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Guidelines offer UI employees advice on reaping the benefits (and avoiding the risks) of social media

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One could sum up the message found in The University of Iowa’s new social media guidelines without violating Twitter’s 140-character limit: With social media, there are many benefits, and there are risks. Be careful, and protect your privacy.

The University and its employees are using social media in a variety of ways to connect with appropriate audiences, and UI Human Resources supports these uses. In spite of these uses, there are many news stories about the unintentional consequences of social media. Social media’s pervasiveness and immediacy have led University officials to create suggested guidelines for social media use in University and personal capacities in an effort to support its use while protecting privacy and reputations.

“Our guidelines aren’t as brief as, say, Microsoft’s—‘don’t do anything stupid’—but we’re not like some other organizations, who say you should not use social media at all,” says Diana Leventry, senior associate director of administrative services in UI Human Resources. “We’re trying to occupy the middle of the road, reminding our employees of good, general practices that can help protect their privacy and not cause them problems down the road.

“The guidelines address general things you might want to think about in using social media: With whom do you want to communicate? Is this the best way? What’s my message?” Leventry adds. “They also include general privacy tips, as some things posted to social media outlets, and the Internet in general, could live forever. And they highlight laws and policies that need to be followed.”

Below are some excerpts from the guidelines (a complete list can be found at

  • All employees, especially those in supervisory, teaching, and patient-care roles, should consider whom they are “friending.” Comments about work made to students, patients, or coworkers on social media sites may lead to misunderstandings, damaged reputations, and/or personal or employment risks.
  • Be thoughtful about what you share. Could you be sharing private content covered by law or policy, such as student information, patient information, employee personnel information, or intellectual property?
  • The use of social media does not change the expectations set forth by University ethics policies. For example, posting comments/pictures/etc. as a form of harassment would be a violation of University policy, regardless of the technology used.

Human Resources vetted the guidelines with officers from Faculty Senate and Staff Council, senior HR leaders, legal counsel, and members of the Office of the Provost, Information Technology Services (ITS), and the Office of Strategic Communication. The University of Iowa’s approach to these guidelines reflects its research on best practices at other organizations.


Social media

See the full list at


One paragraph does allow individual units within the University to further define conditions of use for social media based upon specific work units. Earlier this year, University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics took such action, restricting access from clinical workstations to numerous web sites, including social networking outlets.

Some of the guidelines might seem to reflect common-sense ideas. But the allure of social media has the potential to cloud one’s thinking. Leventry offers training on social media issues to campus HR reps; as part of her presentation, she quotes Brian Solis, a noted author on new media:

“We’re seduced by the capacity to channel our inner celebrity and as such we’re intoxicated by the responses and relationships we earn by willfully sharing in public what was once deemed and coveted as private.

“We each possess an inherent and unique ability to make decisions governed by a moral compass. These decisions are now challenged by real-time architectures that entice us to say what we think, before we think it through. What we publish online says more about us than we know or we may realize.

“In an era where common sense may prove uncommon, an updated form of social psychology is necessary to learn and consequently teach netizens how to create their own destiny, centered by a relevant and meaningful social compass.”

“Some people continue to approach social media tools as a way to chat, as though we were chatting in a room with a friend. That isn’t the case,” Leventry says. “What we’ve committed to a written form is now visible to many people, and can be rapidly shared by that person with many other people. What we once thought of as giving confidences to a friend can be quickly pushed around the globe.”

Getting the most out of social media

The new University guidelines stress that social media have benefits. So how can a University employee, office, or department get the most out of its social media foray?

“The best way to harness social media is to be mindful of the need for authenticity within the medium, and offer compelling content that is easily shared on social networks,” says Tysen Kendig, UI vice president for strategic communication. “Social media users, by and large, are savvy enough to recognize and tune out promotional fluff, and are easily turned off by PR machines firing out too much information that lacks any intrigue.”

Kendig says social media has dramatically changed the paradigm by which communicators create, package, and distribute news and information to constituents. The mainstream media enjoyed a decades-long stranglehold on storytelling and information delivery, but the Internet shifted control to organizations, allowing them to create dynamic web sites and large e-mail distribution lists that presented information directly to their audiences without relying exclusively on the mainstream media filter. The social media wave, Kendig notes, has shifted that control over information flow again, this time directly to the end user.

“Now, more than ever before, audiences are choosing the information they want to receive—and subsequently share virally—from organizations, mainstream media, and other individuals,” Kendig says. “Social media outlets have connected our audiences to one another and made them more aware of their power to communicate individually and broadly.”

Keeping in mind that today’s online audiences have become far more sophisticated, one might ask: What’s the first step toward social media success? Kendig echoes Leventry’s comments about having a strategy.

“Focus on purpose and objective,” he says. “What do you hope to accomplish by entering the social media realm? Are you better served going out on your own, or instead incorporating your content as part of a larger effort that may have a far more significant affinity group following? If your goal is simply to create another relatively static online presence for news and information, you’re going to fail in your effort.”

This does not mean to run to Twitter and flood your followers with information overload. Kendig reiterates the quality-over-quantity stance.

“Some people assume that just because a story or multimedia clip is associated in some way with their organization, everyone in their network will find it interesting. Obviously, that’s not the case,” Kendig says. “People need to be mindful that too much information can easily result in no information being absorbed.

“Many people—and I’m one of them—pay more attention to the occasional item posted by someone in their network with a history of sharing intriguing content. I can’t say the same about those who constantly post dozens upon dozens of items from their discipline specific journals, their campus press office, or their Farmville compound on Facebook.”

by Christopher Clair

Office of University Relations. Copyright The University of Iowa 2006. All rights reserved.