Can You Balance Competing Personas in Social Media?

James Nolan President, Southwestern College

Posted on November 27th 2012

Can You Balance Competing Personas in Social Media?

The world of Social Media has effectively adopted a sensibility that calls for authenticity, transparency, and real-ness from all businesses, organizations, entrepreneurs, and institutions of higher education.

ImageI made a potentially risky decision to take that world at its word. I decided to be real, which is my preferred mode anyway. I had to think about the notion of “acting presidential," (I'm the president of a college) and I had to decide how “being real” was inconsistent with “acting presidential.”

What would it mean to be “presidential”, anyway?  Well, I know a lot of presidents at this point, and they are pretty regular people. Of course, we might crank it up a rhetorical notch for a graduation speech, but we all love our dog, follow some sports team or another, love a specific kind of music, are inspired by some literature more than others, and go on vacation to cool places and take pictures. Pretty much everything YOU do.

But do presidents have to be more careful? I have had a couple of professional colleagues make an effort to nudge/shame me about being real, under the auspices of “bringing a more professional presence” to Social Media.

I will say that I was not 100% certain this was the way to go. Nor am I now. But I will tell you that, anecdotally, I hear from visiting prospects and new students that they follow my blogs, watch my You Tube videos (yes, even the ones where I play guitar), and appreciate my presence and open-ness. We have a new student from Ethiopia who saw my graduation/inauguration speech and loved it, but thought I was a comedian. No, seriously. Until she saw the URL for Southwestern College, looked us up, and, well, the rest is herstory.

I think it’s “working.” Could this backfire? I guess so. I also think that if you are looking, metaphorically and literally, for Florsheims rather than cowboy boots or Birkenstocks, you might be in the wrong neighborhood anyway.

I am pretty clear (if often tongue-in-cheek) about my personality on my Facebook site. I rail against the Cowboys and Patriots. I love the You Tube of Steely Dan doing “Aja” live, and Fleetwood Mac doing “Oh, Well” with Peter Green on guitar, WAY before Stevie Nicks and company showed up. I post those two vids twice a year because the world should see them. I post pictures of my dog, Barney, and updates on his health and (now) old age. I love Jack Kerouac and Shakespeare. Especially the tragedies.

None of that is “Southwestern College business,” but it is authentically me, and I am also concurrently posting blogs on student loans and our philosophical roots, writing for Huffington Post, Social Media Today, and so on. I drop an occasional “freaking” or “goddang.” My brothers may drop worse in responding to my posts. So it goes.

Our college is alternative, open-minded, and more important yet, open-hearted, and people who seek us are not looking for stuffy.

Leaders of institutions of higher education should know their customer base. If they do, they will know what is OK for their institution in the world of Social Media. Your particular version of authentic might be the place to start being part of this grand revolution.


James Nolan

President, Southwestern College

Jim Nolan is the President of Southwestern College, a consciousness-centered graduate institute offering master's degrees in counseling and art therapy. He earned his Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from Ohio State University.

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Hi James,  great post - I think you're approach in the position you're in is a great example for others and seems to be a successful way to connect with your students.  I was just having a similar type of conversation with a friend who has 2 separate twitter accounts for no other reason than to separate the informational content - work and personal interests.  My feedback to her was simply that combining the two accounts IS a good idea since to the outside world it's a better and more interesting, well rounded representation of the person she is - no one thinks about one topic (healthcare) all day everyday - if they did they would be very boring.  One thing I will add to the conversation is simply this - If you're putting content you don't want people to find or link to you on the internet in the first place, it's never going to happen - people will find it.  There is a certain etiquette, just like you wouldn't curse in public or act ridiculous for no reason, as long as you are mindful and represent yourself in a respectable manner on the internet - there is no outstanding reason why you should need people to find you as two different personalities.

Thanks for the supportive note, Evona...Sounds like a lot of us are navigating these waters, and it seems useful to talk about it, compare notes, give tips and the like. I especially find "academic types" very conservative, as I do Europeans (my in-laws are all in Germany.) It is a brave new world, and we are all making our way as we go, and it is nice to have like-minded people to journey with...Thanks again....


Hi James. Great article. I think you have the right idea about knowing who your audience is and letting that guide your expressions. I spoke about this subject at a recent social media strategies conference in London and was more or less agreeing with your thinking. I think that knowing yourself just as much as knowing your audience is a good way to know how "real" you can/should be in social. I often say that being social does not negate the possibility of or the responsibility to being professional. "Real" isn't unprofessional. It's not boring, bland, and sterile which I think a lot of more traditional people believe professional should be. You're obviously not swearing and cursing and being blatantly irreverent or irresponsible and I assume that's because that's not your general personality. Even when speaking as yourself or speaking in an official capacity as the president of your university, your personality may override the persona of the school. This is an inveitability and I think that the balance comes from knowing how responsible to be in either case and melding the two in a way that is professional but also social because let's face it, universities don't speak, people do...

Thanks for the supportive note, Rhonda...Sounds like you and I have come to a similar position on this matter, and have decided that being Rhonda and Jim is a good thing. I love hearing from others on these topics, because frankly, not many people I know are talking about them...Thanks so much once again....


It's refreshing to see someone approach this from an authentic place -- at some time or another, those of us who evangelize about "openness" and "being real" through social are pressured by others to "tone it down" or "be more professional."  I'm glad to see that you've stuck to your guns, so to speak.

But what does it really mean to have high-ranking execs being "real" in the social world?  I think it gives insight into company culture that might not exist otherwise -- to me, as a Millenial, it is a promising thing to see that a company or organization allows (or better yet, encourages) its employees to be themselves.  As a prospective student/customer/new hire, it tells me that I'm going to be part of a culture of openness and accountability.  And for me, that's a great thing.

Thanks for the post!