Social Media: The Toothpaste Is Out of the Tube

by Lane Trotter
Langara College
Vancouver, BC

Times have changed. Just three years ago I had the privilege of sitting with 12 other presidents from across the country at a meeting to discuss communications and marketing and what it means to our institutions. This group represented organizations ranging from large urban systems to small rural institutions. It was an extensive agenda focusing on the challenges we faced. We debated, educated one another and shared ideas on a wide range of topics.

Somewhere in the middle of the agenda were two presentations on social media. The individuals, from outside of higher education, talked about opportunities for engagement and how the 18-24 age demographic trusted this form of communication. They also talked about control (or lack of), the instant nature of the communication, and the often-forthright content.

After the presenters left we had a chance to debrief. We went around the table and shared what each of our institutions was doing with social media. Of the 13 colleges represented, only about half had any social media strategy at all, and for the most part they were in the early stages of development. Coupled with this was a lot of skepticism and concern about the risks involved, particularly the lack of control over what people could and would say about their colleges (or even them) given this open opportunity for discussion. There was even more concern over the need for policies to get a “box” around this. Sound familiar?

Fast forward.

Today, I trust those conversations are well in the past. Our institutions have clearly shifted their attention to how we can fully participate in the ever-evolving online environments we find ourselves part of.

Not only are we fully involved, but the complexity is accelerating. At my institution, for example, we have an institutional app on more than one platform, 70 Twitter hashtags with an institutional attachment, 1,090 YouTube hits, more than 7,000 followers on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms, and activity on other sites like Flickr, Digg, Delicious – the list goes on. The expertise we require is also growing, we now have staff (also expanding) dedicated to our online universe.

To maximize the opportunities this all presents, communications and marketing departments have had to evolve very quickly as central players on many core institutional initiatives. At my institution this includes a central role in: increasing student success through improved student engagement; increasing community involvement through improved stakeholder engagement; increasing connections between students and business/employers; increasing savings through a move away from “old” media; improving understanding of public opinion in relation to institutional change; improving response to crisis situations; and improving advocacy through the delivery of key institutional messages.

These are just some of the areas that I see growing. I suspect you have many more.

The challenge for me now becomes what next. I see change accelerating. Where do we find the expertise? What professional development is required as a broader cross section of our institutional communities need advanced skills in this area to deliver programs and services even more core than what I suggested above?

The toothpaste is out of the tube.

Lane Trotter is NCMPR Past President and president of Langara College in Vancouver, British Columbia. 

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