College Presidents Get Their Own Guide to Social Media

January 07, 2015

As social media redefine how we communicate, both new and experienced users in colleges' top jobs have to ponder some questions.

How should I be representing and promoting my college personally on social media? What do I gain if I do it well? What do I lose if I don’t? And what are the risks of engaging in a forum where a misstep can go viral and embarrass me and my institution?

Daniel A. Zaiontz had those questions in mind when he wrote #FollowtheLeader: Lessons in Social Media Success From #HigherEd CEOs, published this month by the higher-education branding company mStoner. The book grew out of research Mr. Zaiontz, a special-projects coordinator at Seneca College, in Toronto, did for his master’s thesis in strategic communications in 2013.

Drawing on interviews he conducted with 22 college presidents active on social media in the United States and Canada, the book offers case studies of presidents who use social media to their institutions’ advantage, an overview of benefits and pitfalls, and best practices for using social media strategically. Much of the book’s advice can be boiled down to a few key points.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Mr. Zaiontz is realistic about how much time college presidents have to spare (not much) and how eager they may be to add social-media messaging to their concerns (often even less). More than half of American college presidents have Twitter or Facebook accounts, according to a 2013 study by researchers at the University of Massachusetts. Neither Mr. Zaiontz nor any of the presidents he spoke to say that being active on social media is a must for an effective 21st-century president.

But the role of president is more and more a public one—cheerleader, spokesman or -woman, brand exemplar. No contemporary college leader wants to seem "isolated in the perceived ivory tower," Mr. Zaiontz said in an interview with The Chronicle. Social-media outlets offer leaders the opportunity to be a "living and breathing" model of a college’s story. They provide a format that connects with students and other audiences instantly, often far beyond the reach of the physical campus or other media.

While ease with social media may not be a job requirement for college leaders now, Mr. Zaiontz and the presidents he interviewed agreed that it will be increasingly sought after in the future.

Mr. Zaiontz makes no specific recommendation for any particular platform because each one boasts different qualities that each leader must evaluate based on his or her own interests and goals. He does recommend trying out possible platforms with an anonymous account at first.

Be Careful

Fear of making a public misstep keeps many college leaders leery. While the presidents Mr. Zaiontz interviewed for his research were already engaged with various platforms, they remained "very, very concerned about saying the wrong thing on social media and having it spin wildly out of control," he said.

Mr. Zaiontz knows of no cases of social-media activity that led to a president’s dismissal, but his book abounds with examples of gaffes made exponentially worse through going viral.

College leaders don’t even have to be active on social media to go astray. Last year Stephen J. Trachtenberg, president emeritus of George Washington University, remarked during a radio appearance that women "have to be trained not to drink in excess" to better resist sexual assault. His comments were repeated across social media and outraged many who felt he was holding rape victims responsible for their own attacks. The backlash rippled across platforms like Twitter, often in messages linked by hashtags like #BlamePerpetrators. Mr. Trachtenberg remains a faculty member at George Washington, but the incident left the university with a public-relations black eye.

Any presidents who are actively tweeting or posting must keep in mind the sensibilities of their different audiences when sharing. In December, Marcia G. Welsh, president of East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania, tweeted a photograph of herself posing with shirtless male students who are part of a group that mimics male strippers to raise money for charity. Ms. Welsh drew criticism from faculty members for what they saw as her insensitivity to questions of sexual propriety on the campus. Ms. Welsh defended the tweet and called the criticism "an insult."

Even the most benign messages should be considered against the larger social-media landscape, Mr. Zaiontz said. Leaders, or their staffs, need to monitor social-media feeds to maintain a feel for the conversation surrounding the institution—if Facebook is buzzing with angry complaints about budget cutbacks, a chipper post about athletics might be ill timed.

Most important, any message coming from a president needs "a sober second thought" before going out, Mr. Zaiontz said. "Would you be comfortable seeing that message on the front page of a newspaper the next day?" Or, in the age of social media, spread across the country within minutes?

Be Yourself

Some college presidents might need to be reminded that they already have social-media accounts in their names—often announcement-oriented feeds, updated by staff members. Other presidents update their own accounts but may go weeks between perfunctory posts.

Paul J. LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, told Mr. Zaiontz that taking such a hands-off approach to social media "might as well signal the world that you’re completely out of date," and is "worse than not doing it."

Effective social-media use is just that—social. No one wants to follow a feed that reads like a robot quoting a press release. Even terse tweets should allow a president’s individual voice and concerns to come through. Most of the presidents using social media whom Mr. Zaiontz interviewed relied on staff members to help with suggestions for relevant, engaging content, but none wanted messages scripted for them.

#FollowtheLeader describes Santa J. Ono, president of the University of Cincinnati, as the epitome of a social-media "institutional champion." His more than 41,000 Twitter followers get regular messages about university achievements but also individualized shout-outs to recently accepted students, as well as personal touches like favorite quotes and abundant selfies. Students, especially, have responded to Mr. Ono’s social-media visibility and enthusiasm. For one example, since he coined the hyperbolic hashtag #HottestCollegeinAmerica on Twitter to help brand the university, many students have adopted the hashtag in their own tweets.

Some leaders might not be comfortable with Mr. Ono’s extroverted social-media style, but Mr. Zaiontz said that @prezono still offers a key lesson for any president using social media: The engagement works best when it goes two ways. Mr. Ono and other presidents use social media not only to broadcast their message but also to receive and respond to messages from students, to deal with problems and delegate solutions, and to help build a sense of community.

Have a Plan

Rather than just starting random social-media accounts because their peers are, presidents should assess what they want to achieve and how they can use these particular tools to advance their goals, Mr. Zaiontz said. He writes that effective use of social media comes from establishing concrete goals, setting up a plan to reach them and benchmarks to meet, and continuing to fine-tune social-media use over time.

And success should not be measured simply in numbers of followers or the volume of posts or reposts. Presidents can, and do, make significant progress for their institutions through reaching out via social media. #FollowtheLeader includes a miniprofile of H.J. (Tom) Thompson, president of Olds College, in Olds, Alberta, and his efforts to use social media strategically. For example, Mr. Thompson cultivated a relationship with a provincial education official through Twitter that led to face-to-face meetings and has resulted in more dollars coming to the college.

As more people join social media, opportunities for such contacts only increase. Especially since, as Mr. Zaiontz notes, there are no secretaries to keep you from talking to someone directly via Twitter or LinkedIn.

Lee Gardner writes about the management of colleges and universities, higher-education marketing, and assorted other topics. Follow him on Twitter @_lee_g, or email him at