If you’re a would-be college or university president who doesn’t have a big presence in social media today, you’re in luck: boards don’t yet require it of a president. But don’t wait too long to blog, post or tweet: soon search committees will assume you’re as adept with social media as you are with email, your mobile, and your iPad.
That’s one takeaway from conversations I’ve had in the past week with several individuals who conduct presidential searches.
I’ve been reporting an article on college and university presidents and social media for CASE Currents [look for it in the November/December issue]. In the course of my research, I’ve spoken with presidents who use social media and a few who don’t — at least in their role as president. And to learn whether boards of trustees or search committees think about social media during a presidential search, I turned to two experts: Dennis Barden, senior vice president of Witt/Kieffer, an executive search firm, and Jamie Ferrare, senior vice president of the Association of Governing Boards and principal of AGB Search, have led dozens of presidential searches for institutions of all sizes.
According to both Barden and Ferrare, right now boards and trustees simply don’t ask whether candidates use social media.
Barden said, “I’ve never had a board bring it up.” There are two reasons, he believes. One is that board members themselves don’t use social media such as Facebook or Twitter. And the second is that boards are interested in strategy and outcomes, not tactics. “Boards are really focused on outcomes: for example, they want a president who’ll strengthen the institutional brand. They don’t care how that’s done.” In fact, he said, when a candidate says that he or she uses social media, boards don’t know how to react.
On the other hand, people within an institution do have expectations that a prospective president is comfortable with technology and uses social media skillfully. This is especially true of staff who are responsible for external relations, advancement, PR, and communications.
Ferrare noted that a candidate’s social media presence is part of a public record and, just like journal articles and conference presentations, it’s fair game during the vetting process of a presidential search. He and his colleagues do use Facebook posts, tweets, blog posts, and other elements of a candidate’s social output to get a sense of her personality and presence. “Board members may not use social media themselves, but they know how important it is to students. So when we see that a candidate is chronicling a trip with a group of students in Spain on her blog, of course we’ll share that example with a search committee.”
Being absent from social media isn’t seen as a liability right now, but that’s going to change soon, Ferrare believes. “Four or five years from now, you won’t even be asking this question. It will be assumed that everyone has a presence on social media and is savvy about how to use it.” And, what’s more, he said, “A lot of audiences that expect people to show up in person now will be ready to accept a presence on social media as an acceptable alternative to face-to-face interaction. It could be another way to do one of those 7:00 am breakfasts with the local Rotary Club.”
The message to presidents in waiting is clear: social media will be part of your job. Start now!