Why universities should start taking social media far more seriously

Social media can benefit or harm universities – and it must be carefully managed. Shutterstock

Social media is a risky space. Many people have learned this the hard way – 2016 began with several South Africans losing their jobs after making racist comments on Facebook and Twitter. Social media has also been used to expose people who hold racist views.

These incidents are a reminder that organisations increasingly need to create procedures and practices to manage their reputations. Employers must understand the risks involved as they and their stakeholders set out to engage with the wider community on social media. For universities, this risk is extended to staff and students who are associated with or formally linked to an institution.

For instance, the University of Pretoria suffered a serious backlash when two of their students donned “blackface” for a costume party and posted photographs of themselves online. They were charged with bringing the university into disrepute.

We have conducted research – due to be published soon – that shows South Africa’s higher education institutions should take this issue more seriously. Most universities don’t have formal social media policies. Some don’t seem to have considered social media as a potential risk to their reputation at all.

Formal policies are rare

Our research involved 23 of South Africa’s 25 public universities. The aim was to investigate whether they had social media policies at all and how they generally managed social media. The results show that:

  • 91% of universities don’t have formal social media policies;

  • four universities were in the process of approving draft social media policies. These were not available for us to examine at the time of the study; and

  • 61% don’t have any formal document that manages social media.

We were able to obtain nine documents – social media policies, guidelines or strategies – for analysis. Here are the key findings from those documents:

  • 44% focus on social media only as a risk to the institution. 33% focus on it as both a risk and a relationship-building tool, while 22% focus on it only as a tool for building relationships;

  • most of the documents refer to “brand” and “image”. Just 22% focus on brand, image and reputation;

  • 56% referred directly to disciplinary action for those who transgress the guidelines within the document; and

  • 67% offered both professional and personal guidelines in the use of social media.

Universities need to understand the important role played by social media in their corporate strategies to obtain optimal results for sustained growth and development.

Reputation is everyone’s problem

The next step was to learn how universities without formally adopted policies manage their social media activities and reputation. We interviewed one person from each of 11 universities to gain deeper insight into their approach to social media. The questions also explored how universities used social media other than for marketing functions.

The responses suggest that universities know they must develop social media policies to address risk-related issues. But most don’t see that policies should also be used to harness the potential advantages offered by social media. These include as a space for recruitment, sharing research or crisis management.

Instead, universities are very focused on organisational reputation as a branding issue – and they believe reputation is the ambit of a communication or marketing department rather than any other unit or group.

This isn’t the case. Employees and students need to be aware that although they are using social media in a personal capacity, they may appear to represent a university. They are recognised as an employee or student of that university, and their social media utterances can damage the institution’s reputation or perhaps enhance the reputation.

It’s time to get proactive

Universities in South Africa have neglected the development of social media policies until now. They may not yet have experienced the need for a formal management system. This is because communications teams still tend to be the ones dealing with crises or instances of bad behaviour on social media.

But mistakes of any kind on social media result in reputational, legal and ethical issues. The abuse or misuse of social media relationships has consequences.

It is time for universities to be proactive and get systems in place to manage these risks. This can be done by formulating and implementing social media policies and management systems for their institutions.