in Higher Ed

The need for digital strategy leadership in the higher ed C-suite

Whether you care about sports or not, Thursday night was the NFL Draft. A coming out party for the newest members of pro football teams, it’s a joyous night akin to the Emmys, as top college players go from being students to newly minted millionaires.

Laremy Tunstil went from being a highly touted prospect to a victim of social media exposure that likely cost him millions in potential earnings. Someone presumably took control of his Twitter and instagram feeds and posted damaging content including him smoking marijuana from a gas mask. (You can get the background via ESPN.)

A damaging night for the brand

The NFL draft night went from being a proud night for the Ole Miss program to a damaging night for the university brand. During the press conference to address the social media posts, another hack this time to Instagram implicated an assistant athletic director at the university with paying Tunstil.

When asked about it during his post-draft interview, Tunstil admits to taking money from a coach. This story goes from being a salacious sports drama to having massive repercussions for the entire university. Because this is illegal under NCAA rules, it could investigated and cause massive damage to the institution’s football program.

I don’t really care about any of that. This isn’t a post directly about sports, it’s the need for university leaders to be savvier about the way the proliferation of digital tools has changed the way we work.

Somebody on cabinet needs to have a digital-first mindset

Most of the focus on social media as a tool in higher ed focuses on the various ways that marketers can use SEO and social media to increase traffic to slick websites meant to increase eyeballs, applications and enrollment. None of this is news. The problem is, most institutions treat digital as an asset of their marketing efforts or IT. Neither outfits is usually equipped to deal with the nimble, adaptable nature of managing a social culture. Public relations is reaction. Marketing is concerned with selling widgets. IT is about infrastructure. Digital is about disruption and modularity.

UC Davis paid a consultant to scrub an incident that damaged the university brand. I have been in many meetings over the years, where far less embarrassing things have come to light and have asked whether it was possible to “remove” them from the internet. It makes sense if you think of digital as an extension of traditional marketing. In the past, you could remove a negative ad, blackball bad press by advertising in a rival newspaper or adjust your PR strategy to reflect the changing tide. I would speculate that someone probably advised against spending public money to ‘fix’ this PR problem, but many leaders are not receptive to the word “no.”

You can count the universities and colleges on two hands that have managed to invest in a cabinet-level digital leadership. The problem is two-fold: First, consultants rule the roost with regard to digital strategy across many colleges and universities. There is a very common perception that if you want good ideas to be elevated where someone will listen, you just need to have a consultant say it. Internal voices — even competent ones — are not valued as highly. This biased extends to the corporate sector, so it’s not unique to higher education, but this doesn’t make it any better. The other barrier to C-suite digital leadership is the turf wars that involve what purview they’ll have over the various digital properties. Nobody wants to cede part of their job, even if it’s good for the organization.

I am not advocating for another highly paid person to inhabit a disruptive role only to become entrenched in the politics of the leadership class. Instead, I’m proposing that more senior leaders across the board from vice-presidents to senior directors, are trained to better understand the role of social media in our world. I think anyone in-house who manages the digital properties should be granted the ear of the people in charge, even in an ad-hoc capacity, to lend real-world perspective of the fallout of things when they’re happening.

Crisis communications can’t mitigate the damage done to the brand in a world where you can’t keep up or even see what people really think about your brand. I’m going to work on a whitepaper that proposes some solutions to this in the coming days, but I couldn’t help but reflect on these stories for the fallout yet to come.