Mediations: Philip Young

  • Mediations comments on public relations theory and practice, with an emphasis on social media and communication ethics. Philip Young is project leader for NEMO: New Media, Modern Democracy at Campus Helsingborg, Lund University, Sweden. All views expressed here are personal and should not be seen as representing Lund University or any other organisation.

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    Are there really public relations educators that don't use Twitter? That's the equivalent of not reading books or writing in the 1950s. How do they keep up to date with what's going on day-by-day, network, teach basic network theory and personal reputation management, not to mention engage with their students?

    Twitter and social media are a nightmare for control freak academics. What are those students doing with their mobile phones? Why aren't they concentrating in class?

    Many academics are instinctively opposed to the loss of control and seek to ban social media in order to reassert some semblance of control.

    (I sometimes describe myself as a 'loss-of-control freak', and attempt to teach in a 'loose' and non-didactic style despite often confusing my students in the process.)

    Here's the line I use with sceptical colleagues who attack social media use in the classroom.

    Driving and sex can be liberating and fun - but can also be life-threateningly dangerous. So can social media. And like driving and sex, we can't uninvent them or pretend they don't exist.

    We should acknowledge the existence of social media, use it where we can to our advantage, and preach safe-social messages all the time.

    As you say, it's ironic that supposed communication experts should ignore powerful communication tools.

    Good post, Philip, some great advice!

    Just to add a couple of tips that your readers might find handy -

    1. Make a Compelling Profile

    Together with a photo or other relevant image, the concise information in your Twitter Profile is an essential element of a Twitter account as it lets others know a little about you, your interests and your community - an important aspect in decision-making when deciding whether to follow someone or not.

    Here are three tips to help you when you're setting up your Twitter account and Profile:

    + Write your brief bio informally and naturally. Look at Philip's or mine for an idea. It's a one-line bio, not a brochure intro or a press release headline.
    + Choose an image that reflects how you'd like others to see you. If it's a photo of you, a smile is good.
    + Add a link to more about you, your blog, something where a potential follower can go to find out more detail about you. In other words, somwehere that that potential follower can verify you to their own satisfaction.

    Want some ideas of what other people do? Take a look at this Twitter list of communicators that I put together:

    2. Are You Public or Private?

    There are two types of Twitter account: public, open to the online world; and closed or private accounts where your content - known as 'protected tweets' - can be seen only by those you have granted access to.

    If you intend to use Twitter as a means of openly engaging with others online, sharing comments, opinion and links, then a public account is your obvious choice. If you wish to engage only with a small group of people, for instance, where you manually approve each request to follow you, and where your tweets don't appear in Twitter Search results, then private would be your choice.

    The point is, you do have a choice. See the Twitter help page "About Public and Protected Tweets" for more information.

    I am more than happy to have a public Twitter profile and connect with students via social media. However, any academics should be aware that the way university students view Twitter may be different. For example, there can be a tendency to think that you are always available (and yes, that means expecting Twitter responses at 11pm on a Saturday night). Also, you need to take care not to say anything that contradicts with information given in other channels (especially regarding any assignments), and often redirect students to a more suitable medium. For me, Twitter is public and questions from students may be more appropriate via email. But I view this all as education for me in terms of how Twitter is viewed and used by a younger generation.

    I sat next to a colleague in a meeting just after reading this post. He mentioned that the more he heard about Twitter, the less he understood it. Chances are, he was hearing about Twitter from the wrong people. To understand Twitter you need to find out about it from your tweeting peers - which is why this is a really useful post from Philip (followed by some equally valuable comments) as it tells PR educators about Twitter from their own perspective (I suspect my colleague needs to talk to a film studies academic who uses Twitter).

    I should own up that my research focuses on how people represent themselves in online communities, and what it means in the context of their work. So, when Philip says: “Don't be afraid of let some of your character show,” the question I am asking is: "How much?" And what are the consequences of revealing too much (or, too little)?

    To score highly on ‘influence’ league tables (such as the UK PR Educators PeerIndex list) you should be ‘influential’ (and we’re talking about what PeerIndex’s algorithm deems influential here, not a dictionary definition) on a defined range of subjects. For a PR lecturer that might be PR (obviously), the media, education and maybe a couple of other subjects. Cars? Politics? Sounds fine, but suppose you want to talk about the first thing that comes into your head? Or have a huge range of obscure interests and passions? Suddenly your lack of focus (or lust for life) could affect your league table ranking. And what will your students think when they see their knowledgeable lecturer at no. 51 on a list of social media PR educators because he or she isn't thinking about league tables and influence when posting?

    There’s also an issue here about personal reputation. Your students might enjoy the odd insight into your life, and you might often be able to find a PR angle in non-PR things to you tweet about. But if you are trying to be taken seriously, how much of your personal life do you put on show? Does it make you sound like a committed and serious academic if you tweet “Whoop, four-day weekend mid-term #naughty girl.” Well, you wouldn’t, but you might feel equally uncomfortable detailing your health or relationship issues or even your political opinions in a public forum, even if others do.

    Ultimately we're editing our lives for online consumption and only present part of ourselves on a public stage. Some will edit their lives strategically to get a high PeerIndex score. Meanwhile, others are just trying to create a ‘serious and professional’ persona for themselves (possibly, because they're not). But if you use Twitter in such a deliberate way, does it then just become ‘another thing you have to be seen to do for work’ and not something that you can use for discovery and sharing information? (I’m not saying that there is necessarily a clear divide between the two – there’s not, but one would hope that even the most committed PR academic has a life outside a media bubble).

    I’ve tried to mitigate this problem by have two Twitter accounts. Sadly, I find my ‘work only’ account (@PRMastersDMU) is in my eyes a bit dull (mostly retweets of articles I feel will Improve the Students’ Lives) which means that I tend to use @LizBridgen most of the time. Here I tweet about PR, cycling, politics, running and anything else that bothers me. I rarely write about family or home (that’s for Facebook) and I do adhere to my employer’s social media policy (all fledging tweeting academics need to see if their employer has one). So I edit my life for Twitter, but not too much, and as a result have a lot of fun with it.

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