Students

On Social Media, They Represent the College 24/7

Roger Hart, U. of Michigan

Nikki Sunstrum (standing) works to stay ahead of the news as social-media director at the U. of Michigan: "I always want to make sure that we’re breaking our news rather than trying to reactively correct any sort of factual errors that might have been told by another storytelling unit."
September 17, 2017

Open TweetDeck. Monitor mentions. Publish posts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Interview professors on video. Answer followers’ questions about the university. Orchestrate a social-media campaign with a unique hashtag and plenty of gifs to promote a new initiative. Have something go viral — something positive, that is.

Social media have changed how colleges interact and communicate with the world. It’s not just about school colors, alumni achievements, or appearances in news articles anymore — every post on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram paints a picture of what a college is like, who makes up its community, what’s important to the people within it.

When accounts can have millions of likes and followers, far surpassing the number of people on campus, every post matters. And behind all of them is a social-media director or team thinking hard about what to share and how to share it.

It’s a 24/7 job — the internet doesn’t sleep, after all — that didn’t even exist a few years ago. It takes strategy, diligence, and flexibility, on platforms that are constantly changing. (Facebook Live began in 2016, and autoplay videos in 2013. Instagram Stories, a rival of Snapchat’s Stories, was a 2016 addition.)

"It’s so not boring," says Eileen Reynolds, assistant director of social media at New York University. "When I started, there wasn’t even video on Facebook, and that has changed the way we think about everything."

The day begins early for social-media directors — and often well before they set foot in their offices.

In that job at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Nikki Sunstrum is usually up at 6 a.m. checking her phone for mentions of the university since she was last awake. She sends emails and texts to colleagues in the public-affairs office about things she believes the university should monitor online that day, and she gets in touch with her seven-member social-media team via the group-messaging system Slack.

By the time she reaches her office, she has scheduled meetings and conference calls with various departments to determine what needs to be promoted and shared online.

"It’s my responsibility that I’m in constant contact with those individuals to say: ‘Hey, what have you got going on this week? Here’s what our analytics look like from last week. What do we want to get out onto our platforms to help get some different, additional leverage?’ " she says.

For example, when Michigan announced its free tuition program in June, Ms. Sunstrum’s social-media team helped package and promote it in the #GoBlueGuarantee campaign.

"I always want to make sure that we’re breaking our news rather than trying to reactively correct any sort of factual errors that might have been told by another storytelling unit," Ms. Sunstrum says, "and so we sit down and we make those gifs, we make those animations, and we make those still images."

‘Triage’ System

Social-media directors also have the pressure of handling the online aspect of controversies that involve the college. Whether backlash to an administrator’s statement or comments about a protest on campus, social-media directors must be ready to address problems at all hours of the day.

Ms. Sunstrum calls it a "triage" system. Depending on the severity of the situation, she will be in contact with various departments involved to decide on a course of action.

Those responsibilities are an unseen part of the job.

John B. Stafford, senior director for digital-media strategy at Stanford University, sees two common misperceptions. "One is that our work takes no time or critical thinking because we are ‘just dealing with 140 characters,’ " he said in an email to The Chronicle. "The second is that mere presence on a social network will inexorably lead to an audience of millions. In reality, doing this work well takes a great deal of thought, attention to detail, and consistent execution."

Most colleges have social-media accounts on the major platforms: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat. Hundreds of affiliated accounts exist as well, such as @MichiganDining on Twitter and @stanfordfball, the football team’s Instagram account.

While colleges or schools within a university often have their own communications directors, the university’s social-media director — like Ms. Sunstrum at Michigan and Ms. Reynolds at NYU — oversee all of the institution’s main accounts.

The University of Michigan, for example, has 1,065 official social-media accounts, but the main Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat accounts represent the university as a whole. NYU has more than 1,000 accounts on Facebook and Twitter alone.

It’s important, however, for the main accounts to share a unified voice. While Michigan Dining’s Twitter account can post lighthearted content about cookies — the baked kind — Ms. Sunstrum says it would be "completely inauthentic" to publish posts with such a tone on the university’s main account. (Shares and retweets, on the other hand, are fine.)

Though posts must remain professional, social-media directors say it’s important that the content feels authentic to readers, and that it sounds as if it was written by a human being.

"The character that we kind of have in mind is like a really interesting person that you might meet at a party who’s just read the most interesting book and can’t wait to tell you about it, someone who pays attention to current events but is ready to talk about it in an engaging way," Ms. Reynolds says.

For Stanford, the online voice aims to be "accessible, optimistic, authoritative, and, hopefully, humble," says Mr. Stafford.

Caring for a college’s online presence can become all-consuming. In this realm, checking social media isn’t about casually finding out what friends are up to — phones must constantly be on, push notifications set for alerts every time an important account tweets, and original and engaging content must be scheduled.

"I do kind of feel like it’s weird being the person behind the voice sometimes, because I feel more overly concerned about Georgia Tech’s social media than my own," says Steven Norris, assistant director of social media at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "Sometimes I forget — hey, I need to let my friends know what’s happening in my life."

It’s the storytelling behind the social posts that most interests Mr. Norris. Originally a broadcast journalist, he made his way to social media — and into higher education — after finding it upsetting to repeatedly cover unfortunate events.

"It looked and appeared like a more fulfilling environment," he says. "College was fun for me, too, and so now I’m getting to help tell the story of why Georgia Tech is so much fun and the unique things that happen here."

Mr. Norris, who has been Georgia Tech’s sole social-media employee since he began there, in 2012, says it’s crucial that he’s always out engaging with the community and documenting what’s happening, whether by sharing an Instagram photo of a Georgia Tech student who encountered an alumnus from France while on a flight to Paris, or showcasing a pair of shoes that Georgia Tech students made — the first pair was 3-D printed with the Atlanta skyline; the other had LED lights coordinated with movement — for two classmates who were crowned Miss Georgia in different years.

"It kind of breaks some stereotypes about Georgia Tech, since you may not have thought that we would have a Miss Georgia, based on some misconceptions about what our student population is like," Mr. Norris says. "It’s cool for us to tell this story, not only for our own audience, but it gets other people kind of enveloped into what’s happening at Georgia Tech and seeing what actually goes on on campus."

‘Kind of a Wild Ride’

For Ms. Reynolds, on NYU’s three-person social-media team, creating content that engages her audience has included having a student announce, via Facebook Live, that the musician Pharrell Williams would be the commencement speaker for the class of 2017. Mr. Williams shared the video to his 10 million followers on Facebook.

Another time, Ms. Reynolds covered a faculty project in which the 2016 presidential debates were restaged with the candidates’ genders reversed. The production took off online and became an off-Broadway show.

"It’s really fun and rewarding and kind of a wild ride in the best possible way to feel like you’re a part of kind of a fast-moving story like that," she says.

For the most part, Ms. Reynolds says, posts that resonate most with users are those that feature a shared experience that they can relate to.

"There are some things that are always going to work for us, like a beautiful picture of New York City with a student and a backpack and an NYU flag," she says. "But it’s also fun to find those less-often-told NYU stories and get those out there, too, and sort of watch people be surprised and delighted by all the different kinds of things that are going on."

At the start of the academic year, social-media directors prepare for move-in days, orientation, and the first day of classes. But it’s not just a matter of sending out a few tweets or posting a few photos.

"In general, everybody gets it now — not just universities, but all kinds of organizations realize that, hey, this isn’t some silly thing with cat pictures on it," Ms. Reynolds says. "It’s a way to really communicate what is important to you as an organization."