Should PR handle #highered social media?

Posted on January 13, 2012


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.