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Every college or university wants to expand its visibility, respond to its audiences’ needs and cost-effectively promote its institutional brand. These are just some of the reasons why 100% of schools have embraced social media marketing to some extent. While being active with institutional accounts on major social networks has become a must, for true brand messaging maximization, who has more visibility than the college president? Top school administrators are increasingly taking to social media to communicate with current and prospective students and the broader community, acting as thought leaders, building strategic relationships, and strengthening their institution’s reputations.

According to a comprehensive 2012-2013 UMass study of social media adoption in US colleges and universities, over half of presidents are on Facebook (58%) and Twitter (55%), while 35% host their own blog. Although university presidents are generally major adopters of the newest digital technologies, there are several reasons why those that effectively utilize the full potential of social media are still very much in the minority. The president’s job is one that is increasingly demanding and complex, simultaneously assuming the roles of CEO, political lobbyist, media spokesperson, fundraiser and all conceivable types of institutional leadership. Social media is often perceived as an unproven return on investment, with an unnecessary risk of high profile stumbles or losing control of messaging as a result of potentially subversive responses.

While social media activity may still not be an expected component of the president’s role, many observers believe it could soon be essential. It hasn’t previously been a priority for board members, who are more interested in strategy and outcomes than the specific tactics applied, and might also be wary of the additional public scrutiny that has occasionally led to scandals and resignations. However, the social aspect of attending countless ceremonial events is a major part of being a president and so social media is a natural extension of that, a cost effective and productive way of making the most of being the centre of attention. An increasingly important part of one’s public personality and presence is social media activity, which can be immensely beneficial to institutional branding.

york uYork University’s President is a particularly prolific tweeter


Top Benefits of Presidents Going Social

More and more presidents are enhancing and controlling their message while developing the widespread interactive relationships that only social media can provide. It expedites the timely and disparate dispersal of relevant congratulations or condolences, news sharing or empathetic insights, on a one-to-one or mass scale. A voice with the weight of an institution carries tremendous power, establishing an example of responsiveness for the entire campus. It is great both for broadcasting big news or managing campus crises, finally putting rumours to rest. “These channels allow me to reach a lot of people and give them a more personal view of my thoughts and life,” explains Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University and a prominent tweeter.

Here is some of LeBlanc’s Twitter advice from an interview with higher ed consultant Michael Stoner:

  • You have to find your voice and identify the persona you’re constructing (don’t try to be the person you are in commencement in social media)
  • Be authentic and comfortable
  • Remember that humour goes a long way and that constantly retweeting other people’s stuff is boring
  • Don’t confuse the informality with being too informal: you’re still the president, these are still public artifacts. Keep that in mind!

According to a 2012 survey cited by Stoner, “82% of respondents were more likely or much more likely to trust a company whose CEO and leadership team engage with social media.” Better communication equates with better leadership and this kind of transparency can powerfully shape public perception of a college or university.

santa onoSource

Example: University of Cincinnati (UC) President Santa J. Ono has become something of a celebrity in higher education circles, elevating the school’s visibility by tirelessly setting an example of relating to students – whether that’s helping freshmen move into dorms, crowd surfing at football games, or interacting on social media around the clock. At last count, he has 29,500 Twitter followers (as “PrezOno”) and notes that “it’s a rapid, efficient way to communicate with a lot of people simultaneously: students, parents, alumni who are all over the globe.” Being aware that “as a president of a state university you are always sort of under a microscope,” his valuable advice is: “Before I push ‘send,’ I try to wait a little bit and then look at it again.” Watch how his success has been spun into an inspirational UC video:

YouTube video


Wading into the Social Media Waters

Balancing institutional control with transparency isn’t easy but tweeting presidents can personalize a school like nothing else. But like anyone else, college presidents should embrace social media to an extent that is comfortable to them. A popular combination is using Twitter plus a blog – Twitter has a wide reach to important audiences, including media, easily updated on the go, while blogs are ideal for more comprehensive messaging.

Facebook should be approached with more caution because its equivocal privacy standards, encroaching advertising agenda and more complex interactivity can mean less control if you’re not following closely. That being said, Dominic Giroux, who became Laurentian University’s president in 2009 at the age of 34 – the youngest in Canada – has used his own Facebook page for student recruitment, and actively engages students on Twitter, LinkedIn and his bilingual blog.

Example: Although not as ostensibly scholarly as some by other university presidents, Giroux’s blog, in both official languages and always introduced with a dash of Ojibwa (a First Nations language common to the region), provides a transparent view of the latest news from Laurentian. Under his leadership, the school has paid off its deficits and reversed declining student enrolment – prospective student applications have increased at twice the average pace as the sector.



Social Media Leadership Strategies

Every social media network has diverse types of uses and followers and if you’re new to them, it’s better to find other role model presidents to follow before tweeting yourself. Presidents less familiar with the applicable social norms should seek guidance from more adept colleagues as networks like Twitter are fast-paced and hyperpublic – clumsy comments can easily go viral in the wrong ways. However, everyone makes mistakes, and with good intentions, a philosophy of transparency and greater activity, the best received posts should far outweigh any missteps. It is definitely wise to have someone on staff monitoring social media with Google Analytics and social listening tools like HootSuite, tracking and measuring mentions, responses and online traffic back to the school website.

While prolific updaters are impressive, there’s nothing wrong with a more sporadic pace. Begin by setting goals for social media activity with a clear commitment to using it and engaging with followers. Increase engagement by sharing informative articles, interesting infographics, pictures, and insights into the day-to-day life of a president. Effusive school spirit, empathy to students’ experiences and enthusiastic personality are always popular.

A recent study by McMaster University grad student Dan Zaiontz, called “#FollowTheLeader”, analyzed the habits of 22 presidents who use Twitter to recruit students and connect with faculty, government, media, alumni and donors. The study identified five Twitter user types:

  • The Customer Servant: Answers a wide range of questions
  • The Institutional Promoter: Only shares content about the school
  • The Socially Inconsistent President: Has social media accounts but doesn’t use them
  • The Oversharing Non-Strategist: Mixes personal information and institutional news but has no clear purpose
  • The Socially Active Strategist: Exhibits a clear strategy in blending personal information into institutionally-focused activity

The most popular presidents on social media mix witty observations, informative news scoops from daily meetings, cheerleading about sports teams or school-related accomplishments, questions for the general community, re-tweets of interesting student comments, and advice/answers to student questions. There is no magic formula other than authenticity, but the combined effect is to signal a genuine interest in communicating with the community, making the school seem more open and approachable, and in touch with today’s innovative means of communication.


Who are your favourite university presidents on social media? Do you have other best practices to share?