Recently, I had the opportunity to ask Cathy Sandeen, chancellor of the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA), a series of questions about her use of social media. Sandeen shares, engages, and showcases leadership via multiple digital channels...during good times and especially at moments of immense challenge (the state university system in Alaska is currently facing a 41 percent budget cut):
Why should university/college leaders have a digital presence in 2019?
Sandeen: Every college or university needs to have a social presence. For student recruitment and admissions these days, it’s essential. Because the leader is the face of the university, I believe he or she should have separate presence as well.
It’s vital in times of crisis—an earthquake (which we had), a budget cut (also have), a demonstration, an active shooter—so many emergencies that require an established relationship with and trust of the leader. Social media is now the first place most people turn to for information.
I started using social media (mainly Twitter and Facebook) when I was a chancellor of two statewide institutions in the University of Wisconsin System. Because it was such a challenge to connect with people face-to-face on a regular basis, at least we could connect through social media and they could see what I was up to as a chancellor. It worked well there. In fact, I’m still connected with many faculty, staff, elected officials, and community members throughout Wisconsin.
Because it worked so well in Wisconsin, and Alaska is even bigger and more spread out, I proposed ramping up social media when I arrived at UAA. The communications staff enthusiastically stepped up and here we are. We receive very positive reactions—especially to the video messages I’ve been sending to the UAA community. Frankly, it’s much more efficient than crafting a long email that few will read through.
Sometimes university leaders are hesitant to engage via digital channels. Why is it important for university presidents/chancellors/etc to ‘get social’?
Sandeen: Done well, the leader has to be much more open and vulnerable on social media than through other more conventional communication channels. Interactions happen rapidly, often in real time. You and your staff need to be nimble. We’re recording videos and posting them within an hour with no editing. That sort of thing is scary for many leaders.
Many leaders take a stiff and controlled approach to social media. You lose so much potential to connect with people using such an approach. People see it as advertisement and stop paying attention.
How much time do you spend on social media each day and how do you create opportunities for digital engagement?
Sandeen: Personally, I spend less than 30 minutes a day on social media, if that. Our communications team helps a lot. We meet weekly for 30 minutes about broad communications and media relations topics, look at my calendar, and identify potential posts or video opportunities. When I’m out and about, I’ll send photos to our social media lead who turns them into posts for me so I can focus on what I’m doing. It’s very fluid and we work as a team. Sometimes we’ll record a video on the spur of the moment.
We monitor activity and responses and, yes, like anyone, we do encounter critical comments. Feedback can be uncomfortable, but we get important information that way and in the end, true engagement is worth the occasional moments of discomfort.
Which social media platforms do you use on a regular basis?
I have three major threads in terms of strategy: 1) supporting the UAA mission; 2) thought leadership on US higher education; and 3) “becoming Alaskan”—traveling around, participating in various activities, learning about the state and its various cultures.
We try to hit all of these areas on a regular basis across all platforms with an emphasis on UAA-centric posts. We don’t do too many strictly informational posts and we always put posts through the lens of “chancellor-appropriateness.” Of course, using social media for crisis communication is always there if needed.
What are some of the successes or issues that you’ve encountered as a leader who engages on social media?
Sandeen: One of our biggest successes was during the aftermath of the 7.0 earthquake that closed the UAA campus. I posted a video on each of the five days campus was closed. It was the end of the semester—everyone needed information and reassurance. I’ll never forget a response from a student’s mother in Texas. She thanked me for the videos. She said they helped her know what was going on and that her student was safe. It’s a pretty long distance from Alaska to Texas and I was grateful our digital presence bridged that distance.
Another success in terms of traffic and attention was a video we did of me climbing Flattop Mountain with a group of student athletes and fitness majors. Flattop is an iconic Anchorage location and people really responded to that one.
I have to say (knock on wood) we have not had too many blunders. I’ve been in higher ed leadership positions for 20 years. Communication is also my academic discipline. I pay a lot of attention to communicating to a wide range of constituents. I have been doing it for years. The two years I spent as a vice president at American Council on Education honed my skills even further. I have a lot of experience that transfers to the social media world. Social media is another form of communication. That said, I always try to have people on the communications team take the lead on social media. Here at UAA, they are our own grads and they are excellent. They think of things I never could. We have a wonderful, creative photographer/videographer who is also an alum.
How has your digital engagement enhanced the student, staff, and/or faculty experience?
Sandeen: Students, staff, community members tell me they appreciate the effort. Students have said they never saw a chancellor until me. They feel that they know me. Anchorage is a pretty big place (population of about 300,000) and I get recognized a lot.
I believe my digital presence contributes to the recognition factor. We’re a relatively new university. Building a sense of human connection with the broad Anchorage community is essential for our future. Social media seems to be playing a key role.
What’s next? Do you have any plans to use platforms/features like Instagram Stories, TikTok, Twitch, or reddit?
Sandeen: I will defer to our staff to make suggestions. For now, we’re sticking with the existing platforms, but I’m very open to innovation and creativity in service of the UAA mission.
Do you have any final thoughts about how your digital engagement activities are part of a ‘team effort?’
Sandeen: I want to emphasize we have a very small, but effective communications team. Everyone wears multiple hats. Working together, we are able to do this. We’re a frugal public institution. I don’t want anyone to think we have a huge staff dedicated to social media.
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