Colleges May Neglect Social Media in Times of Crisis, Study Says

Many officials also believe that their employers aren’t doing a good job generally on social networks.

Colleges may not be leveraging social media sufficiently in crises, a study suggests.
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School officials may be underutilizing social media, particularly in times of crisis, according to a new survey on social media and higher education.

The study, "#SocialMedia and Advancement: Insights from Three Years of Data," which surveyed 1,187 college officials who are members of the nonprofit Council for Advancement and Support of Education, was jointly conducted in January and February 2012 by the firms mStoner and Slover Linett Strategies, in partnership with CASE.

From 2010 to 2012, survey respondents, who work either in college advancement or external relations offices, remained fairly consistent in their characterization of their employers' use—or more appropriately, misuse—of social media in crisis management situations, such as blackouts, snowstorms, or shooters on campus.

During crises, 56 percent of the 2012 respondents felt their schools didn't use social media much or at all, while 22 percent thought their schools turned to social media quite a bit or extensively. The latter figure rose 4 percent over the previous year, and the percentage that said its employer neglects social media in crises dropped 6 percentage points from 2010 to 2012.

But despite the slight decline in respondents who say their schools neglect social media in times of crises, Michael Stoner, the president of mStoner and co-author of the study, says he's surprised that every institution doesn't use the "incredibly important and influential channels" of social media in times of crisis.

"Particularly when you consider that what happens in a crisis is being reported and misreported on social channels, you definitely want to have your house in order, so that you have an official channel set up [that] can set the record straight," he says.

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The survey respondents are a "pretty good cross section" of CASE membership, which is the largest higher education organization, according to Stoner. "The people who actually do handle crisis communications should be well represented," he says.

Another study finding that surprised Stoner is the 20 percent of respondents who felt their employer didn't use social media at all or much to engage current students. "It's such a no-brainer," he says. "What page in the contemporary communications manual did you miss?"

Respondents also handed their employers low grades on their overall social media use. Only 20 percent felt their employers were "very successful" in their social media use, and just 2 percent thought their schools were a model for success on social media. Meanwhile, 14 percent said their employers were "not at all" or "not very" successful on social media, and 65 percent said that their school was "somewhat successful."

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But the educational social media landscape may be improving. When Stoner put out the first study two years ago, he had a hard time finding social media case studies to include. This time, he found half a dozen—from University of Wisconsin—Madison, Webster University, Elizabethtown College, Messiah College, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Johns Hopkins University, and College of William & Mary.

Mike Lesczinski, the public relations manager at Excelsior College in Albany, N.Y., also thinks things are improving.

Although he was also surprised by the survey findings on crisis management, Lesczinski has a hunch that a large percentage of institutions are either developing or planning to increase their crisis communications on social media for the future.

"Because students tend to tune out single streams of information, it is vital that institutions use a variety of channels such as E-mail, social [media], and text [messages]," he says. "Institutions have to ensure they are participating in the conversation both to correct inaccuracies and because students are more prone to seeking out trustworthy sources."

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