It all started with one Facebook post. After problematic pictures surfaced of the opening night of a local nightclub, I posted some opinions on cultural appropriation on my personal Facebook profile.
After a few exchanges and joking gifs back and forth between friends and students, a simple comment about boycotting the business turned into headlines, and promptly became national news.
On the front line
This is not a blog about cultural appropriation, or the culture wars – there are plenty of those. But is is about the realities facing those of us elected as student leaders that are on the front line of those wars. Not only was I bewildered as to how one post on a personal social media platform could turn into news headlines, but months before I became an elected student officer I would openly speak about racial and cultural matters with peers.
Once elected, I was not just Omolade anymore – I was now Omolade, Vice-President and Trustee of Kent Union. This meant anything I said, even if they are my personal opinions, could become a news headline with strangers mocking me, angry letters in the post, and emails and journalists from multiple outlets contacting me through my social media account.
Looking back, I could have handled the situation differently – but my learning went beyond thinking before clicking ‘tweet or post’.Our student officers are still trustees and officers when they go home. The key to this is being able to manage press attention through media training and to manage a private life as a sabbatical officer.
Handling the media
As student officers, we are offered various opportunities and training in our roles but one aspect that is crucial is media training and crisis management. Many of us will face incidents and crises both within the students’ union itself, within the student population or even the university – and many of these are accompanied by attention from the local and national press, with the general public not far behind.
It’s paramount that we not only understand our rights when it comes to addressing the media, but to know how to effectively respond. We are under no obligation to respond to a journalist or media outlet if we do not want to and we do have the power to deny feeding their story. Last year, Zamzam Ibrahim, then VP Society and Citizenship and now President of NUS, wrote a useful guide for student officers on their rights, particularly when it came to dealing with sensationalised stories by media outlets which at times were filled with false information used as clickbait.
It’s also worth university media and comms departments considering how to handle incidents like this. In my case, our University media and comms department are supportive through effective media training and crisis management. This is offered early in our sabbatical year to ensure we are able to respond effectively when incidents do happen. If you’re a university that’s happy to have a strong relationship with your students, you should definitely support them when they dare to speak out in the interests of students.
Over the months, I’ve gathered lots of advice from other officers on how to handle media issues. It includes:
- Have separate social media accounts and mobile phones if you can
- Be careful about what you post anywhere because the media is watching – if you have stuff you don’t want reporters (including student journalists, because they’re always chasing the next story) on your friends list to see, restrict it from them and don’t post it on public platforms like Twitter or Instagram
- Social Book Post Manager for Google Chrome can help you get rid of old Facebook posts for free, or you can keyword search and delete controversial content
- Remove information about your address, telephone number etc from social media. This makes it harder for others to discover your location or phone number if they’re trying to harass you
- If students send you messages on your personal accounts ask them to send you an email instead I say this is because it’s easier to keep track
With thanks to Robert Liow, Vice President Welfare & Community at Kings College London Students Union and Don Connelly- Former Education Officer at Aberdeen University.