Every so often, a list drops with the “top must-follow presidents on social media.” The names on these listicles remain largely the same over the years: mostly men, mostly on their second (or third) higher ed presidential post, and mostly with a particular brand of personality. They lead large institutions with healthy endowments, robust research and extensive, if not competitive, athletics programs. A quick scroll through their Twitter feed reveals posts with healthy engagement. You understand who these people are immediately, and it appears they seamlessly share with an adoring audience. It all seems easy.
Well, not exactly—in reality, it’s carefully constructed strategy.
Both in Twitter’s early days and now, presidents typically launch their accounts without a plan. Looking up the 2011-era accounts of today’s successful presidents on the Wayback Machine typically recalls tweets that look far different from how and what they share today. That’s because they realized along the way that for their presence to be sustainable and have real purpose for the institution, they need to evolve beyond relying on leadership personality to actively engaging in a communications-informed plan.
When Twitter launched in the mid-00s, its early adopters used it the way most early adopters use new social media channels: they winged it. The leaders of universities hoping to be on the cutting edge of technology were either self-motivated or encouraged by their communications depts to engage; they could share their thoughts in 140 characters and bring continued exposure to their institution on yet another platform where the campus community and greater world were expected to congregate. And share their thoughts they did—simple, short posts congratulating graduating students on commencement or wishing luck on finals, quotes from historical figures and general musings on life. They would occasionally use the primitive retweet function to share text from other campus accounts. They commented on what was going on around them and did not censor the way they typically wrote. And for a while, that personality-driven approach worked.
But as these leaders continued to post and their audiences grew exponentially, the need for a pause became apparent. It was time for strategy. And personality is not, and cannot carry, strategy. Presidents must have a reason for having active social media accounts. Based on the audiences that gather on Twitter, those reasons should include advancing the industry of higher education through micro–thought leadership moments; sharing institution news with local, national and trade journalists; and engaging in conversations that boost the visibility of the leader and institution. And because carrying out these tactics can be intimidating for those reluctant to engage with social media, at many institutions, they land in the hands of the communications team. But that’s a step too far in the antipersonality direction.
Today, the most successful presidential Twitter accounts are run by the busy leaders themselves. As much as we communicators pride ourselves on being able to capture voice and accurately reflect tone, the personal nature associated with social media means users expect to hear the real person coming through their screen. The corporate, almost monotonous text associated with accounts run by presidential staff is easy to spot and truthfully makes having an institutional leader account unnecessary.
The balance presidents on social media need to achieve is one of character married with strategy. Leaders should carefully consider who they are, how they want the world to see them and for what they want to be known. From there, collaborate with communications staff not to shift the responsibility of copywriting and actual posting, but to create a strategy that informs what kinds of posts accurately reflect the institution brand, mission and goals. The most successful accounts have taken this journey from character to fully realized identity. It takes time to craft a social media persona—presidents make that time worth it by doing it the right way with authenticity and strategy.