Media Relations Professionals as Social Media Educators: An Interview with Sheleah Reed

Jennifer Doak (@jpdoak) is the online communications specialist at CASE.

Sheleah Reed

Sheleah Reed

Have you started monitoring your institution’s online presence—and seen something shared by students you wish you hadn’t? It’s easy to feel powerless in a situation like this, but some media relations professionals are taking a proactive role in educating students about what can be seen and what should be shared on social media.

One of them is Sheleah Reed, executive director of communications at Prairie View A&M University (PVAMU), a historically black institution with more than 8,600 students on the outskirts of Houston, Texas. She manages media relations, alumni relations and her institution’s social media presence within the division of Student Affairs and Institutional Advancement. It’s all the more impressive, then, that she makes time to educate students as an adjunct instructor in the department of communication at the university. I spoke with her to find out more.

How did your role as social media educator come about?

I believe I was picked to talk to our student leaders about managing their own brand because of my experience as a former student leader and in my current role as the official spokesperson for Prairie View. When I was a student, I was editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, a position that was in some ways a bridge between the students and the administration. Being in that role helped me see that some of the things people do online aren’t exactly great, and  gave me the insight to talk about social media in my current position. This generation of students is heavily involved in social media, so it became a large portion of the conversation. What started as what NOT to do became WHAT you should do.

I have been invited to speak to every student group on campus—the student government association, athletes, contestants competing for SGA president and Mr. and Miss PVAMU. I have also spoken to students during a membership intake class for Greek organizations. The class wasn’t on social networking, but I saw it as an opportunity to talk to students who will represent the university on how to use hashtags and what pictures to post. The Office of Student Activities and Leadership has been the leader in requesting these social media discussions, followed by the Athletics Department.

What do you teach students? Is it within a large lecture class, a seminar or something more informal?

As an adjunct in the department of communication, I usually start conversations with classes within that department. I have spoken everywhere from small classrooms to large auditoriums, and usually we talk about how people can use what you post against you. My favorite thing to tell students is, “You aren’t there to translate the message, so be careful that you are OK with the 500 ways your photo or 150-word message can be translated.”

During a discussion with the football team, I went to Twitter and read tweets from that morning without showing them the Twitter handles. They said, “Who would say that?” and then I told them it was one of you, your teammate, Madonna or someone else. That really showed them how what people say on social networks can be taken a lot of ways, and you can’t be there to explain what you mean.

What has been the response from students?

During the years it’s changed, just like social networking has changed. Freshmen don’t pay as much attention, but once they’re sophomores and want to start participating in groups, they become more tuned in.

What do you think all college students should know about social media and Internet use in general? Do you think they arrive at college with some of this awareness?

I think students should know that Facebook and Twitter are real life. That’s a running joke among our students—it’s not real. But in fact, it is. Just because you may not be serious or literal about the content you share doesn’t mean that others won’t take them seriously. They see that content as an extension of your true life. Where you check in, who you are friends with, what you like and what you post are all summed up as part of your personality.

I don’t think many of our students understand the reach of social networking. Maybe it’s in part a cultural issue—many people say that African Americans are on the lower end of the digital curve. Whatever the reason, many students do not seem to understand that they can’t take back what is already out there. Interestingly enough, I have tons of Facebook friends who are students—when something happens I find out mostly because they have already posted it. It’s an advantage as an educator to have student friends on Facebook because they can see a bigger picture of me, with family and opinions, and they know I’m trustworthy. Most of the students become more careful and guarded with Facebook after our conversations, but now and again they slip.

I have removed myself from Twitter, though, because I found it overwhelming!

What should media relations professionals interested in educating students keep in mind?

I think it is important that the staff in communications and marketing departments are seen as experts. The students that attend our institutions, as well as the faculty and staff who work for them, really reflect our brand. You can’t manage what anyone says, good or bad, but you can help them to understand the big picture. For example, our student government association members have to understand that they are seen as the experts related to things happening on campus. If there were a student death, for example, and they posted incorrect facts, it could be seen as reliable by the media.

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