Would you hang up on a customer? Slam a door in their face? Punch them in the face? Ok, we might not need to go that far, but by refusing to engage online concerns and criticism a substantial number of college and university Twitter accounts are risking severely damaging their brand.
Volumes of research are shouting from the proverbial rooftops that Twitter establishes valuable proximity with the user if used correctly, creating new opportunities for two-way communication — particularly in higher education. But using the platform correctly requires acknowledging the humanity behind the computer screen and engaging — on some level — with the audience.
Enter the problem.
Research examining the Twitter feeds of market competitors for DePaul University (inclusive of Bradley, Drake, Illinois State, Loyola, Marquette, Michigan State, Northeastern, Northern Illinois, St. Johns, and St. Louis University, as well as the Universities of Dayton, Iowa, Wisconsin – Madison, Illinois at Urbana – Champaign, and Illinois at Chicago) from January 1, 2013 to June 1, 2013 — covering at least one full academic term for each institution — demonstrated that humanity and opinion is rarely considered when addressing concerns through patterns of writing and conversation on Twitter. In fact, institutions of higher education barely transcend the boundaries of a traditional helpline (muzak minutiae and all, bouncing around the switchboard). Opportunities to respond to important comments, questions and concerns are often neglected — in lieu of responding to the most minimally invasive tweets. And where there is opportunity to say hello, respond with humor, humility, empathy, a personal reference etc., the writing style of two-way communicative tweets from institutional handles serve most often (as observed within my research corpus) as a way to pass the user on to the next individual or platform. It’s hardly humane.
Tweets in response to an inquiry or frustration follow two distinctly different writing styles:
The first writing style is structured like a pre-populated online FAQ, linking to relevant portions of a website or a contact page. The tweets themselves follow the same pattern, acknowledge the question and include a link or contact information — particularly in response to general questions or concerns. It’s important to note that this approach is also taken in circumstances where the answer to the question could easily be provided. Nevertheless, and while there are a few exceptions, this distinct pattern of communication is overwhelmingly maintained.
The second approach, most often used in response to an offense or brand-damaging scandal, is not a writing style at all — so much as silence. (Remember that helpline? Yep, you just got hung up on.)
Questions (like the example below from Saint Louis University) that touch on sensitive subjects go almost entirely unanswered or are forwarded through the same metaphorical switchboard mentioned previously — in other words the question is avoided or ignored.
The most striking example is from the University of Wisconsin — Madison, which was recently accused broadly on Twitter of conducting invasive experiments on cats in one of its labs. Whether valid or not, hundreds of Tweets were sent tagging the university’s Twitter personas with no response — well, there was one exception. One curt, aggressive, and dismissive tweet was sent and almost immediately removed. After it was removed, no additional statements were made, including press releases, comments, or responses.
The tone and writing pattern of silence (however seemingly absent) is powerful and speaks volumes, leaving a trail of effects as demonstrated by numerous examples in the corporate world. According to the author of “Corporate Twitter Disasters,” one of the benefits of engaging in social media environments is that companies (or institutions in this circumstance) are able to respond to bad press quickly.
Forbes writer Patrick Vogt emphasizes the importance of being able to resolve social media issues quickly, and provide steps that companies can follow to solidify their brand online to help defend against these attacks including humanizing the brand, creating relationships with customers and demonstrating the companies/brands positive attributes.
Precedent shows, as the author details, that rumors and bad press that can damage a brand should be responded to online immediately. The “fluidity” of social media allows information to spread faster than ever before, and removing oneself from the conversation prevents companies from having any control.
Consider the example of Ragu, which tried to promote its pasta sauce with messaging that implied that men don’t cook and that the responsibility to do so lies on the shoulders of the women in the family. Outrage quickly spread across the net; and Ragu’s response was dead silence.
There’s that word again.
The news blog Future Buzz wrote that Ragu’s lack of response or commentary to the negative reactions meant one of four things: (1) they couldn’t respond because someone told them not to, (2) they didn’t know what to say, (3) they were clueless anything negative was being said, (4) they were thinking up sauce-related puns. Right. Ragu looked stupid — really stupid; and the campaign left the brand with an extremely tarnished reputation.
The fact that institutions of higher education seem to be following similar patterns of silence online leave them open to the same type of ridicule and degradation that Ragu and other corporations have experienced by attempting to ignore the problem. While the consistent patterns of silence may be an attempt to protect cultural capital or monetary capital by taking fewer risks (particularly in such rapidly paced communication environments), experience seems to show that staying mum won’t give you the upper hand so much as slam the door back in your face.