Thursday, 8 July 2010

“He sends text messages, how hard can getting him on Twitter be?”

A few months back I took a vague interest in how many University heads were on Twitter. I’ve been active on the social networking site for a few years now and have kept tabs on most of the main speakers in HE, but failed to come across more than a couple of UK Vice-Chancellors.

I asked Times Higher Education if they knew of any: ‘@vcsalford is the only one we know of UK-wise, there's also (blog from DCU president).’

I took a look, Professor Martin Hall sends out messages once every few days. Implies a busy schedule; but a connection with a popular emerging communication tool. Decent number of followers (315 currently) who he tends to interact with.

After a bit more digging I found that the office of the VC for Southampton is on Twitter (@Soton_VC_Office). Official messages in a corporate voice, little personal interaction but hasn’t been updated since mid January. Could it be that they found it too difficult to maintain as a staff and had to resource elsewhere?

Up until the recent emergence of the newly appointed De Montfort University Vice-Chancellor Dominic Shellard, in June this year, that was it. @DMUVC is doing very well at engaging with his audience as demonstrated by the near 300 followers that he had gained in a few weeks. Interacting with staff questions and claiming to be tweeting himself without the aide of an assistant with constant meeting updates is a time consuming task.

No other UK VC’s have ventured into the territory. So it begs the question: why?

“He send text messages, how hard can Twitter be?” These fairly logical words came from a friend of mine as we were discussing how to get senior academics into social media.

For some, commenting on current affairs and announcing the contents of their lives is an easy process – one akin to a good gossip in a pub. But winning executives round to incorporating a new piece of technology into their daily lives can be an incredibly tricky process.

Now let me be clear on this point, it is not that they find it difficult, my view is that the least cited yet most important excuse for not tweeting is ‘danger of exposure’. The examples above show three distinct styles for academics using social media:

1) Personal approach, vocal and frequent (@DMUVC)
2) Office approach, depersonalised and corporate messages (@Soton_VC_office)
3) A mixture of the above (@vcsalford)

Is one approached better than the other? I genuinely believe that Professor Hall has nailed it. A VC shouldn’t have the time to send dozens of tweets a day; a recent article in the Daily Telegraph suggested that constant use of social media reshapes our brains ‘and makes our thinking shallower’. Even if this isn’t the case, the amount of time spent online tweeting is akin to someone texting during a presentation – highlights a priority on PR of the self or the institution, rather than governance and executive management.

And for the hundreds of VC’s that aren’t on Twitter? It can’t hurt to give it a go. Provided that you aren’t spewing tripe about what you had for breakfast and use your podium to promote official messages and interact with your audience, it shouldn’t be incredibly daunting.

Yes it can open you up to attack, but it also creates a level of interaction and transparency that I feel is strongly needed in the sector. In the era of staff reductions and budget cuts, the sector must unify to a greater or lesser extent to promote its successes and apologise for its failures on a public platform, together. Only then can the public at large truly understand the incalculable benefits of investing in a higher education sector.

Communication is key. Having university executives on Twitter is just one way of attacking the issue.

Interesting to note that since my blog went out that @Soton_VC_Office has been disabled. Still exists in Google though.


Martin - TheUniversityBlog said...

One of the beauties of Twitter is its ability to connect people who wouldn't usually be easily accessible, yet do this in a way that is not intrusive.

The benefits of a VC joining Twitter far outweigh the drawbacks. An account lets them be personal, engaging, accessible, and helpful. All for a few tweets a day and having to respond to a few quick queries in 140 characters.

Effective use needn't require time-consuming effort. Do what you can. Use whatever time available to genuinely engage, even if it's only a few minutes a day.

You say a Twitter account -- and any tool like this -- can open you up to attack. But online attacks will happen with or without you. A head in the sand doesn't stop the attacks.

As for the PR problem of messages being sent out without censoring/filtering, a growing number of university staff use Twitter. Many are used as an extension of their role and to network professionally, yet they are personal accounts that do not directly represent the official views of their university. I don't see why the same couldn't be said of any VC Twitter account. Only the most offensive/misguided comments would still come under scrutiny...I'd say the risk would be minimal in most cases. Hopefully!

And that's all the more reason to make any account a personal one. The VC is engaging as a human being and because they #loveHE.

Dolby said...

A great post and follow up comment which has left me reaching straight for the Subscribe button!

We have a fairly small but active community of staff twitterers and also run a corporate twitter account on which we can respond to queries and retweet the best of our staff tweets.

As for the VC, we recently took his monthly email updates online as a VC blog ( and complement these with posts about the VC's other activities.

I doubt we'd get him on to twitter although I think the comparison to texting could be a very convincing argument for encouraging anyone to tweet and agree that Prof. Hall's approach on both the blog and twitter is enviable.

Mark Dolby
Internal Communications Officer
University of Bradford


Mario Creatura said...

Individuals working in a HEI and using a twitter feed to network is an interesting area - if done properly it could certainly have a huge impact on the individuals career, but do personal accounts have any real impact on the institutions reputation?

For example, I work at the University of Surrey - does me writing a personal blog or connecting with users in a personal capacity benefit the University that I am at? Or does it harm it? Does my blog subject matter matter at all? I write about HE and work in HE, but what about a member of staff or student that comments on football/music etc.

I'll have a think about this and most likely a blog will spring from it!

Mary Churchill said...

I just got a tweet from Mario asking me to comment so here we go!

I feel like Twitter is the American Wild Wild West of social media - it feels like this wide open space that only a few of us inhabit.

That said, a social media plan for a senior leader in higher ed -- in the USA, I would argue that Facebook is the place to start. Too bad you are stuck between your own personal space and a space where people have to "like" or be your "fan". Nonetheless, short FB profile updates with feeds to Twitter would be a nice start for senior leaders -- a one-way communication on Twitter but more of a conversation on Facebook. The advantages are numerous but a few that come to mind quickly are: FB starts a conversation, introduces people to one another, and is not limited by 140 characters.

Mary Churchill
University of Venus

Mario Creatura said...

Great piece in Times Higher Education on this very subject:

A hashtag for the head: v-c tweets to keep in touch
22 July 2010

By Sarah Cunnane

De Montfort's new leader uses Twitter to engage with staff and students. Sarah Cunnane reports

A university vice-chancellor is hoping for tweet success in his new role by reaching out to his staff and students and others in the sector via the social networking site Twitter.

Since taking the reins at De Montfort University last month, Dominic Shellard (@DMUVC) has been quick to embrace the Twittersphere.

In doing so, he joins university heads from around the world including E. Gordon Gee (@presidentgee) of Ohio State University, Richard Descoings (@rdescoings) of Sciences Po in France and Steven Schwartz (@macquarievc), vice-chancellor of Macquarie University in Australia.

But Professor Shellard's UK peers have been slow to take to social media. He is only the second to personally twitter, following Martin Hall of the University of Salford (@VCSalford).

Mario Creatura, an education blogger working in the sector, discusses the paltry use of social media by UK vice-chancellors in a blog post titled "He sends text messages, how hard can Twitter be?". It is, he says, an "incredibly tricky process" to convince institution heads to add social media to their daily lives.

He advises any vice-chancellors thinking of twittering: "It can't hurt to give it a go. Provided that you aren't spewing tripe about what you had for breakfast and use your podium to promote official messages and interact with your audience, it shouldn't be incredibly daunting."

Professor Shellard said he was "really attracted to the idea that social media can complement traditional means of engaging with colleagues. As a new vice-chancellor, it's a way of quickly giving colleagues a sense of who you are.

"I recognise that there's a lot of curiosity about what I'm like, about my ideas on a new vision, how many arms I've got - that kind of stuff."

Professor Shellard, who aims to tweet three or four times a day, insisted that the messages come from him alone. "Unless it's me, there's no point doing it."

The academic community on Twitter has welcomed Professor Shellard's overtures to a wider audience: @DMUVC has been inundated, not just with ideas and comments on the university and the sector, but also with praise for his efforts.

One senior lecturer at De Montfort, Miles Weaver (@weavermiles), tweeted that Professor Shellard's engagement showed "refreshing leadership", while Chris Lowthorpe (@chrislowthorpe), a lecturer at Norwich University College of the Arts, added: "Your peers could learn a lot from you."

The debate sparked by his tweets has pleased Professor Shellard. He hopes that staff will use the medium to help shape De Montfort's new strategic plan, and has invited them to contribute ideas via Twitter.

"I think the days where you spend 18 months, 58 committees and tens of thousands of pounds on a consultation exercise to produce a strategic plan are long gone," he said, although he stopped short of suggesting that the final plan would, like tweets, be written in no more than 140 characters.

Author said...

Hi Mario, got round to doing my piece on the same topic as mentioned, referencing your post. Link is here

Mario Creatura said...

Great blog Kyle.

Interesting to note that since my blog went out that @Soton_VC_Office has been disabled. Still exists in Google though...