FOSM: Fear of Social Media—Why Higher Ed Presidents Fear Social Media, and What They Can Do About It

One of the questions that surfaced early following our presentation of the 2016 Independent College Presidents Survey at the CIC Presidents Institute this month had to do with social media and how to set policy for campus personnel.

The interest in social media is widening, given the growing familiarity with its purpose and use, the rising number of social media outlets and the increased accessibility of technological tools. Social media users have risen by 176 million in the past year. As of mid-2016, more than a half-billion tweets were posted each day on Twitter alone, and there are more than 500,000 Facebook “likes” every minute. Such outlets reduce the barriers between a user’s thoughts or opinions and their ability to share them with the rest of humanity. This convenience of posting a message, image or link can make it difficult for campuses to keep up with any social media activity that relates to the institution.

Certainly, social media allows for effective storytelling in a way that is immediate, wide-reaching and low-cost, all of which make its use appealing to higher ed. Hundreds of success stories exist about the effective use of social media for colleges and universities in recruiting students, building awareness, raising money, increasing applications, engaging alumni, reaching younger alumni and promoting events. Its ease of use and accessibility, however, make control impossible given the number of users on campus. You may host several official sites on various outlets, but faculty, staff, students and alumni have the freedom to host sites of their own and post messages that may or may not align with your institution’s mission or platform. Yet, in this world of transparency, the management of your marketing messaging has become more important than ever.

FOSM: Fear of Social Media

The question raised about social media at the CIC Institute, I believe, had more to do with the angst college presidents feel over their limited ability to control it, and less to do with how to put it to good use. This may have been fueled by a recent social media snafu involving a Drexel University faculty member and a potentially inflammatory tweet made from their personal Twitter account. The point of this post is not to defend nor denounce this particular tweet; I merely cite it as an example of how quickly a social media firestorm can spread.

Maybe you’ve heard of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). I think many presidents have FOSM (Fear of Social Media). Most presidents fear what a social media misstep might cost them: a student? A donor? A week of meetings and phone calls? For every social media success story, there’s a parallel failure and sometimes a disaster requiring recovery that can cost time, energy and money. And that causes fear. But you can take steps now to assuage the fear and know with confidence that your campus-wide implementations of social media can be successful in spite of the potential pitfalls that come with the territory.

Don’t expect control, but plan for management

When it comes to having people who are excited to share your wonderful story, you want everyone in on the social media front, so invite them all to chime in. But be aware that you cannot control the outcome. Their “wonderful” story might be a little different than yours. Some people that you love, respect and admire will say things that you would not. Or say them in a way that you would not. Some will be more transparent—way more transparent—than you prefer. Some may be critical or cynical or use a style of humor that not all audiences will understand as humor.

An open invitation to participate doesn’t mean a free-for-all approach to your institution’s social media. You need to plan to manage. That sounds a little redundant, but it’s intentional. Before you manage, plan to manage.

To begin, you’ll need to have clear goals and objectives. In other words, make sure you know what you wish to accomplish through social media. Know your audiences. Know the participants, as best you can. Know your message and market position. Know which social media outlets are most essential to achieve your purposes. Know what expectations are reasonable. Know which results you desire, and if/how they can be measured. Without these foundational perspectives, you will not be able to develop a strategy for managing social media on your campus.

Be proactive; develop and write a social media strategy

To repeat: you cannot control what occurs on social media, but you can develop a strategy to help you manage your sites and the content that is generated on your campus. You’ll want to include some direction and have explicit policies in place. Some will be no brainers: adherence to state and federal laws and regulations, compliance to any acts that protect civil and personal rights (i.e., FERPA, HIPAA, etc.) and other associations (i.e., NCAA) that your institution might be beholden to in some way. Others will be clear and defined in intention, but nuanced in the details (where does the line between one’s First Amendment right end and another begin?). Institutions such as the University of Houston, Vanderbilt University and the University of Chicago have portions of their website dedicated to outlining their social media guidelines, which are a mixture of official policies (some with legal implications) and general code-of-conduct. For faculty and staff at these institutions, if there is any confusion about using social media responsibly on the school’s behalf, they can quickly refer to these sources.

Part of this falls on you as president to give parameters about what can and can’t (or should and shouldn’t) be discussed on social media. This isn’t censorship. It’s being sensible. The best public figures know this, and are highly aware of what is off-limits or should be avoided before engaging in any public discourse (though there are obvious exceptions to this, but that’s beyond the scope of this post). Some subjects are too nuanced, contextual or flat-out private to be discussed within the limiting brevity that social media permits. Know what these are ahead of time, and make your team aware of them before they’re broached via social media.

Teach the plan to everyone on campus

Publishing your guidelines and your strategy is a good start, but you’ll have to go further. The next step will be to find meaningful ways of teaching the plan to faculty, staff, students and alumni. Share the undergirding value of social media within the context of your larger goals and vision, and provide counsel about the tone and content that best reflects the institution. Remember, you are not policing (and you probably shouldn’t except in rare cases)—you are helping others understand their important part in advancing a school they love.

Creativity in how you achieve this will serve you well, though there are successful methods of proliferating any new message or direction that will be equally effective here. The skill of this lies in knowing your institution, and knowing the best ways to communicate new ideas to those who look to you for guidance. This might include faculty and staff meetings or roundtable discussions that allow for questions and dialogue, a presentation or workshop at the beginning of the year to get everyone on the same page, or residence hall meetings to get more people involved.

Have a recovery plan

Your best strategies and plans will break down—even the most carefully laid plans have the potential to do so. This means that, try as you might to prevent it, you’ll likely have a social media faux pas at some point. You might even have a trainwreck—in which case, it may feel as though the floor has dropped out from under you. But take a breath, and avoid a knee-jerk reaction. In spite of the impulse you may have to do so, an immediate public disavowal of a posting that you don’t support or one that reflects poorly on your institution is likely not your best first move. Such a response makes you look out-of-control yourself.

This is why you need a recovery plan. Developing this early on gives you an advantage in a time of crisis: you’ll have a strategy to follow that was originally conceived during a time of lucidity and levelheadedness. Without this, you may end up reaching for an impromptu solution that is too hasty and reactionary.

Again, knowledge of your institution will best guide you on what this recovery plan should look like. But here are some suggestions:

  • Have a meeting with the person who posted the offensive message.
  • Understand the motivation and intent of the post.
  • Evaluate the scope of exposure.
  • Explain the detrimental effect of the post from your perspective.
  • Allow the offending poster an opportunity to resolve the issue.
  • Develop a thoughtful response for those who comment or express their dissatisfaction with the institution that explains the circumstances and what has been done, as well as the institution’s position on any topic that was misrepresented by the offending post. This will serve as a response for any media inquiries as well.
  • Most importantly: remember that this incident will pass. Your scar may show for a while, but it will fade in time and usually quite quickly in the social media environment. A thousand more horrific incidents will fill that space and yours will be forgotten.

With any powerful yet rapidly-changing technology, great benefit and reward come at the expense of some potential risks and uncertainty. The key to finding success with social media isn’t preventing the uncertainty (because you can’t); it’s preparing for it.

Post note: This week I attended another meeting of college presidents (CCCU) in DC. Interestingly (to me anyway), during a session with a panel of Washington-based journalists, similar questions about the management of social media arose. One of the challenges voiced from the floor was how to manage perhaps well-meaning but somewhat combatant faculty, particularly those who have significant social followings. In the instance cited in this session, a president was seeking counsel about restraining faculty from attacking journalists via social media. While a public recourse to a published piece of journalism is within the rights of any faculty member, a disrespectful post that demeans the journalist may not be in the best interest of your institution, particularly in building bridges with national media. The suggestion from the panel of journalists was to host a training seminar with faculty to express your school’s values as they relate to public discourse. Again, the importance of planning ahead and properly communicating guidelines when it comes to higher ed institutions and social media cannot be overstated.

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Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.