A survey of social media accounts associated with over 2,300 European university website homepages reveals weak social media governance and unclear maintenance responsibilities

Has social media got out of control in higher education institutions? You might think so when looking at the results of a new survey into social media account proliferation among European universities.

The survey was carried out by a Scottish-Canadian data-crunching company called eQAfy to test its software’s ability to drill down to the hundreds – and sometimes thousands – of individual Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter accounts that could be claiming to represent different universities in Europe in some way.

The investigation used the European higher education ETER project’s database to find the main European HE institutions and looked far beyond the main official social media accounts usually managed by professional marketing and communication people, with the aim of tracing all the accounts using the logo of the university or appearing to speak for the faculties as well as individuals with a link from your university’s web pages.

Account proliferation

What they found was an absence of formal social media governance and account proliferation generating a number of concerns, including:

  • accounts coming into existence without an ‘approval’ process
  • on-going account maintenance responsibilities being unclear
  • branding or content quality standards proving difficult
  • account activity being sporadic or posted content being inappropriate,
  • neglected accounts and stale content remaining public indefinitely.

When I reported the findings for the European higher education PR & Communication practitioners’ association EUPRIO in a blog ‘When did you last do a social media audit?’, their members managing social media accepted the survey results made some valid points about the potential dangers of largely unmonitored accounts purporting to represent the institution, but suggested corporate comms teams should be able to keep an eye on things without requiring external support – provided they were given the resources!

Hallvard Lavoll, social media manager at Oslo Metropolitan University, Norway

Hallvard Lavoll, social media manager at Oslo Metropolitan University (OsloMet) in Norway, said it was important to understand “the downside of many social media accounts” and that communication professionals needed the support of their directors and senior management to make a success of social media.

Reputational damage

He said: “There’s always the potential for students to reach out to bad accounts and ask questions and not get answers, or worse get wrong answers that can cause reputational damage. 

“Former employees may still have admin access to accounts with our logo. What if they are not happy with us one day? You can have a crisis on your hands.”

He explained OsloMet uses its own social media admin and listening tools and said: “I think we need to do this ourselves because we know our brand and can act fast on fake accounts and so on. Comms teams should listen to their brand every day and do audits at least two times a year.”

There is also the need to balance central control with academic freedom in a university setting.

EUPRIO’s President Jan Dries, Director of Communications at Antwerp University in Belgium, said:“Communication departments are becoming less controlling and more empowering towards decentralised communication. This has to go hand in hand with a simple, but solid, social media policy and accurate social listening that can detect anomalies in very short time and react promptly. In practice, we at the University of Antwerp don’t have any serious troubles yet with the multitude of social media linked to our brand.” 

Sanne Op’teynde, social media manager at Hasselt University, Belgium

Several universities I spoke to either had, or were developing, social media guidelines “to make it easier for everyone to adhere to the same manner of communication and the same style,” as Sanne Op’teynde, social media manager at Hasselt University in Belgium put it to me.

And Ole Frank Nielsen, who manages social media at Aarhus University in Denmark, warned: “If you, as a university, try to govern your scientists – it’ll backfire!” He prefers helping and supporting scientists who want to use social media, adding: “It can be a valuable channel for themselves as researchers as well as for the institution.”

Shiver down the spine

Paul Bradley, eQAfy’s co-director, said just thinking about how many social media accounts may be associated with a university is enough to “send a shiver down the spine” – especially with LinkedIn, Facebook and YouTube now being over 15 years old and Twitter becoming an angry teenager.

“Larger universities can have thousands of individual accounts operating across multiple networks. Those managed by professional PR and corporate communication practitioners shouldn’t cause any serious problems, but what about all the others claiming to represent your institution in some way?

“If you don’t know who is doing or tweeting what, it can have create reputational and, even, potential legal risks.” 

“To mitigate reputational risks and improve overall social media effectiveness, institutions should know all the social media accounts they own or operate.” 

Hidden accounts

Among the survey’s surprising findings was the difficulty in finding some university social media accounts in the first place, with 5% of universities appearing to have no visible links to social media accounts on their web pages.

“Perhaps these institutions wish the website and social media presences to be entirely independent”, he wondered.

“We also encountered homepages with links to legacy social networks still in place, but a site visitor clicking on the links would experience page connection errors.” 

Many universities also have official LinkedIn accounts, but don’t provide readily accessible links to such accounts, he said, despite LinkedIn being such a popular network with recent graduates and other alumni.

Embracing social media

On a more positive note, the survey concluded that universities should be applauded across the European Union for the way they have embraced social media as a powerful means to communicate with their diverse audiences. 

“However, enthusiastic social media experimentation and early adoption can leave subsequent account management responsibilities unclear, lead to significant variability in content quality and appropriateness and a legacy of neglected or abandoned accounts and networks,” said Paul.

Unsurprisingly, Facebook is the most popular social media used by European universities with 97.7% of EU universities having a Facebook account. The next best used were YouTube, LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter in that order.

See eQAfy’s blog ‘5 Lessons from an EU University Social Media Account Audit’ for more findings and interactive maps showing the various levels of popularity of the five main social media in different EU member states and the United Kingdom

* This blog is a slightly abridged version of a news blog which appeared on the EUPRIO website in February 2020, under the headline ‘When did you last do a social media audit’. There is more about the survey on the eQAfy blog here  

Main image:Irish Times