December 12, 2017
Social media can ruin reputations in seconds, and conversely create opportunities. While Yik Yak, a controversial social media platform infamous for its role in spreading student gossip and hate speech, met its demise, other platforms, such as Sarahah and ghost apps, have risen and fallen in just a matter of weeks. Other troublesome apps will inevitably appear, and so with a crop of current and prospective students who are “digital natives,” how should an educational institution navigate this new “digital normal?” Ignoring the wide range of social media platforms would mean missing opportunities to further develop a positive reputation and to quickly address negative signals that could jeopardize an institution’s positive brand—and in an amazingly short period of time.
Preparing for a Social Media Challenge
How should those on campus with responsibility for social media best manage the new normal of never-ending communications streams?
First, establish a social media team to understand and monitor the landscape.
- Assign general social media monitoring and posting to one department to ensure accountability, and communicate this responsibility across the administration. This is commonly a communications department responsibility with campus security involved, as needed, with threat monitoring.
- Establish a strong social media team. Hire experienced individuals to monitor social media traffic and post your own communications. The team should identify situations that may emerge as flashpoints, and keep stakeholders fully informed of currents in conversation that may go beyond free speech and begin to violate civil rights. Given the high stakes, this is not a learn-on-the-job role.
- Include team members who have a strong understanding of the social media landscape. They should be active users of the platforms with real interest in the communities, and a high-level of engagement. Consider a limited involvement of students so you can benefit from their on-the-ground knowledge of the newest apps and trends in social media use. Knowing the pulse of the online community will give your team the knowledge and experience needed to succeed. Students should not be in charge of posting.
- Consider whether you need outside help. At some institutions, the use of outside social media consultants will be based, in part, on whether there are institutional gaps in expertise. The team should be proportionate to the institution’s size, but large enough to monitor established and emerging apps and create content to feed the institution’s own channels.
- Know where the institution’s extended community likes to “live” online. Monitor and establish an institutional presence on platforms used by your students while keeping an eye on emerging platforms. An institution’s students may favor Instagram and Snapchat, and the app-du-jour, for example, while alumni may prefer Facebook and Twitter. Job seekers generally prefer LinkedIn.
Second, establish protocols for monitoring, measurement, and response.
- Establish communications protocols. Determine who is alerted when an issue heats up, when and how the institution should engage, and how the team updates stakeholders (key administrators, legal, alumni affairs and development).
- Identify and measure key social media metrics such as search engine results for your institution, rapid changes in brand sentiment, and upticks or surges in posts.
- Monitor comments using social media listening solutions, such as Sysomos or Crimson Hexagon. Be prepared to capitalize on positive opportunities and have a protocol for assessing negative mentions. Measurement tools evolve just as social media platforms change, so the team should frequently reassess monitoring tools.
- Consider creating daily reports that alert staff to potential problems. When in crisis, reports should occur at least twice a day.
- Be familiar with, and closely monitor, key social media “influencers” on—whether faculty or students—and off—such as journalists or public figures.
- Avoid silos within the monitoring team; be sure members are cross-trained so they can assist during times of high volume posts or a crisis.
- Establish a regularly updated playbook of appropriate responses for timely issues.
- Add a social media section to the institution’s existing crisis communications plan.
- Practice scenarios as a team, so when an issue arises, you are ready.
Third, create and distribute social media use policies.
- If a policy document does not exist, the social media team should immediately create one, seeking guidance from outside experts, as needed.
- The policies will apply to the extended community, including newly admitted students, current students on campus and off, faculty, and staff.
- All policies should be reviewed by leadership (the president’s office) and legal counsel before being issued.
- The social media team and legal team should regularly review and update the policy, sharing updates with the campus community.
- Post the policy on the institution’s website.
- Train new and returning students, faculty, and staff on the policy, noting any updates.
- Share the social media policy with prospective students and high school counselors to avoid surprises during the admissions process.
- Take swift action against policy violations. Consider if action taken should be made public to remind your communities that there are consequences to policy violations.
Examples abound of organizations capitalizing on positive social media posts as well as reputations being damaged by bad behavior. Institutions of higher education must understand this preferred medium of digital natives and establish guidelines, taking action when boundaries are crossed. With resources, talented staff members, and administrators who understand why social media is a priority, crises can be avoided. For further guidance, read “Responding to a Social Media Crisis.”
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