By Karlyn Borysenko, Leadership Content Director
140 characters. Infinite possibilities.
We interviewed a variety of college and university presidents who are active on Twitter to research how they used the medium to communicate with their constituents, as well as to garner their advice to others who are considering jumping in. Here are their top five tips:
1) Commit the time
“If you’re going to use this media outlet, you need to commit to it. If you don’t tweet at least one to two times daily, folks will lose interest and stop following you. Make it a part of your daily routine.”
– Marcia G. Welsh, President of East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania
The time commitment required to jump in is low – most presidents spend less than 20 minutes on Twitter, spread out over the course of a day. But the amount of time spent on it is less important than a commitment to consistent tweeting. Share articles you’re reading, photos of events you’re attending, musings as you speak to students, faculty and staff on campus. Working it into things you are doing as a part of your day anyway keeps it consistent and doesn’t require much additional effort.
Your commitment should go beyond just sending your own thoughts into the ether. Use it as a way to address campus issues. For example, R. Bowen Loftin, had over 30,000 followers as the former President of Texas A&M University, and received direct communication from 50-60 students a day, on average. Not only did he take the time to reply on Twitter, but also forwarded relevant issues to appropriate staff members, along withaddressing some problems personally. Adds University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto, “You have to be consistent … in order to build an audience and, as importantly, you have to be responsive. When people have questions or criticisms, you have to address them whether they are warranted or not.”
2) Be you. Literally.
“It makes me approachable. I am no longer just the old bald guy sitting in the admin building.”
-Clif Smart, President of Missouri State University
“Twitter is just a great way to connect with people on a less formal and more personal level. Presidents, chancellors, and other campus leaders who tweet must use their own voice and avoid ‘institutionalese.’”
– Cheryl B. Schrader, Chancellor of Missouri University of Science and Technology
Authenticity is key to success on this informal medium, but authenticity comes in many forms. Find your own voice, and think about the role you want the medium to play in your relationship with your students, staff, and alumni. Some, like Franklin & Marshall President Daniel Porterfield, recommend adopting an informal tone that’s appropriate for an educational institution. Others, like Miami University president David Hodge, focus on simply sharing the thoughts and stories that come to them naturally. The more you tweet and interact on the medium, the easier it will become.
Regardless of the approach you take, above all you should be sending your own tweets! Most college and university presidents are the owners and sole tweeters from their account. “I am the only tweeter on my account. If you want DeRionne, you get me on Twitter”, commented DeRionne P. Pollard, president of Montgomery College. “It’s a phenomenal way to keep your fingers on the pulse of the world outside of your own echo chamber, whether that’s your office, your campus, or your college.” While tweets from staff on behalf of the president here and there are commonplace – particularly if they are tweeting an event the president is hosting! – having a majority of tweets come from staff who are ghost tweeting on behalf of the president is not advised.
3) Engage, real-time.
“I’ve held live office hours and answer math questions, and have had a couple of live #BurgerChat sessions in which Southwestern University folks can tweet questions and I would answer them in real time.”
– Edward Burger, President of Southwestern University
The real power of Twitter comes not in the ability to disseminate a message, but rather to engage that audience. John Knapp, President of Hope College, proactively uses the medium to congratulate students and faculty on their accomplishments, and then pays attention to retweets and favorites to see what content is connecting with the audience. Sometimes, the results can be unexpected: “When I tweeted an invitation to have chips and salsa on the president’s patio, 500 students showed up in the backyard a few hours later!”
Make sure that retweeting, favoriting and replying are a part of your Twitter strategy. And while you don’t need to follow everyone back, err on the side of returning the favor when someone follows you, particularly if that person looks like they could be a student, staff member, or alum. Not only will that give you direct access to their feedback and perception of your institution in your Twitter feed, it will also allow them to contact you via direct message if they want to connect or share concerns privately.
4) A little help never hurt anyone.
“I’m supported by great staff colleagues who suggest opportunities for potential tweets, and help me ensure my messages are topical and of-the-moment. If I’m speaking at an event, my colleagues will often photograph what’s happening – with me in the photo – and that gets uploaded as a part of the message.”
-Amit Chakma, President of Western University
There’s nothing wrong with asking for help from those around you, whether you have them take your picture to tweet out, solicit their ideas for tweeting topics or helping you to develop your voice. If you’re nervous about getting started, or if you’re looking for a fresh set of ideas, you likely have a staff of communications professionals who are ready and willing to help. For example, John Lucas, Interim Executive Director of University Communications and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has worked with new Chancellor, and Twitter newcomer, Becky Blank to help her get acclimated to the medium and carry on the Twitter-tradition set by former Chancellor Biddy Martin. He encourages newcomers to keep an open mind. “Campuses are the most fascinating places with the most fascinating people. It’s tailor made for twitter.”
5) The good outweighs the bad.
“It is a double-edged sword. I have made a few mistakes, but the value of giving students access to me directly, and of seeing my institution as they see it, far outweighs the occasional error I may make.”
-R. Bowen Loftin, Chancellor of the University of Missouri, and President Emeritus of Texas A&M University
Twitter is a very public medium and, yes, you’re probably going to hear negative feedback, make a typo, or tweet something that is misinterpreted by your audiences now and then. However, don’t let the few negative moments overshadow the advantages of making yourself accessible to the masses.
In the end, Twitter is not much different than any other form of communication. Santa J. Ono, President of the University of Cincinnati, commented, “It is an accessible medium and with that openness comes some vulnerability. Treat others the way you would want to be treated, just like you would in face-to-face conversation.”
Looking for some examples to follow? Here’s a list to get you started:
- Becky Blank, Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin – Madison: @BeckyBlank
- Edward Burger, President of Southwestern University: @ebb663
- Eli Capilouto, President of the University of Kentucky: @UKYpres
- Amit Chakma, President of Western University: @PresWesternU
- David Hodge, President of Miami University: @PresHodge
- John Knapp, President of Hope College: @PresKnapp
- R. Bowen Loftin, Chancellor of the University of Missouri, and President Emeritus of Texas A&M University: @bowtieger
- Santa J. Ono, President of the University of Cincinnati: @PrezOno
- Dr. DeRionne P. Pollard, President of Montgomery College: @DrPollard_MC
- Daniel R. Porterfield, President of Franklin & Marshall College: @DanPorterfield
- Cheryl B. Schrader, Chancellor of Missouri University of Science and Technology: @SandTChancellor
- Clif Smart, President of Missouri State University: @ClifSmart
- Marcia G. Welsh, President of East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania: @PresidentWelsh