Supporting a Campus President on Social Media

As presidential digital leadership evolves, marketing leaders and their teams are more likely to support an executive social media presence. Even if you haven’t done this in the past, presidents change, and each change in leadership brings with it a change in social media presence. Being a leader on social media without a strategic focus is risky, and every executive should have a thoughtful approach to their online presence. Marketing leaders can help guide and mold the presidential approach to social media.

In my book Social Media Strategy Fundamentals, I outline four ways to support an executive’s social media presence. I’m sharing them here to give you a quick reference guide to determining the appropriate approach to support your president or chancellor and provide data you can reference while supporting them. 

4 Approaches to Executive Social Media Support

There’s no right way to support your campus leaders’ social media presence; the best choice for each leader depends on a variety of factors, including their leadership style, comfort with social media platforms, personal prioritization of digital leadership, and charisma. 

Consider which approach will be most valuable to your president or other key executives and use it to create your strategy.

Provide Context to an All-Star

The all-star executive is comfortable using social media, and may already have an active account before they join your leadership team. Because they’ve participated in online communities, they can be trusted to create content and engage in an authentic way. Just because they have it together and are comfortable doesn’t mean you should leave them alone, though. In fact, sometimes marketers and communicators in this situation feel pressure to keep up with their president. With an all-star, communication is key.

An executive should be part of the campus digital ecosystem, and you can make sure they participate in the way that feels best to them.

  • Determine standards of communication with official campus accounts. Will the main campus and president accounts tag each other without prior notice? Who will publish official campus announcements first? Should particular topics always be covered by one account, and retweeted by the other if needed?
  • Set boundaries regarding communication between the executive and the social media manager. How often and in what circumstances is it appropriate for the social media manager to DM, text, or email a campus executive about social media issues? Some are very hands-on and in regular contact, while others prefer formal communication on a regular (e.g., daily, weekly) basis.
  • Provide audience intelligence through social listening. Let your president know when topics are trending within the campus community or nationally. Help them understand how their presence impacts the reach and engagement of the campus brand.
  • Support the engagement strategy your president chooses. Ask them to share their approach to replies and DMs with you, so you can guide community engagement with the wording of your posts from main campus accounts. If the executive wants to engage with the community and serve as a switchboard to direct questions and concerns to other offices, make sure they know the appropriate usernames and the expectation for response from non-centralized accounts.

All-stars are still part of a team. Provide the right support and let them know what you need from them to do it. Learn how Linfield University worked with their All Star, President Davis, in Chapter 18 of Fundamentals of Social Media Strategy: A Guide for College Campuses.

Work with a Coachable Player

Whether new to your campus (a rookie) or a long-time member of administration, many senior leaders are just warming up to the idea of a public social media presence. They may reach out to talk about possibilities, or you may be surprised to suddenly find they’ve created an account. However they get on your radar, work with them to make sure they have a presence with purpose.

I recommend coaching your president and senior leaders to manage their own social media accounts. In our 2019 study, Examining Twitter Influence of Campus Executives, we found that the most influential executives managed their own accounts. These executives not only reached more people on social media, but they were more engaging. Similarly, in Josie Ahlquist’s Digital Leadership for Higher Education, you’ll read profiles of executives all over the world who practice excellent digital leadership by managing their own accounts. If your president’s first request is to create and manage accounts for them, push back politely and start a conversation about goals and desired outcomes. That’s the first thing you should coach your executive on, anyway.

  • Discuss goals and desired outcomes. Why does the executive want to be on social media? If their presence is successful, what will they see in six months or one year? Common goals include increased visibility for the campus, more connections with journalists, increased engagement with students, or approachability with faculty and staff. Consider if you can help them assess their presence through annual reporting using social media metrics.
  • Discuss their posting cadence. Some leaders block out time each day or week to check in on social media, while others check in multiple times per day from their mobile device between meetings. Find out when and how often your executive plans to be on social media, and if they’re able to commit enough time to support the presence they want.
  • Help them choose their platforms. Not every executive is going to kill it on Instagram. Using your expertise on what content works best on each platform combined with the executive’s desired time commitment, choose one to three platforms you are reasonably sure will be congruent with your exec’s communication style.
  • Discuss content strategy. What themes will they cover? Do they have a personal or professional passion they want to come through in their online presence? What’s their voice? Is there content you can create that will help them achieve their vision (e.g., GIFs, avatars, branded templates)?

With this approach, your executive will require a significant portion of your time and attention for anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, and then less-intensive, but consistent check-ins afterwards. Learn how Emma Gilmartin coached the Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Glasgow on page 242 of Fundamentals of Social Media Strategy: A Guide for College Campuses.

If you’re already overworked, it may not be possible to devote this time and attention to coaching an executive. Don’t give up! Acknowledge your resource constraints and encourage your executive to pursue the next approach, private coaching.

Pursue Private Coaching

You may not have the bandwidth to support your executive, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t get support from somewhere. Many senior leaders both inside and outside higher ed have an executive coach. Why not consider a digital leadership coach? While I’m sure there are others doing this work, I’m flying the Dr. Josie Ahlquist flag here and recommending you refer your senior leaders to her. She has a variety of services, including a self-paced course, guided three-month coaching program, and executive social strategist services. Josie is an expert on leadership, higher ed, and social media. You couldn’t ask for a better person to trust as a coach for your senior leaders. 

Even if your executive never works with Josie, encourage them to join her Connected Exec Community on Facebook. It’s a place to support current and aspiring higher ed executives who want to engage, influence and lead online, on campus, and in life.

If you’d like to go further, and consider how you may incorporate a presidential digital leadership strategy into an institutional brand strategy, Campus Sonar can support presidential digital leadership as a key initiative in a strategic partnership, pairing expert coaching with social listening data that provides real-time insight and feedback.

Play the Designated Hitter

In baseball, one spot in the lineup is for the designated hitter. They don’t have to worry about playing in the outfield, they just show up and hit pitches. If your president doesn’t have the time, interest, or ability to manage their social media account but still has relevant goals they could achieve through social media profiles, they may ask an expert to do it for them.

This approach won’t work for an under-resourced team—a campus social media manager cannot also be a presidential social media strategist. It’s also not a common approach—serving as the voice of a campus is challenging; accurately representing the voice of a living, breathing senior leader can be much harder. Differences between the executive social media strategist and the executive they speak for in both life and professional experience as well as attributes like age, gender identity, race, ethnicity all contribute to the challenge of this approach.

Gail Martineau, formerly the Senior Manager for Digital Media and Strategy in the Office of the President at Ohio State University supported President Michael Drake in this way for more than three years (until he left the university). During that time she helped him more than double his Twitter following and launch a LinkedIn and Spotify presence. My jaw dropped when Gail shared more about her work at the 2017 HighEdWeb Annual Conference and mentioned President Drake didn’t even know his passwords. To do this well, she had to get to know him as a person (Does he like coffee? What’s his favorite food?) and build trust so she could represent him authentically.

She coached him to take photos from his perspective when he was at events and text them to her, although she often traveled alongside him. For three years, it was her full-time job to manage a Big Ten president’s social media presence. 

At HighEdWeb, Gail shared three tips for social media professionals who manage a president’s social media presence.

  1. Let data drive. Presidents are used to having data to make their decisions; be ready for it.
  2. Build relationships based on trust. You can’t manage the reputation of another person online unless you trust each other.
  3. Be nimble. Schedules change, ideas change, priorities change. Always be ready to move. Sometimes you have to scrap things you worked hard on. Don’t take it personally.

I’ll add a fourth: recognize the investment required to make this approach work.

Which Approach to Choose

If your executive wants to be influential (maximizing for both reach and engagement), our data shows you’re most likely to achieve that goal if the executive manages their social media accounts themselves. So pursue one of the first three models listed. That doesn’t mean you can’t coach them, or help them with their content strategy (you’re an expert—you should offer your expertise), but they should publish the content and engage with their audience.

If your goal is simply to have an official presence to promote campus and add a bit of humanity to your leader, staff-managed social media accounts may be the best way to go but require more time and investment in support staff.