Should PR handle #highered social media?

Here’s one certain to stir differences of opinion among the decentralized communicators of the higher education world: Ragan’s PR Daily piece outlining 4 reasons the PR team should handle social media.

Of course, Ragan Communications focuses on corporate PR, where things are much more centralized and hierarchical than they are here in higher ed land. And in the business world, the messaging (theoretically, at least) is more controlled.

So I can understand the desire for PR to want to be in charge of social media. We are control freaks by nature. (I say this as a PR guy.) But I’m not sure the model suggested Andrew Cross, who wrote that post for Ragan’s, would work for colleges and universities. At least, not for all colleges and universities.

And I don’t agree with all of the reasoning put forth in that article. (Keep in mind that I’m a former journalist-turned-PR guy-turned-whatever it is that I am now, and our department, which is not strictly PR, handles our main social media accounts. But our electronic marketing folks, which are a part of our department, also coordinate with other campus social media outreaches through a hub-and-spoke approach as described in Charlene Li’s book Open Leadership.)

But I do agree with some of it. So let’s break it down to see where the gaps lie.

Cross says PR should handle social media because:

The PR agency or team is best equipped to respond to inbound media requests

OK, that’s probably true.

But honestly, how many requests that come through your social media are media requests from journalists? A scant few, I’d bet.

In higher ed, I would guess that most requests come from students, prospective students and alumni. That’s the case for us. We do get occasional media requests via social media, but since our social media presence is coordinated by our department, the people who respond have some understanding of media relations. If the people handling your institution’s social media presence are not familiar with PR or media relations, some cross-training might help.

PR understands the organization’s messaging

“Whether it’s the typical ‘say this, not that’ that stems from the corporate legal department or subtle messaging tied to the product or service,” Cross writes, “the PR team is already adept at communicating in the organization’s style.” The PR team is also “best equipped to incorporate the unique tone of social media into the organization’s many other communications channels.”

Well, I hope that this is consistently the case. But have you read some of the news releases that come out of higher ed PR offices? Oh, sure, the author may have approached the messaging with great aspirations of clarity and even hopes of enlivening the document with some human tone. But after they’ve made it through the clearance gauntlet and a wooden quote has been created for every person who somebody thinks should be quoted, the thing becomes lifeless at worst, unreadable at best.

I’m probably being too harsh here. Many bits of PR prose that don’t require incessant review emerge relatively unscathed by the administrative review process. Still, “the organization’s messaging” isn’t always the best thing for connecting with real human beings through social media channels. People in social media like to talk — as in converse, conversationally — with real people, rather than being messaged to by the organization.

The PR team is trained in reputation management

Again, I hope this is the case at most highered institutions. The best of us are trained in crisis communications, which isn’t the same thing. And the best of us are pretty good at monitoring what’s being said about our institutions in the mediasphere (social and otherwise). But connecting the dots can be tough at times. I do agree with Cross when he says that “the PR department should have close ties to other departments with a horse in the race (read: everyone).”

PR strategy, in part, dictates social media strategy

I do agree with Cross on this point. Only I would expand “PR strategy” to encompass all communications, including marketing, customer relations, etc. PR is too narrow a focus, and in too many higher ed institutions, implies “media relations.”

* * * * *

I suppose the biggest issue I have with this article is the assumption that PR is siloed off from the other aspects of strategic communication for an organization, like web, marketing, customer service, etc. I guess that’s the case. And when we are engaged in silo thinking, we are always thinking about who should control what. In a Twitter discussion about this topic this morning, I think Andy Shaindlin of Alumni Futures said it well (in abbreviated tweetspeak):

PR team should lead, yes, but constant input/collab with other units (alumni, devel, academic, student aff.) is critical.

Again, I go back to Charlene Li’s hub-and-spoke model of social media coordination, as set forth in Open Leadership. (Great book. If you haven’t yet read it, you should.) I think that model probably works best for the decentralized nature of most colleges and universities.

It’s about coordination and collaboration, not control.

So, should PR “handle” social media in higher education? If that handling facilitates openness and is in the institution’s best interest, yes. That is, unless some other department within the institution can do it better — and until we get away from the silos of communication roles and realize that PR, marketing, enrollment management, development, alumni relations and student affairs can and should all work together.


Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

12 thoughts on “Should PR handle #highered social media?”

  1. I think one of the key issues comes down to customer service, and whether or not your PR team is prepared to become a middle man for all the needs and wants of their audience. As you mention, virtually none of our social media interactions involve a PR-to-PR exchange, and telling someone when finals are, or that you’re working on getting more parking spaces isn’t exactly something that takes a lot of oversight. If your social media presence is strictly a megaphone, then sure, let PR handle it exclusively.

    I think the solution is that you need a customer service-centric person or persons who has the blessings of PR. So this person maybe gets whatever training is necessary to stay on message and to have the right voice, but ultimately they aren’t strictly a PR employee. Organizationally, maybe that person does end up in the PR office, I don’t know. But there needs to be an understanding that the requirements of those relationships and conversations don’t respect organizational boundaries, and as such whomever runs the accounts needs to have some leeway and flexibility for interactions.

  2. I agree with you, Andrew.

    My goal at ND is just to educate and help monitor what is going on. There’s no way PR can handle the entire university and you wouldn’t want to. How would you ever grow your social media presence if only a few select are allowed to communicate.

    SM should be treated much like word of mouth. Get the talking points out there so they (the campus communicators, faculty, staff and students) can understand them and then let it go. They can pass the word in their own words.

    Good points.

  3. Michael, Don – It appears we have a consistent perspective. Social media is too big for one department to try to manage it all. What Michael says about having people involved in social media who focus on customer service — that is crucial to social media success in higher ed. I think we’re finally getting the clue that social media outlets should not be megaphones for one-way communication. I hope that’s the case, at least.

  4. There will never be a bigger need for a team approach than when a crisis hits. There will be so much need to monitor and moderate social media that we will all need to be deeply investd in team. It will be much easier if we are already functioning as a team than to try and build one in crisis. Good stuff!

  5. Chris – Excellent point. I’ve learned this from experience in my own career — having dealt with too many crises. It’s important to have everybody on board, even more so now with the prevalence of social media.

  6. I tend to believe that a good PR person(s) is the best choice. In my experience, it is easier to teach the technology to an experienced PR person than to teach PR skills to techie.

    I say this as my path was from techie to communication person.

    We neither encourage nor discourage any one in our school from setting up a channel for a focused audience but the main channels are managed by communications specialists. We do ask that everyone register with our office and understand the guidelines for all.

  7. Here is a contrarion view. PR should be nowhere near Facebook. FB is a social network NOT a corporate network. I have been amazed how many PR people having previously abandoned web site Forums as a means of engagement with key audiences due to the need for 24/7 moderation are now readily adopting Facebook as a means of communication that is unmoderated!be warned once the lobby groups, disgruntled customers, taxpayers and groups who don’t buy your corporate line realise that your FB is moderated. It’s a minefield. Avoid it – do NOT engage with Social Media as some form of Corporate Communications tool. It’s not.

  8. Thanks for the post, Andrew, and for continuing the discussion.

    You’re absolutely right that public relations at the higher-ed level often refers to media relations, and that’s probably not who we want handling social media. I think alumni relations (who, I would argue, are a form of public relations) and admissions (same thing applies) are probably the best two groups to handle much of the social media efforts.

    Ideally, though, a university maintains several social media profiles – for athletics, for admissions, maybe for different departments, etc.

  9. George – We’re glad you came over to the “good side” LOL. (Or is PR the dark side? I’ve been in this gig too long to remember.) But I’m glad the techie in you sees value in the PR/comms approach. I think we from the PR/comms side could benefit from a better perspective on the technical aspects, and need to have strong working relationships with our IT folks. Again, it’s about partnerships and collaboration, no?

    Max – Thanks for sharing your contrarian’s view. I agree that attempts to try to control (moderate) social media forums such as Facebook will not work. The PR folks — or anyone in charge of managing Facebook sites — must realize that.

    Andrew – Thanks for your original post. You gave me some great ideas to try to translate over to our little niche here in higher ed. I believe that most universities do maintain different social media profiles. Often, when something hits the fan, though — a crisis in athletics, for instance — the people concerned don’t always know which niche profile to target, so they talk to the main university Facebook page, Twitter account, etc. This gets back to Chris Syme’s point about needing a solid team approach during a time of crisis.

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