Wednesday, 26 October 2011

'Don't affect the share price': social media policy in higher education as reputation management

Facebook culture 3

I'm doing a bit of work on social media policy in universities in the UK.

I'm particularly interested in the ways in which UK HEIs are responding to both the positive potential of social media as well as to its perceived threats.

My hunch - and it's just a hunch at the moment based on some quick reading of sample policy documents and discussions with colleagues at Kingston University - is that the development of social media policies has been taken in response to both the promise of social media in promoting university brands as well as the threat to institutional reputation. The creation and implementation of social media policies are, therefore, playing a role in helping universities manage both the risks and benefits of social media at a time when reputation or brand management is key.

Social media has greatly lowered the threshold technological barriers to creating online spaces, facilitating dialogue and sharing resources. With this ease comes potential threats: could online spaces and digital communication tools allow academic staff to stray 'off message' and publish statements or post media at variance with institutional policy or in some way detrimental to its reputation? There have certainly been cases in the UK of academics doing just this (Corbyn 2008).

What are the drivers behind the development of such policies? I think it's all to do with the context of the marketisation of higher education (Molesworth et al. 2010) and the need for universities to both create a differentiated brand for themselves and protect that brand at a time when they're competing for students. Legal or liability issues are prominent too but there's a lot in many policy documents about protecting the university against defamation.

And the levers? Well, in some policy documents it's more carrot than stick with disciplinary sanctions and management controls in place to ensure compliance.

I'm at an early stage in my thoughts about this so all comments, quibbles and corrections very welcome.

Sample of social media policy documents from UK HEIs

University of Bristol

University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN)


Durham University

University of Glamorgan

Heriot Watt University

University of Huddersfield

University of Leicester

Oxford Brooks University

University of Surrey


Corbyn, Z. (9 October 2008). By the blog: academics tread carefully. Times Higher Education Supplement. Accessed 26 October 2011 from:

Molesworth, M., Nixon, E. and Scullion, R. (
eds) (2010). The Marketisation of Higher Education and the Student as Consumer. London: Routledge.