Exploring Ethical Standards in Digital Stewardship
Matt Weber is the Director of Digital Communications Strategy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. This blog does not represent the views of his institution, or maybe, it kind of does.
In the fast paced world of social media, it’s critical to permit the occasional pause. This may be challenging with short news cycles and miniscule attention spans for a growing, voracious audience, but it is also essential.
Each day, as a part of my role as Director of Digital Communications Strategy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), my morning inbox is filled with countless requests for amplification and dissemination of digital content, to be shared out through our myriad distribution channels. Over half of HGSE web traffic comes from pulling our social media levers, with robust Twitter and Facebook audiences measuring over 100,000 followers on each platform. Our commitment to social media as a driver for engagement has been the linchpin in launching several successful digital campaigns over the years.
The necessity of pausing to reflect when wielding these lines of communication was brought home to me sharply when, in February 2016, I posted a blog about the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump. A member of our faculty had written the op-ed in The Washington Post, critical of Trump’s candidacy. In fact, the subtitle of the article included the words “We Must Stop Trump.” As this was a faculty member’s op-ed published in a mainstream media outlet, the post was an obvious candidate for sharing. We took an attributed quote from the article and shared the link on our Facebook page on a Monday night.
What followed was a 24-hour cycle of comments, emails, and frustration over the fact that HGSE shared this article on its Facebook page. Some of the more representative comments remarked: “HGSE would do well to remember that they don’t speak for all educators…” and, “While I agree, I would prefer my alma mater not opine on presidential politics.”
The reactions to the post caused me to think deeply about the unique opportunities and challenges of my position. Our guidelines in the Office of Communications are two-fold: delivering examples of meaningful impact and cultivating community. These are the two pillars intrinsic to the standards we developed over six years ago. Our digital channels must constitute a lively, microcosm of our institutional mission and succeed in communicating that mission through examples of it in practice. Our curated panoply of content must all reflect back on the collective output of our institutional work and strengthen a wider community committed to the broader themes. This content can take the form of a simple Instagram photo of the campus at sunset or a dense, longitudinal research study shared on Facebook. Yet not all decisions yield the intended result; these guidelines can turn out to be a bit more complicated in practice.
In reading the commentary from the public critical of the posting, I paused and double-checked on why I had shared this article. A verse of T.S. Eliot’s came to mind: “We had the experience but missed the meaning.” (“The Dry Salvages,” 1941)
This quote reminded me of the ways in which I should hold myself accountable as the gatekeeper of these channels. I never want to lose sight of the “why” in the daily repetition of the “what” and “how.” The “what” is any digital content connected to our institution—research, alumni news, events, faculty writing, etc. The “how” is in deciding what channel, framing, and timing makes best sense in optimizing content distribution. Yet knowing the “why” is of critical importance to good ethical stewardship of dutifully representing one’s institution. Perhaps, I thought to myself as I paused, I had made a mistake in posting the Trump story. A self-audit would help me discover if I had broken with our standards.
I posted this article because it represented the opinion of a member of our faculty in a mainstream outlet; it was related to the faculty member’s general work; and regardless of the opinion of the work, our channels are meant to provide meaningful amplification of our community member’s opinions (there is no sifting or sorting out of content based on political views). Indeed, if the piece had been of the opposite persuasion and supportive of Trump, we would have featured it identically. This was an important standard which should have been clear to me and which I needed to share with our audience.
In a response to our Facebook critics, we institutionally replied on this Facebook thread that the school itself does not opine on politics but rather shares the many perspectives of individuals in our community. As a matter of record, we tend to be quite open and de-regulated. In six years of managing these accounts, I have only had to delete a few comments.
On further reflection, I would add the following points. The curator of a site should think carefully about what the site can do and what it cannot do; and the curator as well must try to anticipate how the readers will react to the material that is posted. Especially with reference to an audience that is well educated, people are always looking to see “who” is behind the “what” and asking the “why.” We see this discernment in which cable news channel one wishes to watch political coverage; we see it in the activism of staff writers for newspapers and publications. We see it on Twitter through profiles stating “My views do not represent the views of my institution,” and we see it in less digitized ways on the bumper stickers of employee cars in company parking lots.
As a brand author and architect of how a chorus of individual voices is aggregated and conveyed to a diverse audience, I cannot emphasize enough the value in always remembering to pause both before and after critical actions. In retrospect, I wish that I had better signaled to the audience that this was an essay that took a political point of view; that it is was our policy to call attention to any and all serious writing by members of the community; and that we would have without hesitation run an essay with a different view on the same topic. And as with all our postings, we welcomed thoughtful responses. Had I done so more clearly and proactively, I think that the reactions might have been less heated.
If you are involved in digital stewardship as I am, my advice is that you continually align your messaging with your institution, always check your own personal biases, and frequently ask “why” with attention towards both actual appearance and audience perception of who is the messenger. Beyond digital stewards, I believe this advice universally applies to anyone acting as de facto champion or spokesperson of a cause in both a public or personal context. My professional role is fairly anonymous but often our personal choices are not. Whether that is wearing a Red Sox cap in Yankee Stadium or ashes on your forehead on Ash Wednesday outside of church, be sure to know exactly why you are committing to ownership of this public messaging and reflect on how a timely pause can help you come to a more thoughtful understanding.
The full T.S. Elliot quote goes on to say: “We had the experience but missed the meaning. And approach to the meaning restores the experience in a different form.”
It’s a fairly simple lesson, but one we don’t always heed when the immediacy and access of public communication often results in a message that is half-baked. I wish you all the best in pausing to approach meaning in new form, which I hope you do… right now.