Social media management presents challenges at Texas State University

By R. Hans Miller

SAN MARCOS, TEXAS – Jon-Stephen Stansel, Texas State University’s social media coordinator spoke Thursday at the university’s Mass Comm Week event about the challenges associated with managing social media for a major educational institution.

Jon-Stephen Stansel addresses students at Texas State's Mass Comm Week 2016. Photo by R. Hans Miller
Jon-Stephen Stansel addresses students at Texas State’s Mass Comm Week 2016.
Photo by R. Hans Miller

A room full of Texas State students gathered in Old Main at 8 a.m. to hear about what it takes to deal with social media in higher education as a public relations professional. Stansel manages over 100 social media accounts for the university on a variety of platforms, including Facebook, Twitter and others. Stansel began his talk on social media by providing some background for his own career.

“If you had told me five years ago that the word Twitter would be in my job description, Snapchat would be in my job description, I would have laughed at you,” said Stansel.

Times changed though and Stansel had come back to the States after traveling and needed to find a job. Stansel’s master’s degree is in literature and he thought he was going to be working with classical literature in some manner. After finishing grad school, he went to Japan to teach English for three years and when he returned he found that everything had changed. When he went to Japan in 2005, the iPhone hadn’t come out yet and neither had Facebook. While in Japan, he couldn’t figure out why a friend wanted him to join Facebook when he already had MySpace.

When he came back from Japan in 2008, everything had changed. He was teaching at the University of Central Arkansas and noticed that his students weren’t paying attention to him, but were instead enraptured by their smartphones.

At first, he was angry that his students weren’t paying attention to him. Stansel compared himself to Wyatt Earp in the movie Tombstone, taking the student’s phones away when they came into class.

“Now, I think that’s ludicrous,” said Stansel. “It’s a terrible idea.”

Stansel said that he eventually saw that he was fighting a losing battle, and instead of trying to ban devices in his classroom he began to look at how he could teach his students to use their devices as tools rather than toys. He began having students use devices in class using social media. In time, that led to an opportunity to work with the UCA marketing team to help recruit international students. After doing this for a while, he realized that social media management was what he wanted to do.

Stansel started looking for jobs at other educational institutions that were solely social media management. He interviewed at Texas State University and fell in love with the campus. He looked at Texas State’s social media, including that of students, and decided to accept a job with the university in April 2015.

Since then, Stansel has had an eventful year and a half in his job. On his first day after new hire orientation, he received a call from Texas State’s University Police Department explaining that there were reports of shots fired by the J.C. Kellam Building at Texas State and CNN was on the phone asking for information. The gunfire turned out only to be a vehicle backfiring in the JCK parking lot, but it was a sign of things to come. Other interesting events have included flooding and severe weather warnings.

Crisis communication is a big part of Stansel’s job. He is solely responsible for keeping the student body informed on social media when events happen on or near campus that may affect them. This includes sending out tweets about class closures or informing the student body, faculty and staff about such oddities as the recent assaults committed near campus by people dressed in clown costumes.

“Remember the bull on campus?” Stansel said. “That was a fun day for me. I got to tweet, ‘steer clear of the area.’”

Stansel discussed a variety of challenges in managing social media for an institution of higher education. One of the problems is unauthorized social media accounts that appear to be sanctioned by the university. Several accounts are out there, and they can impact recruitment, retention and fundraising, Stansel said. Such accounts have put forth a reputation for Texas State University as a party school, and one account even attempted to get female Texas State students to post revealing photos of themselves.

Stansel is often able to work with Twitter and other social media networks to get the rogue accounts shut down. In others, the social media platform’s policies regarding news and parody can hinder such requests. Stansel has had to work with Texas State’s legal counsel to issue cease and desist letters to offending parties when working through social media companies doesn’t pan out.

“Impostor accounts hurt the university because they can negatively impact the university’s brand,” said Stansel.

Another challenge is what he referred to as “herding cats” and dealing with HIPPOS, or the highest paid person’s opinions. There are several audiences that Stansel, or any social media manager has to work to keep informed and happy at any given moment. Stansel’s audiences include prospective students, parents, alumni, faculty and staff, sports fans, university administrators and traditional media outlets. Setting up good policies and explaining things so everyone understands what to expect is a big part of managing social media.

“Unless it directly impacts students, faculty or staff at Texas State, we don’t post anything about it,” said Stansel.

Being responsive to the audience is also important. Social media is just that – social. Followers on social media expect replies and content that draws engagement. What consumers see on social media is determined by what they like, favorite, repost or share. Posting a picture of an AT-AT from Star Wars for Star Wars Day (May 4 of each year) isn’t just a nerdy meme – it’s a way to keep people engaged.

“I live and die by the Facebook algorithm,” said Stansel.

Another aspect of Stansel’s job is education. Not just students, though he does educate them by guest lecturing in classrooms throughout the year. It’s also a matter of helping the various departments at Texas State manage their social media wisely and helping them understand the responsibilities associated with having a social media account. One poorly chosen meme or post can hurt the university’s reputation.

Decisions on what to post and what not to post are often politically influenced at the university, because it is a publicly funded school. Decisions on what to post or when to close campus aren’t up to him as a social media manager. What to post is decided on by the department or university administration, with Stansel providing his input to ensure that the university’s brand is protected.

“I can’t make a public statement about Black Lives Matter. I’d love to make a positive statement about students protesting on campus sometimes, but … I want to keep my job,” said Stansel.

Students in the presentation were actively live-tweeting about the commentary under #MCWeek16 and #MC1313CB. Stansel encouraged them to contact him if they needed any assistance. The public relations team at Texas State is a part of the university and the university’s main goal is to take care of and educate the students.

“We’re here to educate. We’re here to help,” said Stansel.

For more information, see these Texas State University websites:

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