One of the more challenging questions confronting the approximately 115 University Law Schools within the UK is how to engage students, the wider public, legal and criminal justice professionals and community organisations in their research, teaching and outreach activities. All acknowledge that social media has an important role to play in achieving these goals, but a greater degree of institutional planning and coordination is required if this important resource is to be fully utilised. Drawing on my long experience of Law School strategic management, I offer here some thoughts on how Law Schools can have as many individuals and organisations as they desire following (and actively engaging in) their public service strategies, whilst paying due regard to the need to foster a culture of mutual support and collegiality between Law Schools.
Some qualifications must be made before the list commences. I am not concerned with the use of social media as a direct support for income generating activity. Implicit references are made to the Twitter platform, since it is commonly accepted as the most appropriate media platform for academic institutions and departments, however, these suggestions can be adapted to suit all social media platforms. Whether or not any one or more of these suggestions are followed by university Law School Executives and social media teams is naturally contingent on considerations and priorities of which I would not be privy. However, I am sufficiently confident to stand behind the claim that the adoption of just one of these suggestions (if pursued with long-term focus and dedication) will very quickly transform a Law School’s relationship with the community it serves. The list is arranged according to the strategies which entail the least effort and strategic complexity. Finally, I am aware that not all Law academic units are designated as Schools, but will use the term Law School to reference all units of which Law focused teaching, research and outreach are the dominant activities.
Social responsibility and social media: top tips
Inclusive following: First and foremost, the strategic lead must rid herself/himself of any suggestion that the most successful institutional social media account is one which has noticeably more followers/friends than its is following/befriending. Such a perception has no place in an organisation that is offering a public service. Within the parameters dictated by the Law School’s core educational objectives, it is more appropriate that the School’s social media account is exposed to as wide a constituency as possible, and that, through its social media strategies, the Law School is seen to be taking a lead in terms of community engagement. A Law School should look at its social media account. If the ratio of followers/followed is not at least roughly equal, it should review the philosophy which grounds its social media strategies and pose to itself the question whether or not it is a philosophy of inclusion. Law Schools should be prepared to build and join online communities. For example, a Law School with a strong pro bono focus might want to engage with the increasing number of crowd funding communities and initiatives. As well as boosting its number of followers/friends, joining and/or creating online communities can provide a strong flavour of a Law School’s intellectual orientation and social mission.
Using images: The Law School logo presents a powerful image, and is clearly an essential part of the School/Institution branding. However, Law Schools are likely to increase the reach of a social media message by 100 per cent or more if the text is accompanied by an appropriate non-corporate image. A Law School might well be advised to consider adding an image based platform – like Instagram – to its portfolio. The use of images is an important method through which a Law School can meet its widening participation obligations. A cursory glance at image data bases will reveal that there is much to be done to ensure that social media messages are supported by images which represent the diverse nature of students and staff in today’s Law Schools. A social media team attentive to the value of the image in promoting Law School activities and to the powerful role Law Schools can play in encouraging data base owners/hosts to diversify their collections would identify that School as a leading player in the widening participation agenda.
Supporting and protecting intellectual commons: It is not unusual to see Law Schools sharing social media messages from accounts of non-Law departments and individuals within the institution in which they are embedded. It is far less usual to see one Law School supporting another Law School’s social media account activities. Why not? Unless the social media team is rash enough to publicise an event which is scheduled to take place at precisely the same time as an event hosted at its institution, the spirit of intellectual commons should always prevail in any Law School social media strategy. Moreover, a School that is seen to be engaging with the wider legal educational community cannot but be seen to be demonstrating enviable intellectual leadership. The same point about active support of external social media accounts can be made – perhaps with greater force – in relation to student run social media accounts -operating both within and outside the institution in which the Law School is embedded. Take as an example a Law School with ambitions to establish an innocence network, but which cannot yet command sufficient resources with which to support one. Such a School could make an immediate contribution to legal services by promoting innocence projects located elsewhere.
Demonstrating philanthropic ideals: Law Schools are quite practised at using social media to advertise scholarships and bursaries, but there are many other ways in which they can (and should) disseminate a practice of philanthropy through their social media platforms. Using social media to better identify individuals who would benefit from the many mentoring schemes in existence -often offered in partnership with professional bodies-is one example of an effective use of social media toward the fulfilment of an institution's charitable purposes. Using social media to promote a School's contribution to the open access publications agenda is an important way in which social media may connect an institution's charitable purposes to wider strategic objectives. Leading the way are those Law Schools in which academic staff have adopted the practice of donating free copies of any published work (article offprint or monograph) toward support of not for profit small educational institutions and community organisations
Capturing the everyday experience of the Law School: Noting the dangers of over-generalisation, I have observed that the predominant use of real time video or audio clips by Law Schools is to showcase large conferences and public lectures. Law Schools who fail to utilise social media as a means of documenting the everyday academic existence of students and staff are not taking sufficient account of the possibility/probability that the more high profile events they host may be alienating to some prospective followers/friends. Moreover, using social media to convey the everyday is an important way of authenticating show case occasions. Why not post media of staff and student representatives discussing important issues of School life and strategy? Why not post a short segment of a standard undergraduate lecture or postgraduate seminar? All Law Schools will have something unique in terms of student or staff support, which they ought to trumpet abroad!
Notes and references
This commentary was written in consultation with Your Guide Online: www.yourguideonline.com
Statistics relating to numbers of Law Schools were taken from the Solicitors Regulation Authority current list of qualifying law degree providers
An expanded version of this social media commentary, together with other strategic planning resources, will be available for download at www.patriciatuitt.com from February 1 2018