Christina Tatu of the Pocono (Pa.) Record contacted me to get my take on social media policies at colleges and universities. The full article at the Pocono (Pa.) Daily Record appears here.
East Stroudsburg University President Marcia Welsh hit a social media hot-button issue when she tweeted a photo of herself posing with bare-chested male students in Santa hats, say social media experts.
The picture, posted by Welsh on her Twitter account, shows her posing with the “Hawthorn Hotties,” an all-male group on campus that models itself after the movie, “Magic Mike,” performing risqué dance routines for various campus and charity events, including raising money to fight prostate cancer.
Welsh was delivering Christmas cookies to student residence halls Dec. 8. Other posts on her Twitter account from that evening include photos of Welsh making Christmas stockings at the University Ridge Apartments and posing with a giant snowman.
The dance group greeted an unsuspecting Welsh when she arrived at Hawthorn Residence Hall.
John Alston, one of the founders of the Hotties, did not immediately return a request for comment.
The Dec. 8 tweet was picked up by a faculty-friendly blog, “The Raging Chicken Press,” and has since spread throughout the media, raising questions about what is appropriate social media behavior for a prominent public official.
No social media policy
The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education does not have a social media policy, although individual universities may have their own policies, said PASSHE spokesman Kenn Marshall, who did not respond to a request for comment about Welsh’s tweet.
ESU does not have a social media policy, said spokeswoman Brenda Friday.
“Like other institutions of higher education and businesses in general have already discovered, it would be difficult to develop a social media policy that would not inhibit one’s right to freedom of speech,” Friday said.
“This is a situation where having a social media policy or guidelines in place for employees would be extremely beneficial,” said Kelly Lux, director of social media at the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University in New York.
“Many college administrators are young professionals who see little delineation between their personal and professional presences online. In addition, older administrators may lack a complete understanding of the channels they are using for social media, and would benefit from some guidance,” Lux said.
“Posting on Twitter is, by default, public, and could be treated differently than if this same posting was made to friends on the administrator’s Facebook page.”
Creating such a policy also comes with its own set of issues, however.
“Guidelines are becoming increasingly common, as they should be, but they need to govern anyone identified with the institution, not just administrators,” said Bob Mentzinger, public relations manager of College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine.
Guidelines should also apply to student groups and other organizations carrying the university’s name, he said.
College of the Atlantic is currently developing its own social media policy.
Mentzinger says they’d likely create a standard administrative policy to oversee employees.
The further you go down the chain of command, however, the trickier such policies can be to enforce.
Students, alumni and other “more distant constituents” would probably receive “a gentle reminder” that as representatives of the institution, their words and pictures should uphold its values.
College of the Atlantic had been working on drafts of such a policy for a while, but it got kick-started again in the fall, when someone there posted something offensive on a college Facebook page, Mentzinger said.
The draft policy outlines what to post on social media, best times to post to various media and recommended number of posts per day.
An administrator, particularly the president of a college campus, should avoid certain “hot-button issues” both directly and indirectly, said Scott Schneider, a labor attorney with Fisher & Phillips in New Orleans.
“One of the biggest issues in recent years is sex assault and how we can change the campus climate to reduce those instances,” Schneider said.
“She inadvertently walked into a real hot-button issue,” Schneider said of Welsh’s tweet. “It is undeniable if a male president had bikini-clad women surrounding him, there would be an outcry.”
Welsh has been active on Twitter since arriving at the university in 2012, interacting with students and posting about campus events, fundraisers and pointing out positive things students do, as well as sending out announcements such as cancellations because of weather.
“Our campus community is inspired by students who put forth a tremendous effort to raise funds for causes that are close to their hearts. The students who refer to themselves as the ‘Hawthorn Hotties’ were raising money for the American Cancer Society. To exploit the support of our students is not only an insult to them but a malicious disservice to the good work they do for our university and the community,” Welsh said in a statement.
“I think it’s totally understandable if she had come into the dorm and they were there. … It’s quite another thing for the students to say, ‘Will you pose with us?’ then she’s not only in the situation, she’s condoning it, and on top of condoning it, she tweeted it,” said Ken Mash, a former ESU professor who now serves as president of the state’s faculty union.