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Surviving the Digital Normal on Campus

Margaret Dunning
April 2023
Surviving the Digital Normal on Campus Masthead
A skilled social media team can help you spot and respond to a campus social media crisis.

Social media can create opportunities but can ruin reputations in seconds because, among other things, people can use it to spread gossip and hate speech.

With a crop of current and prospective students who are “digital natives,” how should educational institutions navigate this “digital normal?” Ignoring the range of social media platforms — including TikTok — would mean missing opportunities to further develop a positive reputation and to quickly address negative signals that could jeopardize the positive brand of your college or university.

Enhance Your Social Media Team to Understand, Monitor the Landscape

How should people responsible for social media on your campus best manage the new normal of never-ending communications streams? 

  • Assign one department to conduct general social media monitoring and posting. This will ensure accountability. Communications departments generally are responsible for social media monitoring and posting, with campus security involved, as needed, for threat monitoring. 

    Communicate this responsibility across your administration.
  • Build a strong social media team. Hire experienced people to monitor social media traffic and post your communications. The team should identify situations that may emerge as flashpoints and keep stakeholders fully informed about conversations that may go beyond free speech and begin to violate civil rights. Given the high stakes, this isn’t a learn-on-the-job role.

    Team members should be active users of the platforms with real interest in the communities. They should have a high-level of engagement and understand emerging platforms.

    Consider a limited involvement of students so you can benefit from their on-the-ground knowledge of the newest apps and trends in social media use. Knowing the pulse of the online  community will give your team the knowledge and experience needed to succeed. However, don’t place students in charge of posting. 
  • Consider getting outside help. At some institutions, using outside social media consultants will be based, in part, on whether there are institutional gaps in expertise. The team should be proportionate to your institution’s size, but large enough to monitor established and emerging apps and create content to feed your institution’s own channels. 
  • Know where your institution’s extended community likes to “live” online. Monitor and establish an institutional presence on platforms your students use while keeping an eye on emerging platforms. Your students may favor Instagram, Snapchat, and the app-du-jour, for example, while alumni may prefer Facebook and Twitter. Job seekers generally prefer LinkedIn. 

Establish Protocols for Monitoring, Measurement, Response

Do the following once you have a social media team in place: 

  • Create communications protocols. Determine who is alerted when an issue heats up, when and how your institution should engage, and how the team updates stakeholders (key administrators, legal, alumni affairs, and development). 
  • Identify and measure key social media metrics such as search engine results for your institution, rapid changes in brand sentiment, and upticks or surges in posts. 
  • Monitor comments using social media listening solutions. Be prepared to capitalize on positive opportunities and have a protocol for assessing negative mentions. Measurement tools evolve just as social media platforms change, so your team should frequently reassess monitoring tools. 
  • Consider creating daily reports that alert staff to potential problems. When in crisis, reports should occur at least twice daily. 
  • Be familiar with and closely monitor key social media “influencers” on and off campus. This might include faculty, students, journalists, and/or public figures. 
  • Avoid silos within the monitoring team. Cross-train members so they can assist during times of high-volume posts or a crisis. 
  • Establish — and regularly update — a playbook of appropriate responses for timely issues.
  • Add a social media section to your institution’s existing crisis communications plan.
  • Practice tabletop scenarios as a team. This ensures you’ll be ready when issues arise.

Create and Distribute Social Media Use Policies

Your social media team should create a social media use policy if your institution doesn’t have one. Seek guidance from outside experts, as needed. Once you have a policy:

  • Apply it to your extended community. This includes newly admitted students, current students (on campus and off), faculty, and staff. 
  • Secure buy-in from institutional leadership and legal counsel. Do this before issuing the policy. 
  • Post the finalized copy on your website.
  • Train new and returning students, faculty, and staff on it. Highlight updates you make. 
  • Share the policy with prospective students and high school counselors. This avoids surprises during the admissions process. 
  • Take swift action against policy violations. Consider whether actions you take will be made public. This reminds your community that there are consequences to policy violations. 
  • Have your social media team and legal team regularly review and update the policy. Share updates with your campus community. 

Respond to Social Media Crises

Despite your best efforts to stay ahead of social media messaging, sometimes outside posts or comments can cause a reaction that spins into a crisis. How you manage and respond can be the key to defending your institution’s reputation.

When signs arise that a crisis is unfolding online related to your institution, have your social media team assess the situation to determine the facts and potential impact on your community.

Consider these factors before initiating posts or responding on social media: 

  • Is the situation actively being discussed on social media? 
  • Is discussion of the information or situation accurate? 
  • Is the discussion gaining traction? 
  • Who’s fueling discussions on social media? 
  • Is engagement appropriate, and when? 

When determining whether and how to respond: 

  • Beware of “trolls” who post regularly. These posters enjoy being provocative; by engaging with them, you may raise their profile or even legitimize their cause. 
  • Correct credible but factually incorrect information through a brief response or link to a statement that clarifies the information is erroneous. 
  • Temporarily pause any prescheduled institution posts that could be seen as insensitive in light of the social conversation taking place. 
  • Seek engagement, if possible, from social media influencers who can be helpful. 
  • Monitor sentiment of social media posts and consider a blog post, a campus-wide email, or a meeting to restate the facts, answer questions, or communicate next steps. 


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