Social Leadership Shouldn’t Stop at the Top

Tony Dobies (@dobiest) is the social media strategist at West Virginia University.

A few years ago, it might have been surprising to see a president at higher education institution join social media. That seems like such a long time ago, doesn’t it?

Since then, a social president has become the industry standard, as many leaders have Facebook and/or Twitter accounts. And some are even popping up on Snapchat, Instagram, Google+ and LinkedIn.

A social president is necessary to increase visibility, likability and to help influence and change conversations around your institution. Gordon Gee (@gordongee), West Virginia University’s president, says that social media helps bring presidents down from what could seen as an “ivory tower.”
gee twitter

“Because individuals engage with social media in a very personal way, you can connect with them on a very personal level,” Gee says. “If you can find a way to communicate to the masses in a funny and creative way, chances improve that people will see you—and then people will begin to notice the university as well. Amid all of my humorous tweets, I try to get across one basic message to our students: That I love them and want the best for them.”

But just having a social president isn’t enough anymore. Without a presence from other leaders, you’re missing out on opportunities for your institution to become even more connected within a variety of different community segments.

Instead of talking about social presidents, communicators should focus on social leadership—and not just at the top.

Creating Engaging Social Media Personalities

At West Virginia University, we’ve noticed a trend that seems to be clear across social media—people identify and engage with personalities like our president much more easily than with our institutional account, which doesn’t feature a face as its profile photo but rather a logo. It makes sense. Brands seem to be developing an increasing reputation for beating dead horses. Personalities need to shine through now more than ever.

Recently, our university has seen a surge in social leadership. With the hires of a new athletic director and vice presidents for student life and health sciences, we’ve been able to significantly increase our social media reach.

From an athletics perspective, the audience of alumni and fans is always intriguing; this group is always in-the-know and is vocal about their team. Connecting with this very active group is now a necessity.

“Growing up in this state, I know first-hand how passionate our fans are about the Mountaineers. Twitter gives me the chance to reach out to our fans and update them on the latest in our department,” says Shane Lyons, WVU athletic director. “I look forward to engaging our fans and being a part of their daily social media routine. People want to know and social media is a big part of our information process.”

Visibility for our work in the fields of health and wellness is even more important for us in West Virginia, a state that’s commonly considered one of the unhealthiest. Building a strong social presence for Clay Marsh, our new vice president for Health Sciences, specifically around this state is a priority for us as we move to try to change the trend and improve the health of all West Virginians.

“Social media is a channel that allows the immediate exchange of ideas, information and inspiration. This two-way portal allows a citizen in any border of our state to be reached by his or her provider and eventually allows us to broadcast messages that can augment health,” sys Marsh, who added that it’s his goal to deliver critical information through the “right channel” for the audience not just the one that’d be best for him.

“This is the goal of WVU Medicine—personalized in treatment, diagnosis and in the communication of information that everyone can understand,” he adds.

A president can speak at a higher level, but you need others around your campus to build upon what your president has started. There are now so many more topics we can talk about and audiences we can reach with our additional “personalities” on Twitter.

“As a new face on campus, Twitter has been a great way to get to know this campus and our students,” says Bill Schafer, vice president of student life. “It’s much easier to talk with students by using the ways in which they’d normally communicate … It’s more comfortable for them and that allows us as campus leaders to more successfully reach out to this important group.”

Connecting Personalities to Audiences

Let’s be clear, each of our leaders has a different audience, as you can see here.

  • President – The overall university community and national higher education communities
  • Vice President of Student Life – Current students, parents of current students
  • Vice President for Health Sciences – Current health sciences students and West Virginians
  • Athletic Director – Fans and alumni

That’s why this works; everyone has a purpose for posting and a specific audience to connect with. There will be overlaps at times, and that’s OK—particularly when it comes to big issues. But, you want them to be taken as serious, dependable, original voices amongst all the social noise. A powerful voice—from an actual human and not just a logo—can mean so much for the reputation of a university and its community.

This doesn’t just end at your senior leadership, either. When we’re talking “personalities,” look for faculty and staff who stand out on social media. Build relationships and find ways to include them in campaigns and marketing. Their reach will be much different, and that can allow for new opportunities.

Each personality brings a different audience and a different specialty. The more you have, the better you can build your institution into the social conversations already going on around it.

All that being said, social media is not for every leader, and that’s something to take into account. But, it is for many—the funny, the dry, the young and the old. Sometimes, it just takes a bit of convincing, practice and teaching.

If your president doesn’t have a presence but you think it would benefit your institution, I’d suggest reading #FollowTheLeader by Dan Zaiontz.

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