Presidents and Social Media*: Paul LeBlanc, Southern New Hampshire University
Paul LeBlanc became Southern New Hampshire University’s president in July 2003, after serving as president of Marlboro College in Vermont. SNHU enrolls more than 13,000 students on its Manchester, NH, campus; its regional centers in New Hampshire and Maine; and in its online courses. Fast Company named SNHU as one of the World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies in 2012 along with Apple, Square, Dropbox, Google, and LinkedIn. SNHU was the only university on the list!
LeBlanc calls his blog “The President’s Corner” and he’s not afraid to tackle controversial issues there. He tweets as @SNHUprez, but, as he explains below, he doesn’t use Facebook in his role as president.
I know you tweet and blog, but I noticed that you don’t seem to be active on Facebook.
It’s true. I made a conscious decision to use Facebook to connect only with my family and close friends. This job certainly blurs my public/private life and Facebook offers such a deep window into our family world–and I don’t want to share this publicly.
I’m a huge Twitter fan, after being a skeptic initially. When it first hit the scene, I thought: ‘What can one possibly say in 140 characters that’s remotely intelligent?’ Now I understand its value: it’s a great information news and information source for me based on who I follow. And, from an outbound perspective, I like the fact that tweeting is informal and immediate.
Finally, as my job has become more external, I’ve found it hard to get to know as many students as I once could. But they know they can reach me on Twitter and I respond almost immediately. I think it’s important for them to know that they can reach the president.
How does your blog fit in?
I use the blog broadly for a kind of communication that is otherwise not available on campus. It allows me to be more personal and I’ve learned that people want to know more about me. People want you to be ceremonial when it’s appropriate, but they also want you to be informal and available and get to know you. So a lot of what I write on the blog is personal: what I’m reading, what I like. Also, I try to be humorous: I think presidents are generally well-served by self-deprecating humor. Humor is a great leveler.
Externally, I’m often surprised when I’m out and about at how many people have read my blog. This is really helpful in extending our messaging and the banner of SNHU. Recently, I was vetting a new trustee and only during that process did I discover he reads my blog. Of course, we’re going to have some intensive and formal conversations as part of the vetting process. But for him, this was a way to figure out the answers to some pretty important questions: Do I believe in the place? Do I believe in the leadership? It’s a pretty powerful window into the institution and the guy who’s been asked to lead it for a while.
Have you had any feedback that validates your practice of communicating via social media?
If you think about the way presidents get to communicate, there are a fairly limited number of tools. I can only do a little bit of walking around. I can send out formal communications but they don’t allow me to talk about aspects of my life that are more personal. These channels allow me to reach a lot of people and give them a more personal view of my thoughts and my life. I really love that.
As far as Twitter is concerned, we’re getting our name out there. If you look at my followers, there are a lot of people in the higher education media and policy who follow me. Prior to social media, how would I get on the radar screen of people who matter? I’ve been invited to present to US Senate staffers in May and I know for a fact that that invitation resulted because someone on the policy side follows me on Twitter and suggested I be included.
What advice would you give another college or university president who is beginning to use social media?
You have to find your voice and identify the persona you’re constructing. Presidents wear many hats: don’t try to be the person you are on ceremonial occasions like commencement in social media. Be authentic and comfortable. Remember that humor goes a long way. And that constantly retweeting other people’s stuff is boring.
Also, remember that the topics you choose to share about are almost as important as what is in the sources you share. I’m thinking a lot about alternative credentials in education and I’m sharing a lot of articles about badges. It’s not that a particular article is always great, but it’s useful for people to know that I’m seriously interested in this topic.
Finally, don’t confuse the informality with being too informal: you’re still the president, these are still public artifacts. Keep that in mind!
*[Note: this is part of a series of interviews with college and university CEOs about how they use social media in their role as institutional leaders. I conducted this research for an article that will appear in the November-December issue of CASE Currents.]