Social media for college presidents

By now, your marketing and communication teams have almost surely embraced social media as the spear-point of low-cost, high-touch targeted outreach to potential students. What’s more, cultivating an online community of students and college staff who regularly interact together has helped spread the stories of your institution, given your college a unique personality and possibly boosted registrations, event attendance or philanthropic gifts.

But what about the role of the CEO? As a president of a community college, should you be on social media? In a word, yes. In fact, creating a social media persona for the president may be even more important at the community college level than it is within a university setting.

Essentially, social media for the community college president is a natural extension of the unique role itself – as your institution strives to create pathways for students to thriving industries and good jobs, the complexity of your position as a connector within community (both internally and externally) makes a quick, personal, two-way communication phenomenon like social media a perfect asset.

Three reasons why it makes senses

Social media is more than general good public relations – it can be a powerful strategy that can be enhanced when it’s backed by a public persona. Even if your college has a robust social presence now, consider what adding the voice of the president does:

Amplifies great stories that explain your special mission. Community colleges serve more students who are fighting harder to be there than at other institutions, which makes your student population a treasure trove of personal, inspiring stories that illustrate your mission better than any statistic. Social media gives you the opportunity to bring an added spotlight to these stories by the force of your position and name recognition. In other words, your visibility as president can amplify the good work of your college that creates buzz.

Gives you a forum to cultivate a public-leader presence. Community college marketing budgets are almost always a fraction of their nearby competing institutions. Social media gives you a low-cost way to cut through the noise, particularly as president. People want to know what you think and stand for – even if your budget doesn’t allow you to publish a public magazine, for instance, or to host an event that gathers hundreds of community partners. Instead, social depends much more on your leadership voice than it does on your dollars.

Strengthens the experiences of students and staff. Author and community college champion Terry O’Banion is known for pointing out the correlation between having one staff member know a student’s name, and the increase in his or her determination to stay. Imagine increasing that connection instantly and across a student body that mostly commutes to school, where making connections is tougher. Additionally, for your staff, social media allows you to clarify points, diffuse the rumor mill and cheer on great work.

This article is part of a monthly series provided by the National Council for Marketing & Public Relations (NCMPR), an affiliated council of the American Association of Community Colleges.

Who does what?

Before beginning or ramping up your social media presence as a college president, team up with your communications and marketing staff. It’s likely they already have a rhythm of regular posts and news stories they are re-purposing for social. Rather than simply liking and retweeting their work, talk about how you can complement each other to build even more followers and community goodwill.

While every institution and president will have a unique style, generally a common approach works like this:

  • College: Builds discussions and followers, solicits user-generated content and answers questions from students.
  • President: Shares personal opinions and a sense of heart-felt advocacy for the mission.

But there is big room (and opportunity) for crossover. Both college and president accounts can work to advance strategic messages, and both can work to enhance the brand. How you determine that crossover depends on your personal time and goals. It may help to pick one social medium and concentrate on that as “the president’s” (Twitter is a good starting point) and leave your other channels to the college.

Allowing multiple people access to your account so they can post for you is another way to use the collective power of your staff. Sitting down with the president’s calendar and forecasting editorial approaches is an excellent practice for building synergy and confidence with your social properties.

Five ways to take it to the next level

It doesn’t take long to build fluency with social media. For the most part, if you’re not on social now, your communications staff can get you set up through your phone with some basic training in a matter of minutes. Starting out by liking, following, retweeting and adding a post or two about events you are attending or people you are meeting is simple and effective.

NCMPR: The total student communication pipeline

If you feel ready to move beyond the basics however, a more advanced strategy can have powerful results. Here are top ways to advance your social presence as a president:

Keep a running list of your college’s strategic hashtags ready. Beyond the branding tagline, hashtags provide opportunities for advancing narrower and deeper coalescence around your agenda. For example, do you have an effort underway to build fundraising? An upcoming bond measure? A need to increase associate degrees? Be a visible champion of your causes through consistent hashtag use.

Create original content. Supporting the ideas of others with likes and retweets is a good idea, but you can promote your own vision by creating opportunities for people to see your personality with a little creativity. Brainstorm with your communication team: Can you create a video in which you show off a new building, talk with a student or give a personal update? Do you have advice or insight you can write about?

Inject your personality. Often I hear from presidents who are nervous about undermining their credibility by sharing personal information. In fact, the opposite is true: Sprinkling some personality into your reactions and posts helps people get to know you and actually builds credibility. If you stick solely to “presidenting,” you’re likely to only build an insular audience. But sharing your love of baseball, piano, elephants, rock collecting, etc., is just as effective as it is in person for developing relationships. Even a simple joke can signal warmth and trustworthiness.

Invite responses. Typically, the role of discussion-starter resides with the communication office. But as part of a larger editorial strategy, the president can jump in when the timing is right. Imagine a retention strategy that has the president posting, “I remember my first day of college. What has been the best part of today’s term start for you?” Yes, you will get a mix of answers, but expect it and let the communications staff help navigate tricky responses.

Take a position. In today’s politically charged world, it’s hard to know when to remain silent and when to voice support – and conventional wisdom says that leadership should always refrain from inciting controversy. But reconsider. The fact is that advocacy is part of your college’s mission, at least in the sense that you are working toward access and opportunity for your students. I’m certainly not suggesting you inject your own personal politics into an online presence, but consistent with the values of your institution, you can respond to current events with messages that emphasize the college’s role in the lives of students and your importance to the greater community.

Despite the immense value our institutions provide, community colleges are still suffering from disproportionate resources and recognition, and the role of the community college president is simply not understood. By harnessing social media, you have a powerful tool to change that.

Take the opportunity to set time with your communications staff and develop a strategy that’s right for you. The result can be a marked increase in your reach and influence as a present, and an advance in goodwill and resources for your institution.

About the Author

Jennifer Boehmer
is director of strategic communications at Portland Community College in Oregon and immediate past president of the National Council for Marketing & Public Relations, an affiliated council of the American Association of Community Colleges.