Abington crisis communication course tackles COVID-19 pandemic

Man shown with his computer

Melvin Gupton, assistant professor of corporate communication at Penn State Abington.

Credit: Penn State

Penn State Abington corporate communication students who are enrolled in a risk and crisis management course are gaining real-world experience as they examine the coronavirus pandemic and the figures associated with this crisis. While the students are sympathetic to the fact that these numbers are associated with death, illness and an incredible negative economic impact, the lessons associated with this pandemic allow students an opportunity to develop guidance that the government and even individuals could follow.  

Their work is taking place outside of the traditional classroom setting since Abington transitioned to remote learning last month due to COVID-19.

“The class voted to scrap their individual crisis research projects in favor a collaborative, multipronged report analyzing the coronavirus using content from their textbook, research articles, news reporting, social media, and personal experience,” said Melvin Gupton, assistant professor of corporate communication.

The students split into five teams for the data collection phase of the project.

The academic literature review team is identifying and locating articles from the past 12 years that deal with viruses and infectious diseases. They are uploading the abstracts along with key findings from the articles and how they relate to what the nation is experiencing with COVID-19. Their final document will showcase their results and common threads from the research discussions.

Students on the newspaper scan team are using The New York Times to track COVID-19 from its infancy in China to today. They will assemble newspaper headlines that paint a narrative of the pandemic before it was labeled as such. 

“The daily headlines tell a clear story of the transmission of the coronavirus,” Gupton said.

The newspaper scan team is divided into four tracks.

  • Track 1: They are identifying the number of cases worldwide and the infection rates in the top countries from December to the present and graphing the results. 
  • Track 2: Students are tracing statements from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization leading up to the designation of the virus as a pandemic. They are tasked with identifying the changing recommendations and policies.
  • Track 3: These students are focusing a newspaper scan on the unprecedented change reflected in the stock indexes by tracing financial data since February and describing and graphing the change. They will then provide leading indicators of what some are predicting as a global recession. 
  • Track 4: They are focusing the newspaper examination on how COVID-19 is changing daily life and how we learn, socialize, and relate in an era of social distancing. They are also exploring the guidelines being implemented by different states.  

“In addition to the threat and sometimes destruction that is inherent in a crisis, there are also opportunities for renewal and resiliency following a crisis.”

-- Melvin Gupton, assistant professor of corporate communication

The third team is informally surveying friends, family, and peers and categorizing their thinking about the coronavirus into themes. 

Team 4 is performing an informal survey of social media. Students chose a platform and are sampling what types of ideas, memes, entries, and likes people are sharing. They are organizing their selections according to broad themes. 

The last team is examining the governmental response to the pandemic. Gupton told these students that they must "check their political views at the virtual door." 

These students are identifying the early and evolving statements from the federal government. Understanding that crises are fluid and full of uncertainty, they are tracking the responses from the federal government prior to and after the organization of the national coronavirus task force. Finally, these students will identify who is on the task force and track their recommendations in the media.  

Once all teams complete the discovery phase, they will then graduate to the next two segments, data analysis and reporting. Students will weave their findings into a single document, The Coronavirus Project: Responding in a Pandemic. It will combine their knowledge and research and present specific recommendations for future pandemic responses. 
“In addition to the threat and sometimes destruction that is inherent in a crisis, there are also opportunities for renewal and resiliency following a crisis,” Gupton said.

All teams will present their findings during the final two Zoom classes of the semester.

About Penn State Abington
Penn State Abington provides an affordable, accessible and high-impact education resulting in the success of a diverse student body. It is committed to student success through innovative approaches to 21st-century public higher education within a world-class research university. With about 3,700 students, Penn State Abington is a residential campus that offers baccalaureate degrees in 21 majors, undergraduate research, the Schreyer honors program, NCAA Division III athletics, and more