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Risks of Social Media Usage in the UK Higher Education Setting

29 March 2012 | 03:02 am


The use of Social Media (SM) in the educational setting is on the increase and will only become more popular in the near future.  Although most university representatives agree that social media is a great resource to engage with the student community, few of them readily acknowledge the risks associated with it.  As higher education institutions (HEIs) increase their social media usage, will they be able to effectively keep track of their SM assets?

As an ex-lecturer from the HE sector now working in social media, I was interested in digging a little deeper on how SM is being used and managed within UK universities.  My initial conversations with around 40 university representatives (Marketing directors, External Affairs Officers, IT Manager, etc.) provided some interesting insight into this sector.

As expected, the HEI representatives I contacted confirmed that their institutions were engaging on SM.  Most HEIs have at least one official Twitter account, several Facebook pages and often a YouTube channel, which are generally monitored and managed by the marketing and communications team.

However, probing a little deeper led to sketchier answers.  Most representatives revealed they did not know exactly how many accounts their university operated, who created many of these accounts and for what purpose.  Although this might seem hard to believe, other research supports these findings. A JISC research showed that the implementation of SM by UK HEIs is in no way systematic or strategic. Principally, setting-up SM accounts is driven from the ‘bottom up’, often originating from the professional interest and enthusiasm of individual staff members or students. Jeremiah Owyang dubbed this model of social media engagement as 'Organic'.

So where does this lack of awareness come from?  On the surface it appears that there are few formal internal procedures in place for setting–up new SM accounts.  Where universities do state a procedure for setting-up new accounts, it is little more than a cursory note on advising your line-manager – there appears to be no direct link back to a central management team.  Despite this, most universities have very clear policies and guidelines in place for those using or engaging on SM within the academic setting. However, these guidelines more often than not focus on what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate content, rather than the setting-up of new accounts.  In which case, who assumes responsibility for the new accounts?  Is it the member of staff or the student who created the account?  Or is it the line-manager?  With this in mind, one has to wonder whether universities fully consider who will be held accountable if something does go wrong?

Given the situation presented above, it is not surprising few universities know the total number of SM accounts that operate under their brand name. To me,  it seems surprising that universities don’t have a more centralised approach to managing all of their SM assets.

To be clear, ‘central management’ by no means signifies that every single tweet, post or video should be approved by an administrator through a long bureaucratic chain.  After all, the appeal of social media is exactly its instant character and the feeling of ‘humanity’ it gives an institution when engaging with its audiences.  However, giving people free rein to engage in social media on behalf of the university without monitoring what is being said, where and by whom, may not be that wise either.

There are many examples of SM faux pas which demonstrate the risks associated with SM whether it is the United Airlines incident, or an employee blunder such as Vodafone’s Twitter mistake.  There are even cases of sacked employees accessing their old social media accounts to post abusive content.  However, despite the free rein afforded to many users of SM accounts within the HE sector, the responsibility for any content posted resides firmly with the institution who owns the account.   While it is fairly safe to assume that university staff should be acting responsibly, when it comes to social media, why take the risk?

Clearly, the management and monitoring of social media assets can readily prevent a social media crisis from occurring or, if the crisis occurs, can help minimise the consequences.  Unfortunately, it is only after suffering a social media mishap, that organisations tend to realise the necessity of being aware of all the social media activity going on in their name and the importance of being able to terminate a user’s access or blocking a stream of unauthorised content instantly.  So whilst empowering the employees or students to engage via SM is a positive thing, organisations should also have the capacity to step in if anything goes wrong.  And this is what social media centralised management should be about – local deliverers of content coordinated and managed centrally (see Owyang's coordinated model below).

Given the legal implications and asset value associated with SM accounts, along with the potential to damage the university’s reputation, will it take an actual crisis for UK universities to recognise the potential risks around SM and adopt a more strategic approach to managing their accounts?

On a positive note, my research uncovered one or two HEIs that have set-up an internal steering group to investigate and develop their SM strategy from a university-wide perspective.  Unfortunately, these institutions are still an exception to the rule, but as things develop in the world of SM, I am confident we will see more steering groups emerging.

In the meantime, there are a few fundamental questions any HEI might want to consider when looking to organise their SM:

  • Who ultimately has responsibility for the university’s Social Media?
  • Who is responsible for the legal implications and risk management of the SM?
  • How many accounts are currently in use within the institution and where?
  • Who owns these accounts?

At CrowdControlHQ we work with organisations of all sizes and across a variety of sectors, including local government and police institutions.  We provide them with tools that allow them to achieve social media engagement whilst managing the risks.  As experts in social media risk management, we are always willing to share our experience, so don't hesitate to contact us.


Chris Hall, @ChrisHall_27


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