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University presidents tap into social media

Social media is an emerging area of interest for university leaders, says a researcher who studied the topic in a Canadian context.

By ANQI SHEN | FEB 05 2019

While they may have excelled at the lectern, university presidents are still getting a handle on their social media presence. Not every leader chooses to put themselves out there, but with the ongoing turnover in leadership, more digitally savvy presidents are rising to the top of the academic ranks.

Those are some of the insights gained by Jane Antoniak, a communications researcher who recently studied the social media habits of university presidents and principals in Canada. Ms. Antoniak, communications manager at King’s University College in London, Ontario, carried out a three-part study as part of her master’s degree capstone project, and she is now in the process of writing a book on the topic with her research supervisor, Alexandre Sévigny of McMaster University.

As part of the study, carried out between 2017 and 2018, Ms. Antoniak conducted in-depth, anonymized interviews with 11 leaders from British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Nova Scotia. Nine of them were active on social media, one was somewhat active and one was not on social media in their role as head of the university. There was an 80-20 split between men and women interviewed.

“What I was interested in looking at was the value of strategic communications by the president or principal … as far as using social media as a tool,” Ms. Antoniak said. In addition to the interviews, Ms. Antoniak examined the presidents’ social media posts on two specific dates: move-in day at the start of the academic year and the start of the second term.

She found, over the course of the interviews and also through a survey of university directors of communications across Canada, that presidents’ social media use was perceived to carry both risk and reward in building relationships with students and alumni, traditional media, and other institutions and government.

“All the leaders who were on social media said they saw advantages and disadvantages of using the tool,” she said. “For example, one of them said, ‘You have to be really, really careful. I was pretty nervous about being out there until I found actually that I tried to limit myself to saying things that were supportive and not overly or deliberately contentious.’”

All of the leaders interviewed said they tried to use a positive voice while on social media, Ms. Antoniak said. And while they consistently responded that social media was a way to gain entry to several communities, “once that introduction was made, they then very quickly wanted to take the conversation offline.” As a result, one of the findings was that there was little “two-way” communication between the president and stakeholders on social media. Instead, Ms. Antoniak said, the leaders’ social media activity was often one-way communications – “an extension of the podium.”

“Some of them had fun with it,” she said. “They would try to add a bit of their own personality.”

The leaders identified several benefits of wading into social media, offsetting the risks. “One of the leaders said to me, ‘When I am out and about interacting with people, it helps them feel like they have some handle on me – when I need to communicate something that is a challenge for the institution, people listen.’” The leaders would also, in turn, use social media as a listening tool to stay in the know about what was being reported in the media.

University leaders’ social media use is a rapidly changing landscape, Ms. Antoniak noted. “Six of the eleven leaders said their social media communications have changed over time. They stated that their frequency has increased and that they have gained more confidence and comfort online.”

Overall, Ms. Antoniak’s analysis was that “social media became a virtual open door to the ivory tower and it made [the president’s] office transparent.” Part of that may be because, as her research found, presidents tend to do their own thing on their social media channels, outside the conventions of an institutional communications strategy.

The leaders she interviewed mentioned they would fit in social media during down times – at airports, for instance, or off-hours. “On occasion they would use their communications departments to post something for them if they were flying or in another country, but typically this was their authentic voice.” The directors of communication who responded to the survey agreed, she said.

“The directors of communication overwhelmingly said that their social media plans do not include what the president or principal does. [Only about a third of institutions had a social media plan or guidelines at the time, according to the 77 respondents of the directors of communications survey.] And the presidents and principals also said, while they value their director of communication as a trusted adviser, they communicate as they see fit.”

Ms. Antoniak suggested that communications departments may want to work more closely with university leaders in terms of communicating and measuring the quality of relationships built through social media. Overall, she said, universities “need to pay greater strategic attention to social media policy in the leader’s role.”

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