Thursday, October 25, 2012

The overly controlled student voice and #highered PR

At one university where the marketing team was trying to get some student videos in motion, they found a willing student--but instead of his homegrown effort, decided to ask him to work with a professional crew to script and polish the video. This took more time, during which a student blog got wind of the project, writing a story about the "secret marketing video" being kept under wraps.

While this was not a nefarious plot--the video was released, pronto--it shows how using students to enhance the campus image can run into the buzz saw of social media, with extra friction caused by traditional command-and-control PR tactics. You may be viewing social media as just another marketing tool in which you get to massage the message that students convey, while students and reporters see it as a vehicle for disclosure and transparency. Or is it part of a wider effort to control diversity in student voices, a campus trend described in an op-ed in this morning's New York Times? 
2010 study by the American Association of Colleges and Universities of 24,000 college students and 9,000 faculty and staff members found that only 35.6 percent of the students — and only 18.5 percent of the faculty and staff — strongly agreed that it was “safe to hold unpopular positions on campus.”
Whatever the cause, at some point, those views will collide, as in these three examples, some more extreme than the others:
  1. A student blogging with the help of a consultant is not blogging: When Uuniversity of Virginia rector Helen Dragas was attempting to do damage control after her firing of the university president backfired, she e-mailed the board’s lone student member, looking for help: 'Do you know of students on grounds who might be willing to assist with a communications effort by engaging constructively in the blogs as guided by a communications consultant?'" This article, part of a Washington Post series, gives no word of any payment to be offered to the proposed student bloggers, but does note that three different PR firms received more than $250,000 for their help with the damage control.
  2. Student robot sources? Not so awesome: US News education reporter Menachem Wecker described how he uses Twitter (and other social media sites) to look for students who haven't been vetted, screened and prepped for interviews by the university's communicators"I've interviewed far too many students, who, when asked what they’d change about their college or university if they were empowered to do so, answer with something along the lines of: 'I really think our president is right on in her pursuit of innovative solutions to higher education problems, but I just wish the students respected her more,' or 'Honestly, I think the university should stop being so awesome for a spell, so that the competition can catch up.' Needless to say, those kinds of atmospheric and scripted statements are basically useless to me," Wecker said. While he doesn't name names in this post, Wecker has used social media on a well-read journalism blog to give fellow reporters a heads-up about your practices, along with the rest of us eavesdroppers. Perhaps not the desired result, eh? A more honest and professional approach: Let the students speak their minds and be ready to answer the questions and criticisms that arise.
  3. It's called the First Amendment, people. Isn't it? At Bryan College, a Christian liberal arts school in Tennessee, the editor of the student paper was told that his Biblical studies professor was leaving "to pursue other opportunities," but good reporting with public records showed the professor was arrested and facing charges of attempting to meet with a minor. Forbidden to publish the story in the student newspaper, student editor Alex Green published and distributed his story independently in print and electronically, citing his concern that Bryan College not repeat the mistakes of Penn State in keeping child sexual abuse charges quiet. Administrators advised him to seek removal of the coverage by a journalist following the issue, then said that "may have been a mistake." Professional journalists and others on Twitter, blogs and other social networks have been actively sharing the coverage, making this yet another failed effort to quash negative coverage.
Since the advent of social media, I've had an eye on whether it is truly changing communications--or whether you're using these new tools to grease the windows of the fishbowl you now find yourselves in, to keep the view nice and blurry for those looking in. What would it look like if you embraced not just the technology, but the transparency? What if social media were integrated fully into your approaches, so fully that you were comfortable with letting students speak their minds on those channels? In these cases, I'm guessing the students might have more positive things to say publicly. Share your thoughts in the comments. 

I've got two unique professional development options coming up for you: A November 27 day-long workshop on public speaking and presenting for introverts, with both content and format designed to focus directly on what introverts need and their special advantages as speakers. And a December 7 lunch-and-learn for communicators who want to make the case for a training program for your experts. Part brainstorm, part briefing, this will help you develop the data, examples and encouragement you need to convince those who need convincing. You'll get discounted registration if you sign up early, as usual. Please join me for these sessions.

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