University leaders on Twitter: where to draw the line?

Santa Ono’s social media activity raises questions about when a tweet is an official university statement

June 19, 2018
Twitter icon on smartphone screen
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The University of British Columbia’s president, Santa Ono, is a social media star among college presidents.

On Professor Ono’s Twitter feed, there are beautiful pictures of the UBC campus, details of upcoming events and celebrations of the achievements of students and staff.

When not promoting his institution on Twitter, Professor Ono shares more personal posts: a recommendation for a local ramen bar, a quote from Pablo Picasso or the news that the Harry Potter play just won six Tony Awards.

Mixed in with these promotional and personal posts, however, is the occasional statement of university policy. And that, students say, is a big problem.

A recent editorial in the student newspaper, The Ubyssey, criticised Professor Ono’s approach to social media. The article described how Professor Ono’s tweets are sometimes at odds with information provided by the university, adding that it is “unclear what separates a random Twitter thought or a kind comment on Facebook from an official statement”.

This “blurring” of social media presence and office responsibility has opened Professor Ono up to “blunders, intentional or not, that make the line between policy and post terribly ambiguous”, said the article.

Describing one such “blunder”, the Ubyssey editors said that, when they contacted UBC’s communications office asking for a statement on the imprisonment of alumna and women’s rights activist Loujain Al-Hathloul in Saudi Arabia, they received a phone call with the message that Professor Ono “was about to tweet”.

“We were understandably confused,” wrote the editors. “Twitter is not usually the place to make policy statements – at least, not for our president.”

The tweeted statement from Professor Ono fell flat with faculty members, who described the response as “strange and tepid”.

The next day, seemingly in response to criticism that his social media statement was not sufficient, Professor Ono penned a more formal and forceful statement that was published on the UBC website.

Describing another “blunder”, the Ubyssey editors said that, earlier this year, Professor Ono tweeted that UBC applicants who participated in protests would not be denied admission based on their activism. The UBC communications office then pulled back from this, saying that Professor Ono “wasn’t making any statement on behalf of the university”.

Matthew Ramsey, director of strategic communications at UBC, said that Professor Ono was not available to provide comment for this article (although characteristically, he did find some time to tweet). Mr Ramsey explained that Professor Ono uses his social media presence to “engage in informal conversations with students, faculty and staff” and to “disseminate UBC policy and institutional responses to pressing issues when required”.

Mr Ramsey added that communications staffers in the president’s office work with Professor Ono to draft and schedule social media content that reflects UBC policy. Formal statements reflecting UBC policy are “always repeated on the president’s website to ensure clarity”, said Mr Ramsey.

Dan Zaiontz, a higher education and social media strategist, described Professor Ono in his book #FollowTheLeader: Lessons in Social Media from #HigherEd CEOs as an “institutional champion”. As president of the University of Cincinnati from 2012 to 2016, Professor Ono gained more than 70,000 followers and coined the university’s #HottestCollegeinAmerica slogan. Now tweeting as president of UBC from the Twitter handle @ubcprez, Professor Ono has more than 17,000 followers and has tweeted more than 12,000 times since he created the account in June 2016.

Mr Zaiontz said that Professor Ono would be “the first person to acknowledge” that using social media carries risks and challenges. “When you wade into the social media space as the leader of a huge institution, you know that anything you put out there is going to be heavily scrutinised,” said Mr Zaiontz.

Although Professor Ono might not have handled the Al-Hathloul statement perfectly, Mr Zaiontz said that he was quick to respond to criticism that Twitter was not the right medium for a statement. “Hindsight is 20/20,” said Mr Zaiontz, adding that even if the initial approach wasn’t right, Professor Ono’s team was “actively listening” and “monitoring what the community was saying.”

“Anyone who takes the time to reflect on how they communicate would probably find room for improvement,” said Mr Zaiontz, “I don’t think Ono is immune to that.”

Both Mr Zaiontz and Eric Stoller, a higher education consultant and blogger for Inside Higher Ed, said that Professor Ono was a “leading voice” for presidents on social media. In addition to using Twitter, Ono has also been active on FacebookInstagram and even YouTube. The use of social media is a topic he is so passionate about that he is writing a book on it.

Mr Stoller said that Professor Ono has been a “great example” of how a university leader can use social media. “The fact that he’s trying to engage in digital spaces in a way that is authentic and vulnerable cannot be an easy task due to his very public-facing university position,” he said.

Professor Ono has earned praise for his vulnerability online. In 2016, he revealed on Twitter that as a young man, he twice tried to end his own life. Professor Ono said that he shared the information to send a message that depression is treatable and to reduce the stigma around mental illness.

Erin Hennessy, vice-president of TVP Communications, a public relations agency focused on higher education, said that Professor Ono was one of the earliest and “most vigorous” adopters of social media among college presidents. Josie Ahlquist, a higher education digital engagement and leadership consultant, agreed, saying that Ono had “humanized the presidency”.

Ms Hennessy said that there is a lot to be said for presidents engaging in social media to promote their institution and to show that they are engaged in conversations on the campuses they lead.

But there is a flip side to being hyper-engaged, said Ms Hennessy. “It’s one thing to misspeak in front of a room of 15 alumni; it’s quite another thing to do it in front of 17,000-plus followers,” said Ms Hennessy. Being so engaged on Twitter could also take time away from presidential duties, said Ms Hennessy – a president who responds on social media to complaints about building maintenance issues, for example, sets a precedent for students that he or she is the right person to direct these complaints to.

Both Ms Hennessy and Dr Ahlquist agreed that whatever presidents do on social media, it should be done intentionally and strategically. When mistakes are made, presidents should admit to them quickly and listen to feedback on how to improve, said Dr Ahlquist.

Mixing policy announcements with personal statements on social media is a “challenging” strategy for university presidents to pull off, said Hennessy. Rather than declaring a president's Twitter feed strictly personal or professional, Ms Hennessy said she thinks that there is a “happy medium” to be found. For example, rather than making university policy statements via Twitter, presidents can use Twitter to promote official statements that the university publishes on its website, said Ms Hennessy.

While social media blurs lines, it also removes communication barriers, which generally is “a good thing”, said Mr Stoller. “However, when it comes to official university policy, it’s important that everyone is on the same page – online and offline. Otherwise you open yourself up to critiques – valid or not, based on any type of disconnect that exists.”

Kevin Anselmo, founder of Experiential Communications, an agency that helps higher education institutions to develop communication strategies, agreed that Professor Ono and UBC’s communications office “need to be totally aligned” on their messaging for important university statements. “There is probably no reason for a communications staff member to vet President Ono congratulating a new student on being admitted to the university,” said Mr Anselmo, but for thornier issues, where it is important that the institution sends a clear and united message, Mr Anselmo thinks that a vetting process is “imperative”.

Mr Anselmo said that it would be a mistake for Professor Ono to dramatically curtail his use of social media, but he said that Professor Ono and his colleagues could “make some tweaks” to ensure that there is not a situation again where the university has to state that Professor Ono’s views are not representative of the institution.

Professor Ono has always appeared “smart and savvy” with social media, said Mr Anselmo. But sometimes being innovative “means that you make mistakes”.

This is an edited version of a story that first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.

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