Andrew S. Pyle is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at Clemson University. Pyle’s research focuses on the intersection of Crisis Communication and Intercultural Communication, as well as on the ways that organizations use social media to manage crises. Pyle is also an award-winning teacher, having received Clemson’s 2019-2020 Faculty Senator of the Year Award and 2019 College of Behavioral, Social, and Health Sciences Award for Excellence in Service/Outreach. With Clemson Communication Professor D. Travers Scott, Pyle developed a study abroad program in Germany focused on strategic communication. Since 2019, Pyle has been part of the Clemson faculty-in-residence program and resides in Mickel Hall on campus as part of an effort to develop community on campus.
1. In a 2018 article in NCA’s Journal of Applied Communication Research, you examined the “crisis sojourner,” referring to emergency responders who were deployed to international crises. What did your interviews with the emergency responders reveal about their awareness of cultural differences and local values?
Working on that study provided me the opportunity to look into a world with which I would otherwise have had no connection. The lessons and stories I was able to collect from those interactions were astounding. These are individuals who work as firefighters and emergency medical technicians (EMTs) during their day jobs, but who could also be called up at short notice to deploy internationally to respond to a disaster. Because this team regularly deploys internationally, they are fairly engaged with a range of cultural dynamics. Not everyone was prepared at the same level of cross-cultural competence, but for the most part these individuals were mindful of local values and norms. However, some of the participants spoke at length about how much more they wish they had done or could do to be better prepared to engage with local residents when they deploy. One of the key takeaways was that regular, recurring training with a specific focus on cultural competence and communication effectiveness is vital to the success of a response entity like this one.
2. You’re also interested in how organizations use social media to manage crises. Thinking about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, what are some observations that you’ve made about institutional use of social media during this time?
Because I’m a professor, I tend to think about this question in the context of universities. A lot of people have been and are continuing to study various aspects of organizational responses to the pandemic, and we’re really still trying to figure out where we stand. Throughout the pandemic, most organizations (especially universities) have struggled with how to balance the kinds of promotional engagement they would typically employ on social media platforms with official, informational messaging about pandemic response. I recall at one point early in the pandemic people were upset with some organizations that seemed to be ignoring the pandemic and trying to push their planned social media content. Obviously, that’s not the case anymore – COVID-19 is just part of our world now.
If I had to offer a takeaway for organizational social media use during the pandemic (or any crisis), it would be to engage meaningfully with the issues that are most salient to your stakeholders. If there’s a relevant crisis, you better be talking about it on social media, especially if it’s something you need to be responding to with more than promotional messaging. But it’s also an opportunity to tell stories you may not otherwise tell. We’ve got a team at Clemson that developed a saliva test and runs a lab that has enabled the university to test everyone on campus once per week since we came back to campus in Fall of 2020. That’s really amazing, and it’s because we tapped into the expertise of Clemson faculty to meet the needs of the community. Those are the kind of stories organizations should tell, and social media is a good place to do that. It tells your community that you’re really working to stay on top of the crisis. More institutions should be looking for those kinds of opportunities.
3. Do you have any advice for how institutions can effectively use social media to communicate about large-scale crises, like the pandemic, in the future?
The most important thing is to be honest, up front, and transparent – in all messaging, including social media. I regularly hear people saying that they feel like leaders across organizational contexts have been disingenuous or unwilling to be transparent. I know faculty at a lot of institutions have felt this way, and I have friends in industry settings who have felt this way as well. If you want to be really effective with social media messaging, you need to have a team that is equipped to operate in that space well – it takes training, skill, and expertise to run a strong and effective social campaign. Companies still skimp on that area – they assume that an untrained intern can just run things on social because they’re young. Organizations that are thriving on social platforms are doing so because they have a well-equipped team, a set strategy, and sufficient resources invested to make the effort successful. If you have a well-trained team with resources, and you’re willing to be transparent (even when the only news is bad news), you’ll be in a good spot heading into the next crisis.
4. You’ve developed a study abroad program. What do you think study abroad programs offer students?
I could do an entire “5 Questions” about this topic, but I’ll try to keep this focused and direct – study abroad fundamentally changed my educational experience when I was an undergraduate student. It opened up doors for me and introduced me to areas of study that I didn’t know existed. I was incredibly fortunate to get to study abroad, and so I wanted to create similar opportunities for students when I became an instructor.
Our culture tends to be invisible to us until something confronts us to help us see it. It took leaving the country and studying abroad for me to get a clear picture of my own culture, values, and worldview. Study abroad is the avenue via which students can have their entire future expanded. I don’t think that’s an overstatement – if anything, it fails to capture how valuable study abroad is. If I could wave a magic wand and change one thing about higher education, it would be to make it financially and logistically feasible for every student to study abroad for at least a semester. I believe it’s the single most potentially life-changing experience a college student can have.
5. You’re also part of the faculty-in-residence program at Clemson. What inspired you to participate in this program?
A lot of universities have developed these kinds of programs, but I had not heard of it before coming to Clemson. My family lives in an apartment in a residence hall (a full two-bedroom apartment, not a dorm room if that’s what you’re envisioning). The role has no disciplinary expectations, so it’s like my family is there to be the fun uncle/aunt/nephews.
Prior to this, I’d been involved in student-centric programming for a few years – I think it’s really important to engage with students outside of the classroom. I got into this career because I love working with students. When the opportunity to be part of this residential program presented itself, my wife and I decided it would be an excellent way to connect with and support a small piece of the Clemson community. We work with first-year students, who generally need the most support of any students on campus. We have programming to help it feel more like home (like setting up in the lobby with cookies/cupcakes, or running a lemonade stand at lunchtime). I know this isn’t for everyone – you have to give up any sense of “getting away from campus” while you’re in a role like this. But for us, it was a great opportunity. During the pandemic we’ve had to be really creative about how to have safe, socially distant programming – but it’s been even more important the past two years than it was before COVID hit. Our students are craving this kind of community support and engagement. More universities should develop this kind of program. It can have a real impact.
Watch a video with additional insights from Andrew!