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Hail to the Tweeps
Hail to the Tweeps

College and university presidents take to social media

By Michael Stoner


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Celia Johnson for CASE



"If the president of the United States has a Twitter account, then why wouldn't every university leader?" asks Cheryl Schrader, chancellor of Missouri University of Science and Technology, who tweets as @SandTChancellor. She's been tweeting for only a few months, but she's well aware of the positive implications it can have on her institution's brand, if done right.

Indeed. Engaging with stakeholders on social media channels can burnish a brand's reputation, according to an early 2012 survey conducted by BRANDfog, a social media branding firm that caters to CEOs. The study found that 82 percent of respondents "were more likely to trust a company whose CEO and leadership team engage in social media." In addition, 94 percent said that such participation enhances the brand's image.

Still, few corporate CEOs are active on social media, according to CEO.com. The same holds true for most college and university presidents, at least in their roles as institutional leaders. And like corporate CEOs, college and university presidents cite many reasons for not using Twitter, Facebook, or other social media to communicate with their constituents. Many say they already have enough demands on their time, and they hesitate to spend more of it on social media channels that may have little apparent return. Others are concerned about what might happen if they post or tweet something that could have negative consequences for their institution or for them personally. Some even recount examples of social media interactions that have made headlines and created public relations headaches for other institutions.

While having an active social media presence is not yet part of the job description for institutional leaders, those who have incorporated such channels into their communications find them valuable for connecting with constituents; sharing their values, insights, and knowledge; and marketing their institutions to a broader audience. Presidents tweet, post, and blog to voice their opinions on current education topics; inform people about campus news and activities; praise students, faculty, and staff; promote faculty research; and highlight campus and alumni events, often including pictures.

Brave new media world

Perhaps the best-known proponent of social media among current presidents is Walter M. Kimbrough, who became president of Louisiana's Dillard University in July 2012. Eight years before starting his present leadership post, Kimbrough, who has maintained an active Facebook presence since 2007 and blogs at hiphopprez.blogspot.com, was dubbed the "Hip-Hop Prez" by students at Philander Smith College in Arkansas. In late 2009, he adopted the nickname as his Twitter handle—@HipHopPrez.

Savvy presidents appreciate how social media channels can help them connect with different audiences, particularly students. For instance, Robert Wyatt, president of Coker College, credits Facebook with helping him break down barriers with students on the South Carolina campus. Although he initially began using the tool out of personal interest, he soon saw its potential for communicating with students when they started friending him. He's able to keep tabs on campus issues that he might not know about if he weren't on Facebook.

"Because students are intimidated by the president, they're not going to come up to me on campus and talk," he says. "But on Facebook they do. It allows me to do a virtual walking tour of campus and communicate in a way that I'd otherwise find hard to do."

Whether Southern New Hampshire University's more than 13,000 students are enrolled online, at one of its five regional centers, or on it main campus, students can always connect with President Paul LeBlanc, @snhuprez, on Twitter.

"As my job has become more external, I've found it hard to get to know as many students as I once could," he says. "But they know they can reach me on Twitter and I respond almost immediately. I think it's important for them to know that they can reach the president when they need to."

Leaders can encourage individual students by praising their academic or athletic accomplishments—or advise them when they're doing something untoward by using the direct, private messaging options that social media channels offer.

"Facebook allows you to validate students' hard work and effort by liking what they post," says Dan Porterfield, president of Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania, who also tweets as @danporterfield. "When they feel liked and respected by someone they respect, that allows them to take the risk of growth."

As some institutions expand beyond a single physical campus, social media are becoming increasingly important channels. When Webster University President Elizabeth (Beth) Stroble heard Jack Dorsey, Twitter's founder and executive chairman, speak on her Missouri campus in fall 2009, she realized that the platform would be a great tool to help her overcome the challenges she faced in communicating with students and staff at her institution's 100-plus locations in the United States, Europe, and Asia. Within a day, she began tweeting from the handle @websterpres.

In addition to keeping up with constituents, presidents find that Twitter and other social media help them stay abreast of news and research.

"My whole world of understanding and connections has expanded—positively—because of Twitter," says Anne M. Kress, president of New York's Monroe Community College, who tweets as @MCCPresident. "Its immediacy keeps me informed on the go and in real time about local, national, and global issues in higher education and in broader terms. … I would not go back to a pre-Twitter life."

Social media relations

By virtue of their positions, presidents quickly learn that their tweets are often amplified. Soon after Stroble began sharing her institution's stories, she discovered that her tweets were reaching beyond her Webster constituents to a broader audience, notably journalists, who often use Twitter to monitor news and find story ideas as well as sources. As a result, she was profiled by a local St. Louis business newspaper as the first in a series on local executives who tweet.

Wyatt, who tweets as @robertlwyatt, took to Twitter a while after he had been using Facebook and has been surprised by the different audiences he reaches on each medium. While he connects with students and the university community on Facebook, journalists and foundation representatives are more likely to contact him because of something he's tweeted.

Likewise, many of LeBlanc's followers are reporters and policymakers who use Twitter as a way to track what's going on in higher education. In fact, his tweeting has even resulted in an invitation to meet with U.S. Senate staff members, simply because one of them follows him on Twitter.

"There are a lot of people in higher education media and policy who follow me," he says. "Prior to social media, how would I get on the radar screen of people who matter?"

Ferdinand von Prondzynski, principal and vice-chancellor at Robert Gordon University in Scotland, had a slightly different experience in that his blog—launched in 2008 as a two-way conversation with faculty members and students when he was president of Dublin City University in Ireland—was what brought him to the media's attention.

"I started my blog as an internal communications tool to let faculty and students know what was in my mind and allowing them to comment," says von Prondzynski, whose Twitter handle is @vonprond. "It was picked up by the media and given more prominence than I had anticipated." His blog led to a column in The Irish Times newspaper.

But simply being active on social media channels won't garner campus coverage. A president who wants to connect with reporters needs to share substantive information. Menachem Wecker, education reporter at U.S. News & World Report and an active Twitter user, acknowledges that while stakeholders may enjoy a president's institutional cheerleading, to him, it's a turnoff.

"I have seen very few, if any, instances of college or university presidents actually using any social media platform whatsoever in a manner that struck me as strategic and conversational in the least," Wecker says. "I'm very unlikely to subscribe to handles of deans and other senior administrators, let alone presidents, because they tend to echo vague talking points, run their updates like RSS feeds of [the institution's] press releases, only retweet others' comments, or some combination thereof."

Tool time

It's important that presidents find the social media tools that suit their communication style and needs. Most importantly, they need to keep in mind that an essential ingredient for social media success is frequent engagement, according to Kress.

"As my Twitter followers can attest, that's not an issue for me," she says. "But if a president would consider it an unwelcome chore, she shouldn't do it."

In addition to using Twitter, which allows for quick communication with individual followers and with a wider public audience, Kress and LeBlanc also take time to blog, which gives them the opportunity to write longer and more nuanced communications.

Before Schrader began tweeting, she consulted her communications staff and discussed priorities. "It was her idea to use Twitter," says Andrew Careaga, director of communications at Missouri S&T. "We worked out some goals, including increasing visibility among current and prospective students, alumni, faculty, and staff; increasing accessibility to those audiences; and increasing awareness of her leadership in STEM." Both Careaga and Schrader are familiar with the BRANDfog data and hope that her Twitter engagement also will boost trust in Schrader's leadership and her team.

Although Wyatt, who also blogs for The Huffington Post, is a Twitter user, he considers Facebook to be a more effective channel for him. About half of Coker College's trustees now follow him, he says, and like his fans who are students, faculty, staff, and community members, the trustees enjoy staying on top of what's happening on campus. "I pride myself on being transparent, so Facebook is a natural fit for me," he says.

While Stroble's Twitter presence has helped garner attention for her institution, lately she has also been looking to Facebook more often to communicate with Webster's internal audiences.

Social guidance

Presidents who use social media say that the most important advice they can offer a newcomer is to be yourself and be authentic. According to Schrader, authenticity means that campus leaders should not only "avoid institutionalese," but that they should also author and post their own tweets.

Showing personality and having a sense of humor on these channels also go a long way toward humanizing a president. Followers want to learn more about the human being behind the role—something that's not always apparent to those who see presidents primarily at commencement, Founder's Day, homecoming, or other ceremonial events.

"Part of my brand is a personal and professional blend," Stroble says. "I'll share photos of my family occasionally, but I won't go into great detail [on] my personal opinions about things. If I wanted to do that, I'd use a different Twitter feed."

Presidents advise people to remember that when you're using social media, you are in public. Kress' motto: "Be yourself, but also be aware of your audience and your role."

That's good advice for anyone to follow, but it's particularly cogent for deans, provosts, and others who may be candidates for a presidency. In fact, evaluating a person's social media identity—including his or her Facebook presence, tweets, and blog posts—is now part of the vetting process in presidential searches, according to Jamie Ferrare, senior vice president of the Association of Governing Boards and principal at AGB Search. However, Dennis M. Barden, senior vice president in the higher education practice at the executive recruitment firm Witt/Kieffer, says that a candidate's social media experience isn't something that yet concerns board members, likely because they're not particularly engaged with these channels themselves. "Boards are focused on outcomes," he says, adding that what they want is a president who will strengthen the institution's brand.

While presidents who are active on social media are the exception today, as these channels become more embedded in our lives, social CEOs will likely become the rule. Presidents who are already active are harbingers of the campus CEO of the future.

"In five years, no one will even think about asking this question," Ferrare says. "It will be assumed that a president is using social media."

About the Author Michael Stoner Michael Stoner

Michael Stoner is the president of mStoner, a Chicago-based communications and marketing consulting firm.

 

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