The term “social media” has entered that rare stratosphere of fame and recognition normally reserved for rock stars and Presidents. Now, rock stars and Presidents bow to the power of social media.
Brian Clark’s insights, while referencing Presidents with a capital P rather than those of us who lead colleges and universities, are nonetheless apt. We feel the power of social media on campuses and in our communities, and a growing number of presidents are embracing the opportunities and challenges social media presents.
Even as the early forms of social media like LiveJournal, Myspace and Friendster became popular (and then declined) and social media came to dominate contemporary culture, universities were mostly absent in these online spaces. It wasn’t until Facebook—especially once it opened up to non-student members—that universities had much of a presence in social media.
Even then, not many university presidents and other campus leaders joined in.
I might not have either, but when I was a new university president in 2009, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey spoke at Webster in a tweet-up.
Jack had a vision of Twitter as a powerful tool—as a type of communication platform akin to the telephone—that could be used to reach stakeholders directly, immediately and authentically. I was intrigued, and I created a handle (@websterpres).
While I am not a digital native, I am an enthusiastic early adopter when it comes to communication technologies. During my childhood, I developed a love of writing and receiving letters heightened by the fact that the mailman delivered mail only once a day. It is no exaggeration to say that the moment my doctoral advisor introduced me to email in the late 1980s, my life changed.
Over the next decade, I investigated the effect of email on student writers and piloted its use for networking by teachers in training. My experiences as a user and an investigator convinced me that emerging technologies can support our communication across boundaries of time, space and culture to build globally diverse and inclusive communities. Since that second pivotal moment for me in 2009, I have embraced social media applications, connecting a global community as Webster’s president through Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn as well as through a Tumblr blog.
Presidents who tweet or otherwise use social media are still rare but becoming more prevalent. In 2012, communications consultant Michael Stoner posted a series on the mStoner blog about presidents who used social media. He interviewed me for his project as well as my social-media-using peer group and non-users.
Stoner found that although social media gave presidents the opportunity to reach previously untouched groups, they tended to stay away due to a mixture of time constraints, potential control problems, risk aversion, the nebulousness of social media’s effectiveness, ROI, lack of social pressure, age and performance anxiety.
Eventually, social media started becoming a question for presidential search committees, and over time, more of us found our way onto the social-media scene. Still, it wasn’t until 2014 that Dan Zaiontz, reacting to the increasing social demand on presidents, released his best practices text #FollowTheLeader: Lessons in Social Media Success from #HigherEd CEOs.
As social media evolves, I increasingly look for ways to use these channels for the purposes Zaiontz identified: community leadership, personal sharing and engaging with diverse accounts. I am the author of most of my posts, partnering with able, social media-savvy graduate assistants on strategy, analytics and occasionally posting when I am speaking at an event. Using Buffer as a tool helps me schedule posts, capture content easily and manage posts for multiple channels—indispensable time savers that also enlarge my community.
The personality I attempt to express is “Beth as Webster’s president,” inviting others to engage with me in my activities, thoughts, readings and experiences while I live the life of Webster’s president. Through photos and occasional videos, I connect the world of Webster, including our campuses in nine countries on four continents, hoping that through these channels, we build a true global community. Whimsy is welcome, as are reflections on life’s challenges.
Are there risks? Yes. Are there rewards? Yes, many. Among them are the delightful and informative encounters with Webster students in the places our students make their homes as well as those who come to study with us from over 140 countries. For me, the opportunity to interact with business leaders, technology innovators, humanitarians, artists and diplomats in an increasingly connected world is professionally necessary and personally joyful.