential businesses so they’ve used their skills to help these businesses tell the right stories. Below Behrends talks about two clients—MaineHealth and Androscoggin Bank—that needed strategic help during the pandemic.

“MaineHealth is basically the Mayo Clinic system of Northern New England. With 13 hospitals, they're an authority and leading voice in the region. You need to be very careful and particular with what you're saying because 1.3 million people are looking to you for hope and guidance. We ended up mirroring the messages in our ads to the Governor's announcements and followed the Maine CDC daily to stay ahead of things and be as topical as humanly possible.

“For Androscoggin we'd already shot an entire summer campaign that was primed and ready to launch. COVID-19 forced us to put things on hold and quickly pivot to what Maine business owners needed to hear right now: encouraging words and tangible solutions. We believe if you don't have anything valuable to say, stay out of the conversation.

“I’m pleasantly surprised how our agency came together and not only made it out, but became better for it. Zoom calls sound fun, but are also a pain and our best work has always come when we're kicking stuff around in the office together. The way our team has stuck together and persevered through all of this to still grind and churn out solid work is a testament to their skills and our camaraderie.

“You have to be adaptable or you're not going to be around at the end of this. This new normal everybody's talking about is a real thing and as a small independent ad agency, we didn't have the luxury of waiting it out. We had to shift the entire way we worked, moving at the speed of light and making more with less.” —Interviewed May 29, 2020

Students Speak

“Each day of the crisis brought its own feelings. As we got closer to graduation, I felt more and more sentimental about how the Class of 2020’s time was coming to an end. But through it all, I am thankful for the support of my family, friends and teachers as I prepare to head into the unknown. I am forever grateful for the opportunities that I had at the University of Minnesota and I'm optimistic about where they will lead me.” —Norah Kleven, Class of 2020

Keeping the Community Connected

Amy Every (B.A. ’04) was just named the director of communications at Mayo Clinic Health System in LaCrosse, Wisc., in February when she was tasked with leading her team’s response to COVID-19.

“As experts have learned more about the virus, information and recommendations have been constantly changing, which can lead to confusion among our staff and in the community. And for my colleagues across the organization, this is the first time in our careers that we are facing a pandemic. I've been so impressed by how everyone has really pulled together and risen to the challenge and is doing their very best work under unique and stressful circumstances.

“Creating frequent updates to all staff via email has been effective in making sure that everyone is receiving the same information. We have also been holding virtual town hall meetings every week so staff can get information and ask questions directly from the leadership team. Those have been really well received by staff.

“From the patient and public standpoint, our website has really been important as the source of truth for information regarding our services, visitor restrictions, COVID-19 screening, etc. Our media partners have also been very receptive and helpful with sharing updates from the organization with the broader community.” —Interviewed May 29, 2020

Students Speak

“This time helped me reflect on why I chose Strategic Communication in the first place: to connect with people, learn how to be a step-up-to-the plate player and embody flexibility. While I internalized those aspects of my major, I also accepted my downfalls.” —Gabriella Sonnenschein, Class of 2020

Luke Behrends and family