Keeping it human: the tricky world of university social media

Three people working on laptop
Tim Watkins

Tim Watkins is Social Media Manager at the University of Reading, UK. You can follow Tim on Twitter or get in touch by email:

We have always aimed to be conversational, open, and helpful through our official social media channels. I've been lucky enough to run many workshops about social media inside and outside the university and it's the one thing I always relate back to – if you can't offer anything else, be a human. If you have no budget and no shiny things to fall back on, there's no reason your institution can't have a human voice. For the cost of a salary, a bit of empowerment, and some trust from above, you can have a PR manager, a social listening service, a customer relations department, some crisis comms advance warning, and a student welcoming committee all in one.

With this in mind, we proudly announced additions to our scholarship and bursary schemes on 20 June to 51 retweets, 117 likes, and 56 clicks to the press release – lovely, but not earth-shattering.

While this good-news story was online, we'd attracted some unwelcome attention. In response to criticism of our decision we agreed to share the story again to show our commitment to what we were doing, and used Twitter to invite any complainers to jog on.

There was some discussion online around whether the choice of language was appropriate. One parent was unhappy with our 'crass' choice of wording. The Daily Mail called us 'crude'. Twitter users were quick to point out that, for university students, 'jog on' is pretty mild, and anyone living and studying in the company of 17,000 peers would have probably heard worse in their time.

We were also told that we were arrogantly shutting down debate by refusing to engage. One Guardian columnist wrote that we had prioritised easy 'likes' through snark over changing minds through discussion.

As a university we've hosted politicians from Labour, Conservatives, UKIP, and Liberal Democrats, and neutrally facilitated an EU Referendum debate between the Remainer comedian Eddie Izzard and Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan. We've hosted a public discussion forum with one of our refugee students on the importance of supporting education, and our students volunteer thousands of hours every year in local schools helping refugee children learn English.

Criticism for offering educational support for local refugees was simply where we decided to draw the line which divides scrupulous politeness and a genuine reaction to being accused of harbouring terrorists, and led to a slightly-more-human-than-usual public post. Unfortunately the nature of social media didn't allow space to include all of our 'yes, but' caveats, including our range of scholarships and bursaries for UK students from underprivileged backgrounds.

We've been asked many times about our decision-making process and what layers of approval we work within. Our wider Corporate Communications team and management are located together and meet to discuss and decide on broad lines to take. Once we're all clear on the nuances of the university's strategic direction on a particular issue, there is a huge amount of trust from senior staff that we'll be able to use our expertise to tailor our messages and delivery as required, and we know we will be supported (within reason) whether we win, lose, or draw.

This level of trust and open communication means we're able to share ideas freely and feel safe to try new things and react quickly and flexibly. When the refugee posts started to go viral and replies were piling up faster than I could read them, there was absolutely no question of getting individual replies approved or even discussed with my manager, but I knew that if I worked in good faith and within reason I'd be supported no matter what.

In this particular case we had agreed that this was hugely important and we needed to show that we are proud and unapologetic about our work with refugee scholarships. Apart from a few tentative emails from staff asking if it was real, the reaction inside the university has been as overwhelmingly positive as the reaction from around the world. My personal favourite replies were the many Reading students, UK and international, sharing their stories of how university seemed out of reach until they were awarded bursaries, grants, and scholarships.

As a team and as a university we are enormously proud that through a single tweet we have connected alumni and generous people all over the world who are passionate about supporting our scholarships, made our current students proud, thrown light on broader and more established similar schemes at other UK and international universities, and demonstrated how higher education institutions can show leadership by serving our communities locally and globally. If you can't offer anything else, be a human, and watch what happens.