In Trust publisher Jay Blossom recently spoke to Isaac Luria, vice president of Auburn Action at Auburn Seminary, and Macky Alston, Auburn’s vice president for strategy, engagement, and media.

Blossom was preparing for a presentation on “Social Media and Institutional Conflict,” which he delivered in January to the Presidential Leadership Intensive sponsored by the Association of Theological Schools. 

The presentation was adapted as an In Trust Webinar, which was delivered live on May 12, 2015.  An archived version of the webinar is available for purchase at

Q When most leaders think about communication, they think about talking to their constituents. But seminary leaders need to think about what people are saying about them too. When should seminary leaders use social media to join in the conversations about their institutions? 

MACKY ALSTON: At Auburn Seminary, we’ve conducted media training for more than 5,000 leaders, and it’s been marvelous to help people anticipate crises and think about communicating their mission through 21st-century media. But it’s pretty rare that a seminary uses media effectively. 

So my prayer is that our seminaries staff up with folks who really understand all forms of media, including social media. People act shocked when the usual crises occur and they have no adequate plan. These “usual crises” can include financial mismanagement, sexual misconduct, a hot-button issue in the denomination, or a hurricane or school shooting. For an institution to have a good strategy, they need somebody who is really listening, engaging, planning, and coordinating communication from that institution while taking into account the legal concerns.

ISAAC LURIA: I am a social media guy, but I have real humility about what can happen on social media and what can't. 

The deck is stacked against the classical institution that does not understand networked communications. Consider the cocktail party conversations that used to take place in the midst of a scandal. Now those conversations are taking place online, and that spontaneous conversation has gained a lot more power. Nowadays you're less in control than you ever have been of your message. 

So how can a school control its message during a time of crisis? 

ISAAC LURIA: When we have crisis, we have to be careful not to be only defensive in these moments. There is an opportunity to reframe the conversation and do something different with it. The question isn’t really how you control a message but how you facilitate the right kind of conversation. Talking points don’t work in tweets. You've got to find a different way to communicate, and that means being personal — speaking in “I” or “we” statements. 

An institution in crisis is in a tough spot, because our culture and our laws haven't caught up with the reality of the social media environment. The line between public and private life is being erased. We’re in a deeply difficult transition time because we’re used to having a private mode. 

First, listen to the lawyers. Second, think about the networked moment. Having the right staff, having the right training, and having a plan in place will help.

In many institutions, the people responsible for social media are younger staff. But when there’s a crisis, maybe you don't want a 30-year-old with five years’ experience speaking for the institution. What do you do?

 MACKY ALSTON: My recommendation is to have a really coordinated strategy — always, not just in times of crisis. The communications person and the president have to be joined at the hip. 

I’m excited when institutions hire 30-something digital natives. I hope they won’t disempower them in a time of crisis, but will use them to troubleshoot crises and engage strategically with them.

But I don’t think it’s a bad idea for the executive vice president or another upper-level administrator to be able to jump into social media and take charge of the Twitter feed and Facebook page during crisis times. I love the notion of training people at the top layer of the administration. But my biggest fear is that some leaders may feel like they’re versatile in social media already — because they’re communicating with their friends and family through their personal accounts. But that doesn’t make them experts in social media. And when people jump in without strategy, it can be disastrous.

What do you mean by “disastrous”?

MACKY ALSTON: Leaders of institutions can be like the kids who are posting unselfconsciously and then applying for a job. Sometimes they aren’t nearly as careful as they should be. I don't know if it’s ever the wisest choice for the president not to be on social media, but in some cases I prefer that choice to being irresponsible or out of step.

If somebody just grabs the reins of an account and speaks inauthentically without an understanding of what the conversation has been, that worries me. There’s an opportunity for a multi-vocal institutional presence through social media. Each person is going to have a different voice and those voices should be carefully curated.

Preparedness is the key to responsible community stewardship. How do you help a community deal with bad things that happen?

MACKY ALSTON: Institutions live and die based on communication —fundraising, attracting students, and managing crises are all facets of communication. Institutions should be careful not to underinvest in communications, because it’s so central. 

This interview was edited by Regina Raiford Babcock.


Elizabeth Drescher’s insights on crisis communication

In Trust recently interviewed Elizabeth Drescher, author of Tweet If You ♥ Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation (Morehouse, 2011, 190 pp., $20) and co-author (with Keith Anderson) of Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible (Morehouse, 2012, 192 pp., $20). Drescher is adjunct associate professor of religion and pastoral ministry at Santa Clara University.

Some highlights from Drescher’s remarks:

In a networked environment, your focus is not on ‘getting the message out’ but on developing relationships with people. In fact, the relationship itself is the message.

Part of any crisis plan is a communications plan, and that involves identifying who will communicate and what that person will say—even if the message is ‘no one is going to say anything right now, but we will be talking to you shortly.’ Communication matters because we’re in relationship with people, and people want to know. The president can decide, ‘I’m just too busy to be thinking about tweeting,’ but you hope that there’s at least one staff member who is thinking about how to communicate the president’s message in bite-sized tweetable pieces.

During an intense crisis, most institutions are not going to have the communications expertise that they need. But there are really reputable consultants who work on communications. Just as you may bring in an attorney if your situation calls for one, it’s worth having in your Rolodex the names of some people who are used to dealing with social media so that you can get help when you’re in the middle of the crisis.

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