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Social Media Policy vs Guideline vs Best Practice in Higher Education

Social media use and understanding is no longer an option in education.  Some higher education institutions may have been slower than others, but overall one can see that social media has become part of the fabric of a college campus.  Not just in student use, but in marketing, community relations, student life, classroom activities and alumni engagement.
More progressive campuses have created full-time professional positions, solely for the advancement of social media management and strategy.  Others have empowered student leaders to take reign on community creation.  Many more have tacked on duties to existing positions.
From social media adoption, it is no surprise that campuses have attempted to place safeguards and structures to protect themselves and the communities they serve.  As a result, a variety of methods have followed, including creating a campus social media policy, guidelines and/or best practices.
Is important that higher education responds with agreed upon language to guide the campus community on social media.  In a previous post, I highlighted a number of state and federal laws that are connected to these online tools.  Some of these include the National Labor Relations Act, First Amendment: Freedom of Speech, Americans with Disabilities Act, Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and Copyright and Digital Millennium Act.  Joe Sabado maintains a very thorough Student Affairs and Technology blog, which also includes bookmarks for national polices related to technology.  He adds to this list HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act).  These existing considerations should be connected to the institutions policy development process for social media.
This post will clarify the difference between each; offering suggestions for institutions, as well as resources.  Keep in mind these should not be created by just one person.  Social media is community and social media is communication.  Hence, developing a campus policy or guide should contain collaborative communication with the entire community including students, staff and faculty.
Policy is an action adopted or proposed by a body, in this case an institution.  However in higher education, this can also be a division, department or unit.  Policies are requirements that will be enforced.
Social media policies are slowly gaining attention and action at US college campuses.  However, the majority of campuses do not have one.  In 2012, researchers Eaton, Luse, and Hodge looked at all south central US universities to explore social media policy inclusion.  Out of the 48 universities studied, only seven had a specific social media policy.  Even further, nine did not even have a policy around acceptable computer usage (2012).
Guidelines contain statements by which directs a course of action.  The clear difference between a policy and a guideline is that this is no mandatory.  Further they are typically not enforced, but instead attempts to streamline a process based around a sound practice.
Best practice is a proven technique that has been shown to produce positive results, compared to others.  The word ‘best’ is a baseline, as even better methods for practices are developed.  In other words, best practices evolve.  Just as in a guideline, best practices are not mandatory and are not enforceable.
Policy VS Guide
Based upon these definitions, when formalizing social media operations, most universities create either a policy or guide.  A study by Malesky and Peters (2011) looked at faculty professional behavior with university students on social media sites.  They suggest “institutions of higher education need to develop policies and procedures addressing the issues.  At the very least, it is recommended that universities develop guidelines to define what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate SNS usage in their academic setting” (p. 145).
Overall, I have observed that typically an entire institution will have a social media policy and a division (such as Student Affairs) or department (such as Residence Life) will have a guide/guidelines that support this overarching policy.  Best practices are usually woven in amongst the policy or guide.
At Loyola Marymount University (LMU), I was charged to lead a group to develop a Student Affairs Social Media Guide.  This guide highlighted the LMU social media policy (and related policies), as well as established a guide that aided in social media strategy.  This guide included 7 best practices that aligned with current social media research within education.  We choose not to develop a policy, as that would be duplicating efforts already in motion on campus.
You can find this online source here.  In a future post, I will spell out the formation process for this guide as well as resulting best practice list.
What may be the deciding factor in developing a policy or guide is whether you want the language to be enforceable.
What to include in a Social Media Policy
Eaton, Luse, and Hodge study (2012) list items such as:

  • Philosophy of social media
  • Defining terms of social media
  • Can employee can include their organization in their profile?
  • What types of information should remain confidential on social media
  • Compliance with existing institutional, local, state and national policies
  • Following social media sites terms of service agreements
  • Boundaries with job duties
  • University computer equipment terms
  • Consequences if violations were to occur

Mike Petroff from .eduGuru wrote a blog on social media policies, highlighting the following as most common key messages.

  • Authenticity and transparency
  • Protecting confidential information
  • Respecting copyrights
  • Developing a social media strategy
  • Respecting your audience
  • Obeying terms of service on specific platforms

A few of those may actually be more appropriate as a practice or guide, and not a formal policy.
The Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) also provides resources where the social media policy resides online that should also be included:

  • A directory of the institution’s social media accounts and how groups can add to the list.
  • Best practices that include tips about monitoring, responding to comments and correcting mistakes. Some policies even provide information on social media strategy.
  • Differences between personal and institutional use of social media.
  • Privacy recommendations for both personal and institutional social networking.
  • Copyright and fair use resources for images, video, text and other content.

Based upon these resources, it is becoming ‘best practice’ to include more than formal policies in your social media policy.  Other elements such as resources, best practices and related policies should be included.  What is important for policy developers to consider is making it clear what language/section is policy (which will be enforced) and what is a suggested guideline/best practice.
Considerations for Your Social Media Policy or Guide

  1.  Write for Mission.  What needs to be addressed is a policy or guide that speaks to the mission, student population, and technological capacities at each campus.
  2.  Involve the entire campus.  Any new policy created needs to be considered holistically, with the entire campus involved.  Author Junco (2011) recommends creating a committee of stakeholders, including faculty, staff, and students.  The work the committee should be transparent and available to the community, such as notes for meetings can be obtained in blog form.
  3.  Watch out for a ‘chill factor’ (aka don’t scare them off).  If the entire policy or guide is written in scare tactic language this will affect usage, adoption and advance of social media communication tools.  Junco calls for the social media policy to be one that looks at benefits of social media use of the entire campus, not just negative outcomes (2011).  Of significant note, highlight the value added to these platforms, where the author notes: civil discourse and a medium where a diversity of opinions can be shared.
  4. Include Student Specific Content, as well as Language for Faculty/Staff.  Junco (2011) also composed a thorough list of social media policy content, specifically for students. Overall, the author encouraged development of a policy with students in mind that would be supportive of usage and apply existing polices, limitations, and education.  “Students should read the policy and get a sense that the institution is interested in their well-being and is offering information to help them have a better online experience” (2011, p. 61).   Faculty and administrators should also be able to find direction for personal and professional use, in addition to direction on guidelines for curricular integration.  Finally, the policy should be placed on the university website as a digital resource center for best practices, related polices, and social media resources.
  5. Clear Take Away Messages.  Overall the policies should give the campus community “guidance in behaviors that are expected online in the same way that campuses have honor codes to delineate expectations about academic honesty” (Junco, 2011, p. 60).  Eaton, Luse, and Hodge summarized their recommendations simply to make it clear the policy reads ‘Be Professional’ (2012).
  6. Prioritize Training.  Based upon the final product of a social media policy/guide, training should mirror the message and philosophy of professional and personal usage of social media for students, staff and faculty.  This training, especially for campus employees, should raise users to the same technology knowledge, and make available hands-on training of platforms in addition to research and best practices of curricular utilization of social media.

Final Thoughts 
Polices are not made overnight.  It might be tempting to copy and paste a social media policy from another institution, but that only provides a short-term solution.  If you find other policies that you believe could be adapted for your university, contact that university to explore how they came about development and any future challenges they are facing.  As a tip of the hat, I would also suggest noting which universities you used in the creation of your policy or guide.
To get you started, Eric Stoller from Insidehighered.com recommends a number of strong universities using social media guides.
Looking even bigger picture, Ed Cabellon provides direction on the development of a Social Media Plan, which should also support your institutions social media policy/guide.
Below are more resources on policies, guidelines and best practices for higher education social media:
Best Practices 
Cited Research
Eaton, V. J., Luse, D. W., and Hodge T. G. (2012).  An examination of social media policy usage of south central united states’ universities.  Journal of Academic Administration in Higher Education, 8(1), 33-41.
Junco, R. (2011). The need for student social media policies. [PDFEducause Review.
Malesk, L. A. & Peters, C. (2012) Defining appropriate professional behavior for faculty and university students on social networking websites.  High Educ, 63, 135-151.

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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Rebekah Tilley

Assistant Vice President, University of Iowa Center for Advancement

Rebekah Tilley is the assistant vice president of communication and marketing for the University of Iowa Center for Advancement (UICA). In that role she supports fundraising and alumni engagement efforts for the university, including its CASE Gold winning Iowa Magazine, and serves UICA in a variety of strategic communication efforts.

Previously she was the director of strategic communication for the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business, and the director of communication for the University of Kentucky College of Law. She is a Kentucky native and a proud alum of the University of Kentucky.

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