The University of British Columbia’s president, Santa Ono, is a social media star among college presidents.
On Ono’s Twitter feed, there are beautiful pictures of the UBC campus, details of upcoming events and celebrations of the achievements of students and staff.
When not promoting his institution on Twitter, Ono shares more personal posts: a recommendation for a local ramen bar, a quote from Pablo Picasso or the news that the Harry Potter play just won six Tony Awards.
Mixed in with these promotional and personal posts, however, is the occasional statement of university policy. And that, students say, is a big problem.
A recent editorial in the student newspaper, The Ubyssey, criticized Ono's approach to social media. The article described how Ono's tweets are sometimes at odds with information provided by the university, adding that it is “unclear what separates a random Twitter thought or a kind comment on Facebook from an official statement.”
This “blurring” of social media presence and office responsibility has opened Ono up to “blunders, intentional or not, that make the line between policy and post terribly ambiguous,” said the article.
Describing one such “blunder,” The Ubyssey editors said that when they reached out to UBC Public Affairs asking for a statement on the imprisonment of alumna and women’s rights activist Loujain Al-Hathloul in Saudi Arabia, they received a phone call with the message that Ono “was about to tweet.”
“We were understandably confused,” wrote the editors. “Twitter is not usually the place to make policy statements -- at least, not for our president.”
Describing another “blunder,” the Ubyssey editors said that earlier this year, Ono tweeted that UBC applicants who participated in protests would not be denied admission based on their activism. The UBC Public Affairs office then walked this back, saying that Ono “wasn’t making any statement on behalf of the university.”
Matthew Ramsey, director of strategic communications at UBC, said that Ono was not available to provide comment for this article (though characteristically, he did find some time to tweet). Ramsey explained that Ono uses his social media presence to “engage in informal conversations with students, faculty and staff” and to “disseminate UBC policy and institutional responses to pressing issues when required.”
Ramsey added that there are communications staffers in the president’s office who work with Ono to draft and schedule social media content that reflects UBC policy. Formal statements reflecting UBC policy are “always repeated on the president’s website to ensure clarity,” said Ramsey.
Dan Zaiontz, a higher ed and social media strategist, described Ono in his book #FollowTheLeader: Lessons in Social Media from #HigherEd CEOs (mStoner) as an “institutional champion.” As president of the University of Cincinnati from 2012 to 2016, Ono gained more than 70,000 followers and coined the university’s #HottestCollegeinAmerica slogan. Now tweeting as president of UBC from the Twitter handle @ubcprez, Ono has more than 17,000 followers and has tweeted more than 12,000 times since he created the account in June 2016.
Zaiontz said that Ono would be “the first person to acknowledge” that using social media carries risks and challenges. “When you wade into the social media space as the leader of a huge institution, you know that anything you put out there is going to be heavily scrutinized,” said Zaiontz.
Though Ono might not have handled the Al-Hathloul statement perfectly, Zaiontz said that he was quick to respond to criticism that Twitter was not the right medium for a statement. “Hindsight is 20/20,” said Zaiontz, adding that even if the initial approach wasn’t right, Ono’s team was “actively listening” and “monitoring what the community was saying.”
“Anyone who takes the time to reflect on how they communicate would probably find room for improvement,” said Zaiontz, “I don’t think Ono is immune to that.”
Both Zaiontz and Eric Stoller, a higher education consultant and blogger for Inside Higher Ed, said that Ono was a “leading voice” for presidents on social media. In addition to using Twitter, Ono has also been active on Facebook, Instagram and even YouTube. The use of social media is a topic he is so passionate about that he is writing a book on it.
Stoller said that Ono has been a “great example” of how a university leader can use social media. “The fact that he’s trying to engage in digital spaces in a way that is authentic and vulnerable cannot be an easy task due to his very public-facing university position.”
Ono has earned praise for his vulnerability online. In 2016, he revealed on Twitter that as a young man, he twice tried to end his own life. Ono said he shared the information to send a message that depression is treatable and to reduce the stigma around mental illness.
Erin Hennessy, vice president of TVP Communications, a public relations agency focused on higher education, said that Ono was one of the earliest and “most vigorous” adopters of social media among college presidents. Josie Ahlquist, a higher ed digital engagement and leadership consultant, agreed, saying that Ono had "humanized the presidency."
Hennessy said that there is a lot to be said for presidents engaging in social media to promote their institution and to show that they are engaged in conversations on the campuses they lead.
But there is a flip side to being hyperengaged, said Hennessy. “It’s one thing to misspeak in front of a room of 15 alumni; it’s quite another thing to do it in front of 17,000-plus followers,” said Hennessy. Being so engaged on Twitter could also take time away from presidential duties, said Hennessy -- a president who responds on social media to complaints about building maintenance issues, for example, sets a precedent to students that he or she is the right person to direct these complaints to.
Both Hennessy and Ahlquist agreed that whatever presidents do on social media, it should be done intentionally and strategically. When mistakes are made, presidents should admit to them quickly and listen to feedback on how to improve, said Ahlquist.
Mixing policy announcements with personal statements on social media is a “challenging” strategy for university presidents to pull off, said Hennessy. Rather than declaring a president's Twitter feed strictly personal or professional, Hennessy said she thinks that there is a "happy medium" to be found. For example, rather than making university policy statements via Twitter, presidents can use Twitter to promote official statements the university publishes on its website, said Hennessy.
While social media blurs lines, it also removes communication barriers, which generally is "a good thing," said Stoller. “However, when it comes to official university policy, it’s important that everyone is on the same page -- online and off-line. Otherwise you open yourself up to critiques -- valid or not, based on any type of disconnect that exists.”
Kevin Anselmo, founder of Experiential Communications, an agency that helps higher education institutions develop communication strategies, agreed that Ono and UBC Public Affairs "need to be totally aligned" on their messaging for important university statements. "There is probably no reason for a communications staff member to vet President Ono congratulating a new student on being admitted to the university," said Anselmo, but for thornier issues, where it is important that the institution sends a clear and united message, Anselmo thinks a vetting process is "imperative."
Anselmo said it would be a mistake for Ono to dramatically curtail his use of social media, but he said that Ono and his colleagues could "make some tweaks" to ensure that there is not a situation again where the university has to state that Ono's views are not representative of the institution.
Ono has always appeared "smart and savvy" with social media, said Anselmo. But sometimes being innovative "means that you make mistakes."