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Internet Marketing and Web Development in Higher Education and other tidbits…

Case Study: Broadcast AND Engagement Triumph in Social Media

15 Jan 2013

written by Geoff Campbell

Case Study: Broadcast AND Engagement Triumph in Social Media

As many of you know, Syracuse University is a school that is “smart” at social media. Kate Brodock, executive director of digital and social media at Syracuse University directs a student team that manages SU’s social media presence and they do an admirable job at spreading SU’s message effectively and engaging with a variety of stakeholders online.

For my case study in Public Relations Theory with Brenda Wrigley this semester, I took a deeper look at the strategic thinking behind the school’s actions on social media. I began by looking at things like “An analysis of the increasing impact of social and other new media on public relations practice” from the Institute for PR and the “Summary of Findings from the Third Comprehensive Study of Social Media Use by Schools, Colleges and Universities” by the higher ed communication masters at mStoner. I was able to convince the SU library to buy primary research on PR practice in higher ed which provided good quantitative data on what a variety of schools are doing.

I combined that background research with in-depth interviews, news reports, and archival information to have concrete evidence to support the notion that engagement with many stakeholders via social media is crucial to effective public relations practice in higher education. However, that’s not the long and short of it. It’s not enough to simply say “We need to be on Facebook and tweet at people and have videos of campus with corny music.” It’s about having an understanding of where your audiences are, what kind of content interests them, and in what form they want that content.


Working from what I knew about social media from my experience at Mount Allison University, I did some research on what more recent studies show.

Researchers at UMass Amherst found that

One in 3 schools say social media is more efficient than traditional media in reaching their target audience

92% of undergraduate admissions officers agree that social media is worth the investment they make in it and 86% plan to increase their investment in social media in the next year.

and 78% report that these tools have changed the way they recruit.

I included information about what prospective students expect from Noel-Levitz E-Expectations report finding that students want engagement via social media with institutions.

With the understanding that 71% of institutions would like their social media use to be more planned and SU does social media with foresight I found out what went into their thinking about social media.

Kevin Morrow, Syracuse University’s Executive Director of External & Public Affairs Strategic Communications noted that the school has a centrally-run structure but a diversified presence.

Kate Brodock, the school’s executive director of digital and social media discussed how they use each platform, some for their more serious communications (Facebook/Twitter) and others like Pinterest as more promotional and fun experiments. We discussed the planning and relationship building that goes into connecting on social media. She explained that “When you do [engage] on an ongoing basis when, it comes time to needing them to take action, that’s where the long-term approach to relationship building really works,”

Jared Kraham, one of the students on the social media team noted that Syracuse on social media is “…not a PR machine that’s only concerned about posting good news articles that were written but interesting and I think, more importantly, more engaging content-rich information that I think our community will enjoy.”

All three expanded on their thoughts which you can read in the full study here.

About My Case Study

I wanted my work to be more than writing for the sake of writing and while my study did have an academic thesis I think having solid research including what institutions around the country are doing, what prospective students expect, and what a successful school like Syracuse University is doing can be helpful to colleges and universities building on their social media programs. I concluded that

“The research …demonstrates that while Syracuse University takes into account the feedback of its audiences, it does not plan its posts exclusively on what its audiences find most popular, instead opting for a mix of popular and institutionally important content. The school at times did adjust its output with a focus on the kind of content the community enjoys, but there was still an appreciation of and a focus on broadcasting messages the school deemed important. These findings lead to the conclusion that Grunig’s thoughts on the use of social media for two-way communication for public relations professionals apply to higher education.”

It continues to discuss more academic matters but for communication managers it means that in addition to the overly-used and poorly-understood phrase that social media is about ‘engagement’ more than broadcasting is at best a gross oversimplification and at worst simply wrong. As Morrow said Morrow “there’s no question that social media is a great broadcast tool and I probably would be considered a heretic in a social media class for saying that but it’s true.” Using social media for public relations and marketing (which are being less differentiated) is more than using community management tactics and creating a space for dialogue or spamming everybody you can with press releases, it’s about being strategic and mixing in content that is important to your audiences, information that is important to post from the institution’s standpoint, and content that attracts people and gives your community a voice.

My paper is nowhere near the final word, but I think it’s a start.

Evolving Public Relations: Social media use by higher education communicators

The content of this post is licensed: The post is released under a Creative Commons by-nc-sa 3.0 license

About the author

Geoff Campbell

Geoff Campbell is a master's student at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University pursing a Master of Science in public relations. If you can see more of his writing on his current website and learn a bit more about him through his Storify post. He's looking for a full-time job in higher ed communications beginning in June so if you need someone you can see his resume here and get in touch with him here.

This post was written by Geoff Campbell

  • Donna Talarico

    I interviewed with Brenda a few years ago!

    • Geoff Campbell

      Cool. I’m taking my practicum course with her this term. She’s pretty great.

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