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PRSA Counselors in Higher Education Conference

Prepared Remarks
April 16, 2015

Hello everyone. It’s wonderful to be here with you today and to kick things off, I thought I’d start by showing you one of my videos, which my communication team dubs “GeeMail.”

So, ladies and gentlemen, you now have an opportunity previously limited mostly to college students — to find yourself alongside West Virginia University’s “surprisingly fit and robust president.”

All kidding aside, I have led about half the universities in the country, so there is a chance that you have worked for me.

If not, I can assure you that “fit and robust” takes on a new meaning when you work for someone who rises before dawn, races around campus all day to meetings and events, and keeps going late into the night, dropping in on student parties.

Senior staff members like Becky Lofstead might occasionally wish they worked for a more weak and listless leader — especially since every moment that I am roaming the streets is another moment when I might inadvertently offend TCU fans or the Little Sisters of the Poor.

But, seriously, my senior communication and marketing leaders do a great job keeping me on message and helping me connect with the people who need to hear that message — whether it be students, faculty, staff, alumni, donors, lawmakers, the media or thought leaders.

Of course, to stay on message, you need to have a clear message, and I do.

In fact, my message is so streamlined that I keep it on a laminated card in my wallet, where I can find it whenever I need to remember why I am here.

This card lists my six leadership goals:

1. Forge ONE West Virginia University.
2. Put students first.
3. Focus on faculty and staff success.
4. Further develop our research agenda.
5. Commit to our communities.
6. Simplify University systems and structures.

I keep my goals simple and straightforward because large universities are anything but simple and straightforward. As all of you know, universities are complex places, and what we all tend to do is make them more complex. But simplicity is the best way to get an ordered result. If I cannot run West Virginia University on a card of this size, then I am not doing it right. I am making it too complicated.

Having a message, of course, is only half the battle — maybe less than half. Because the heavy lifting is the work that all of you do, amplifying University messages and targeting them to the proper audiences.

Having been a college president for three decades gives me a long view of our industry. And over that long stretch, I have seen your work become infinitely more complicated.

When I first became president of West Virginia University in 1981, we certainly did not have social media or the Internet to worry about. I do not think we even had a fax machine in the administration building.

CNN was only a year old, and a true 24-hour news cycle was still far away. Communicating the university’s message usually meant turning to society’s reliable and traditional gatekeepers — newspapers, radio stations and TV.

Back then, if you made an unpopular decision, you would get strongly worded letters from irate alumni or read impassioned criticism on a newspaper’s opinion page.

Today, as soon as you make any decision, you get battered on Twitter, where messages like “President Gee sucks” seem to hold equal weight as more well-reasoned discourse.

But, if your job is more complicated today, it is also, in a strange way, much simpler.

Back then, you wielded mostly the media release, an inefficient tool whose projectiles often strayed far off-course from the audiences it was supposed to target. Today, university communicators can target messages with laser-like accuracy at specialized audiences — and they can reach those audiences directly, without risking dilution or distortion by media gatekeepers.

That is why more and more organizations are realizing that social media is an invaluable tool for forging connections. Because social media is a very personal communication tool, it works especially well for connecting audiences with an organization’s personal face—its president or CEO. In 2013, the PR firm Weber Shandwick surveyed executives about having a “social” CEO.

Another survey by Brandfog showed that leaders who use social media to communicate their core mission and brand values inspire more trust than those who do not. They also help to raise brand awareness and position their organizations as industry leaders.

Benefits like these show why leaders’ social media participation is growing — and why Weber Shandwick expects it to grow an additional 50 percent by 2018.

Now, by any measure, I am a highly social leader.

Just remember all those student parties I crash. Connecting with people is, perhaps, my greatest strength and my greatest passion.

And since I returned to West Virginia University, my social media presence has skyrocketed.

Here are a few numbers my team came up with: Since returning to Morgantown, I have gained 31,402 followers on Twitter and close to 4,000 friends on Facebook.

You can find me at Facebook.com/GordonGee and Twitter.com/GordonGee.

I have also established a presence on Instagram and have more than 8,500 followers — more than any other college president, as far as we know.

That one is Instagram.com/EGordonGee.

All told, I have about 68,000 followers on Twitter, more than any other university president who has not worked in the tech industry prior to jumping into higher education.

I have made more than 65 million impressions on Twitter since joining the University for a second time back in December 2013, and according to what my staff tells me, that means my tweets potentially appeared on that many Twitter timelines.

Can you believe this old guy up here on stage has had more than 40,000 retweets and 11,000 mentions in the last year? That’s a lot of grandfatherly advice!

I have more than 36,000 likes to my Facebook page.

All told, I have more than 112,000 followers and friends across social media, which means that if I threw a party for them, I would need two Mountaineer Fields to hold them all.

I would like to say that I achieved this online popularity entirely on my own. In fact, in front of another audience I might do that — but I know this group would not buy it.

I have a wonderful communications team lead by Vice President for University Relations Sharon Martin, who is here with me today. She came to Morgantown from Purdue University in September 2013 and found out just a few months later that Gordon Gee was taking over as president — news that might have sent a more anxiety-prone communicator scurrying back to Indiana. Instead, Sharon calmly set up an Executive Communications Team to help keep me on message.

On that team are media relations and marketing professionals, a social media strategist, speechwriters, and a web content scribe. They meet weekly, and I meet with the whole team at least once a month.

Sharon, of course, has the unalloyed pleasure of speaking with me almost every day.

The people you have on your team are crucial to success in these important marketing and communication efforts. You must trust them and they, in turn, need to know you inside and out.

My team members make sure that I speak with a consistent voice across all platforms. They know which platforms reach which audiences — for example, they know that Twitter reaches college graduates and people under 50 especially well.

Instagram is big with the student-age population, and Youtube reaches more people in the 18 to 34 age group than any single television network.

And my team is constantly looking for new vehicles for me to get my messages out. I was the first university president to jump onto Snapchat for a takeover. We did it for about 30 minutes and talked to about 50 different students. In fact, I took over our Snapchat again just last month. It is one of the fastest-growing social networks and the one that trends the youngest — perfect for talking to students and prospective students.

My team is also the creative force behind “Gee Mail” — our highly popular video messages like the one that just played.

About once a month, we release a new Gee Mail that showcases me in all my quirky, loveable glory as I deliver an important and serious message.

This month it is all about our student spring clean-up efforts, so I got “down and dirty” with them last Saturday to show our audiences that our Greeks and our many student groups care about the town they call home. You can find all my videos at presidentgee.wvu.edu/videos.

In a social environment that bombards us with information, videos like these reverberate with the power of a human voice, cutting through mere social noise.

One expert defines social noise as “a vast overload of data that drowns out the underlying message or meaning.”

So how do you create social successes out of social noise?

Well, since we are talking about the Web, I decided to answer that question with a Buzzfeed-style list:

5 ways to replace social noise with real engagement.

1. Humor
Everyone enjoys a good laugh, and social media abounds with humor. Much of it is just noise, however, unless you find a surly-looking cat’s take on life meaningful.

I have always been a big believer in taking your work seriously but not taking yourself too seriously. Occasionally, my sense of humor has got me into trouble, but more often it has helped build affection and trust between me and the people I serve.

Our Gee Mail videos, as you saw, include lots of humor. I often deliver them in a
David Letterman-style Top 10 format.

Twitter is also a great vehicle for sharing humor because a tweet that makes someone smile will often be favorited and retweeted. Because Twitter is so popular with college students, my team and I emphasize humor that is relevant to them.

For example, this winter the University shut down for two days due to snow and ice. This is a rare occurrence and an exciting one for students, some of whom start their social media pleadings for snow days as soon as the thermometer drops below 50.

We were able to have some fun with these tweets such as:

Hey WVU, do you wanna build a snowman?

Or….

I really just wanted to have a snow day so I could stay in and watch Netflix all day.

Talking and acting like a college student, as in the Netflix tweet, is a great way to build rapport with that audience.

There are some other college-age relatable humor in these posts:

I tried to get the DMV to let me use one of my selfies for my WV license today. They wouldn’t let me.

Can you believe fall is already halfway over? It is almost time to break out my Uggs!

Humor can also help you take advantage of a big event.

When ESPN College GameDay came to campus, I was all over the coverage with tweets like:

“In case you get confused today…,” with a photo of me holding a sign that said “Not Lou Holtz.”

And “Of course I know what ‘bae’ means,” with a photo of me holding a sign pronouncing that quarterback Clint Trickett’s hair is bae (BEYOND ANYTHING ELSE).

The lesson here is that if you can find a way to communicate to the masses in a funny and creative way, chances improve that people will see you — and then people will begin to notice the University, as well.

That is the inspiration behind a lot of the things we do on social media.

2. Inspiration
Inspiration is another thing people seek on the Internet.

And the life-changing work that Universities do is truly inspiring. And we can tell stories that social media consumers will want to read and share.

For example, WVU Speech Professor Carolyn Atkins works with student-athletes to prepare them to deliver motivational remarks to public school students. They talk about overcoming obstacles, such as adjusting to life in a new country or bouncing back from bad decisions made in the teenage years.

The stories are always powerful, and I was able to give these students a shout-out to all of my Twitter followers.

I also embarked on a tour of all 55 counties of our state this past summer, and also plan to visit at least half again this year.

It was another great opportunity to lift up the life-changing work our University does in the areas of health care, 4-H and youth development, and so much more.

My main mission was to let the 1.8 million residents of West Virginia know in their hearts and minds that West Virginia University is their University.

Again, if you visit my web site, you will see the power of my team’s communication efforts in my blog, photo gallery, videos and news stories.

My favorite experience was our McDowell County trip.

3. Great Photos
As I said before, photos convey emotion as words rarely can. That is why visuals are so important in social media, inspiring whole platforms such as Instagram, Tumblr, and Pinterest. Just think how long we all spent staring at a certain color-shifting dress — that dress was definitely blue and black, though.

And, I have a secret weapon for attracting likes on Facebook, whose users skew female and a bit older than other social networks: And that is my adorable twin granddaughters.

Eva and Elizabeth are wonderful girls, and they are also helping me reach out to alumni, donors, faculty, parents and staff. In a few years, they will probably wise up and demand a salary for this marketing work.

If your University’s president does not happen to have adorable twin granddaughters, that puts you a disadvantage. Consider, perhaps, buying him or her a puppy.

There is one particular type of photo, ubiquitous on social media, for which I am especially well known. That is the much-maligned selfie. In fact, #geeselfie is a popular hashtag among students and others who strive to appear with me in one of these coveted photos.

Researchers have questioned whether the selfie’s rise heralds a new age of narcissism, but for a college president, there is nothing narcissistic about cultivating a selfie habit. Selfies show that you are out and about, taking time for personal contact with the people you serve, from students and prospective students to award-winning faculty, distinguished alumni, and prominent visitors to campus.

Selfies take a college president out of the ivory tower and show that he or she can be fun and approachable. Just in the past few weeks, I have posed with students raising awareness about Autism, West Virginia’s Teacher of the Year, creative arts students who sing in a barbershop quartet, and Special Olympians visiting campus.

When I toured West Virginia’s 55 counties last summer, I shook many hands, gave many hugs, and appeared in many selfies. All advanced my tour’s purpose — connecting with people around the state.

Of course, leaders should keep their social media in tune with their authentic personalities and not try to adopt a false persona. I learned the importance of being myself early in my career.

In my first tenure at West Virginia University, a couple of old-time professors came by and said, “You’re not doing very well.” When I asked why, they said, “You don’t look and act like a university president.” So I tried to change and become a little bit more stoic, and what I discovered was that I was miserable and I was also failing.

So I just went back to wearing my argyle socks and my bow ties, and I have remained a university president for a long, long time.

If you have presidents who do look like a university presidents, do not make the opposite mistake and try to convert them into comedians. But being social can help them appear less stuffy.

When you are the face of a University, why not get your face out there with the faces of people you serve? Presidents should just remember one simple but inviolable rule about selfies: No duckface.

4. Bragging
We all know that bragging is rife on social media. What would fill our Facebook feeds if people stopped bragging about their vacations, their fitness routines, and their adorable twin granddaughters?

The good news: When you are communicating about your University, you are allowed to brag, and you do not have to pretend to be humble.

One Gee Mail is a good example.

It introduced our new creative brand campaign, Mountaineers Go First, to the campus by bragging about actual West Virginia University firsts. More subtly, it also reinforced the values that our campaign aims to celebrate including innovation and determination.

I have observed that West Virginians are often too humble when it comes to talking about their wonderful state and flagship university.

Luckily for them, I am here to do their bragging for them.

5. Sharing the Love
At its best, social media enhances a sense of community and reinforces the idea that students and alumni are part of something larger than themselves.

One way of doing this is to invite them to take part in special events.

We all know that on social media you can find lots of invitations, to everything from your cousin’s hastily arranged fourth wedding to your sister’s 10,000th Candy Crush round. But some invitations cut through the usual noise.

On St. Patrick’s Day this year, my communications team came up with a special event to engage students. I think they were inspired by the gold coin I carry every day, but the fact that I resemble a leprechaun might have come into play.

Replicas of my gold coin were hidden in spots near our student union, and students had a good time trying to find them.

Of course, we promoted the treasure hunt on Twitter. The gold coins students found were not just meaningless trinkets. Like the coin I carry, they listed six actions I consider essential for success — focus, innovate, perform, change, stretch, reward.

As useful as humor can be, social media also allows leaders to deliver serious messages in a personal and direct way.

When our Mountaineer football team upset Baylor last fall, a few of our students engaged in destructive behavior that reflected badly on all Mountaineers.

These are two tweets we put out after the game:

Disappointed in some of our student body today. While a small minority, the actions of a few hurt the reputation of our entire University.

I want all students to know this behavior is unacceptable. We can and will work together to prevent this situation from happening again.

This was the first communication I made to any audience on this issue. It was important to use social media first, even before we put out an official statement, because that was where people were talking.

Using Twitter helped re-focus the conversation online from, “Woah, West Virginia University rioted again!” to “We need to make a change. How can we help?”

Finally, social media is a great way to let people know how you feel about them. Because individuals engage with social media in a very personal way, you can connect with them on a very personal level. Amid all the humor in my Gee Mail videos, I try to get across one basic message to our students: That I love them and want the best for them.

That is the most important message any of us can communicate, so let us show one more GeeMail that gets to the heart of why we all do what we do.


Now, I will be happy to take your questions. Bring them on.