Presidents and Social Media*: Robert L. Wyatt, Coker College
Robert L. Wyatt assumed the presidency of Coker College, a private liberal arts college in Hartsville, SC, with 1,140 undergraduates, in July 2009. He formerly was dean of the Breech School of Business Administration at Drury University in Springfield, Missouri.
Wyatt, an accountant by training, is an avid student of organizational dynamics — and has embraced social media as a way to enhance his connections with people in many parts of the organization he serves. An avid Facebook user, he also tweets as @robertlwyatt.
What prompted you to begin using social media for communicating with your constituents?
I think it was my overall sense that that was where student communications were happening. I started using Facebook because of my personal fascination with it; then I saw that students added me as a friend and realized that I could see their posts relating to campus business. So I wrote some posts to see if they would respond — and they did. I knew then that students were interested in using this medium to communicate with me.
Because students are intimidated by “the president,” they’re not going to come up to me on campus and talk. But on Facebook, they do. It allows me to do a virtual “walking tour” of campus and communicate in a way that I’d otherwise find hard to do. So I feel as if Facebook gave me an inexpensive option for communicating with students.
One of the real benefits is that Facebook gives me a real insight into what’s going on in an area of our institution that I might never have insights on. Here’s an example: one night, we ran out of food in the dining hall. Now, I never would have heard of that through official channels, but my Facebook friends told me and, as a result, I could ask Food Service about it.
Then, of course, there are things that I learn about students who are my friends on Facebook that I don’t want to see or know. We’re a small place. And it’s uncomfortable when I know what a student did last night and I don’t approve of it. I try to help them understand that, just as in the rest of their lives, there are ramifications for what you share, and with whom. If you add me as a friend, I can see what you post.
I was a slow entry into Twitter and I’m surprised at the different constituency I reach. I’ve been surprised at the number of media inquiries I’ve received from Twitter and also the number of people from foundations who’ve reached out to me as a result of a tweet.
Did you encounter any stumbling blocks at first?
Time is always an issue in this office, so it requires discipline on my part. Facebook and Twitter are so simplistic that ease of use wasn’t an issue. But I’ve had to make a determination on how transparent I could afford to be. For example, my wife didn’t want me to post about being out of town because she was concerned about our family’s security.
There was a bit of a learning curve in the beginning. I toyed around with posting on different things to see if people were interested in them. For example, I learned that they weren’t interested in my comments on an article from the Chronicle of Higher Ed! I find that they want to hear about personal or campus-related things with some insights or commentary from me.
Do you write & post your blog posts, tweets, photos, etc.?
I do my own posts. I have on occasion used some language from our Communications Office–for example, something from a press release when I’m writing about an event–but I’ve repurposed it. I’m not sure anyone noticed.
Of the tools you use, which do you consider to be the most effective? Why?
Facebook, easily. Part of that is that the overwhelming majority of students use Facebook and so do other on-campus audiences like faculty and staff. And I’m personally more comfortable there and have used it more than Twitter.
Have you had any negative experiences using social media?
I think beyond some initial discomfort when I made mistakes, probably not: other than the frustration about timeliness and the fact that people expect it to be updated often. Students use Facebook the way they use verbal communications: they post a note to my status at 10, and expect an answer at 10:15. And, of course, I’ve set them up for that.
Have you had any feedback that validates your practice of communicating via social media?
Yes: I have colleagues at other institutions that say they know my institution better than they know their own. And I hear this from some friends in community and local Chamber of Commerce officials. They find it helpful.
Have you learned any larger lessons about communications or leadership from your experience using social media?
It has definitely expanded my perception of what communication and messaging means in our world. It’s helped me to move beyond print, web, and word of mouth in terms of external communications. And it’s given me a first-hand exposure to a newer and faster style of communication that’s evolving quickly. It’s a style that we don’t have much experience in, and we don’t teach here at Coker. I think we need to come to terms with etiquette and use of social media and help our students understand it better.
I pride myself on being transparent, so Facebook is a natural fit for me. And a larger lesson is that every president needs to develop the ability to manage their own transparency in any channel. For example, I can say some things to members of my board in a face-to-face conversation that I can’t say in a group of board members, or certainly on Facebook. “So it’s really not about a specific mechanism or channel: The issue at hand is about finding a level of transparency that is both authentic and responsible, regardless of the communication tool employed.”
*[Note: this is one 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.]