Q&A with Philip Jones, social media community leader for UNC-Chapel Hill

Philip Jones is social media community leader at UNC-Chapel Hill, his alma mater. He previously held a similar position at Elon University. Jones has worked as an anchor and reporter for North Carolina TV stations WFMY and WNCT. He started his career in print journalism. In this interview, conducted by email, Jones talks about his position at UNC and how the university uses social media. 

Q. Describe your job. What is your typical workday like?

A. I’m part of a team of three folks who manage UNC’s main social media presence on platforms such as Twitter (@UNC), Facebook (/uncchapelhill), Instagram (@uncchapelhill) and Snapchat (unc-chapelhill). We each have different strengths and backgrounds, which ideally makes for fun, diverse and creative content for our users.

Every workday is a little different. We rotate which platforms we’re covering each day so that the content and experience don’t become stale for us or for the audience.

There’s a fair amount of time spent at my desk doing customer service (i.e. fielding questions we receive about UNC via social or participating in conversations about Carolina), there’s a bit of time spent looking for content about or related to UNC, there’s time spent with other members of the Office of Communications and Public Affairs going over what they’re working on and how we can amplify it through social media, and of course there’s time spent walking around campus or attending events looking for great photos, videos and posts.

We also do a lot of listening. We monitor conversations and news reports about Carolina, and we love jumping in and engaging with people who seek us out. We can’t respond to every tweet or post, but we do see and take note of all the ones directed our way.

Q. You held a similar job at Elon University. From a social media perspective, how is a big public university like UNC different from a smaller, private school like Elon?

A. The basics are the same: Our goal is to have fun and find ways to resonate with students, parents, alumni, faculty, staff, prospective students, the local community and the public at large.

There are big differences, though, in the sizes of the followings, the scope of the issues facing each university and how much conversation there is about the institutions. If I screw up something now, more people are likely to notice!

But it’s important that Carolina takes ownership of telling its story and making sure people understand what’s remarkable about this place. It’s exciting to share in doing that through social media.

My hope at UNC is the same as what it was at Elon – to inform and entertain our users. If someone learns something, feels some nostalgia, cracks a smile or takes a little more pride in their institution because of what we’ve done that day on social media, I’m happy. It is a bit more personal for me now, though, as Carolina is a place I’ve loved since I was a child.

Q. On occasion, universities have to respond to bad news via social media. What is UNC’s approach on events such as the release of the Wainstein report or the fatal shooting of three students off campus?

A. On those occasions, we aim to use social media as a way to complement and amplify the university’s traditional messaging. However, I do believe social media has inspired institutions to organize and publish that messaging more quickly than in the past.

We know an hours-later press release isn’t sufficient these days. So when there’s significant news, our team immediately begins thinking of ways we can share information quickly and even differently – perhaps through photos, videos or graphics.

Social media also gives us an opportunity to humanize the university during exciting or challenging events. There’s a person behind each of our posts, tweets and pics – and we’re likely experiencing the same feelings and emotions our community is. When appropriate, social media allows us to convey that and make clear that what we’re doing isn’t branding, but is instead relating.

Q. Before getting into social media professionally, you worked in television and, before that, for newspapers and magazines. How were you able to make those transitions?

A. What a long, strange trip it’s been! At my core, I *love* words. That’s what has enabled and fueled me as I embarked on each new adventure.

I love telling stories, and I’ve been blessed to tell them in a bunch of different ways. The biggest transition was leaving TV and moving to social media full-time. But social media had become such a central part of my reporting process that it felt like a natural move.

I used social media to find sources and story ideas on a routine basis – it wasn’t just about attempting to showcase my work and churn out links to the masses. How I used my social media accounts became a “digital resume” I was able to use to help earn the job at Elon and show that I was capable of representing it well online.

Q. Many journalism students are interested in careers in social media. What advice do you have for them?

A. The biggest point I always make is to keep the “social” in social media. Whether you’re representing yourself or an organization, you have to interact. You have to be genuine. And you have to be an active part of the online community.

Know that you’re going to screw up, and don’t be afraid of a flop. Typos happen. Sometimes you don’t do a good job of reading the room. Every once in a while, your community won’t have any interest in that post you thought would go viral. Even the best-ever hitters in baseball only got it right about 40 percent of the time!

So do your best on every effort but know that sometimes it just ain’t gonna work. And that’s OK. Social media is an inexact science. It didn’t even exist in its current form when I graduated from Carolina in 2006, so you’re going to have to work hard to stay ahead of the curve.

I also believe that if you’re going to be a great producer, you have to be a great consumer. That goes for journalism and social media. Read a lot. Consume a lot. Experiment. And have fun.

Follow Philip Jones on Twitter and connect with him on LinkedIn.

Student guest post: Swipe left for news

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guests posts for this blog this semester. This is the third of those posts. Juanita Chavarro Arias is a junior majoring in journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill with a minor in composition, rhetoric and digital literacy. She enjoys keeping up with entertainment news and is a self-proclaimed TV junkie.

In an age where we want everything now and in one place, media companies are looking for ways to get their content more easily in the palm of our hands. We can open our smartphone’s Twitter app and find out what’s going on in the world before we even get out of bed in the morning.

Increasing technology developments have forever changed the standards for reporting news. Consumers no longer rely on traditional media outlets for news and stories. Facebook posts, tweets and Instagram photos can provide information more efficiently and easily to anyone who scrolls through a feed and doesn’t want to follow a link.

Social media may seem daunting or unnecessary for a news organization to use. But they are essential tools for promoting content, gaining traffic and communicating with readers, viewers and listeners.

The Wrap reported last week that NowThis News, a video news source, recently decided to operate exclusively on social media and shut down its website. NowThisNews.com displays a message saying, “Homepage. Even the word sounds old. Today the news lives where you live.”

The media industry has experienced the decline of print news, the transition to the Internet and the incorporation of social media, but how long will it be before even websites become obsolete? Apps and social media are on the rise, so if NTN’s move away from its website is an indication, it could be a possibility in the future.

Last week, the popular messaging app Snapchat unveiled Discover, a new service which allows users to look through stories made up of text, video and pictures. The stories are only available on the app for 24 hours before Discover refreshes and releases new ones. Discover launched as a collaboration with CNN, Comedy Central, Cosmopolitan, Daily Mail, ESPN, Food Network, National Geographic, People, Vice, Yahoo! News and Warner Music Group.

Snapchat’s Discover works from the social media ideal that content should be gathered in one place so consumers don’t have to click around or switch from app to app to find what they want. Through the app, people can communicate with friends and swipe to the left to get their fill of news such as a feature on a potty-trained sloth to a story about RadioShack’s bankruptcy.

“How do we edit for Snapchat?” is probably a question the news media weren’t expecting to ask themselves. However, editing on this platform is just as important as editing for print and online media as short, concise stories are what audiences want.

Most of the time, readers spend seconds on a story before clicking or swiping away, so editors have the difficult task of creating attention-grabbing, short and accurate headlines to pull in readers. Writers and editors are adjusting their skills and story formats to fit technological constraints and the short attention spans of consumers who have grown accustomed to getting everything in 140-character tweets.

It may be difficult to adjust to changing consumer habits and media platforms, but it’s worth working through. News outlets should embrace the technology that becomes available to them because each new app or social media network provides an additional opportunity to share content and attract a greater audience.

This wasn’t the “Star Wars” trailer I was looking for

Editors care deeply about accuracy. Sites such as Emergent, Politifact and Snopes are helpful resources to make sure we get things right before publishing, posting and sharing.

In my editing courses, fact-checking and verification are important elements. And I always take care to be sure something is real before sharing it on social media.

Well, almost always. Earlier, this week, my fandom for “Star Wars” eclipsed my usual caution. I saw a link on Twitter to what was purported to be the trailer for the new movie in the series. After a quick look at the preview, I retweeted the link and posted it to Facebook with the message “stay on target.”

Several friends and my cousin pointed out within minutes that the trailer was made by fans and not the real preview of the movie. I edited my status update on Facebook and sent a followup tweet.

How did I fall for a fake and share it? Here are some possible explanations:

  • The person who tweeted the link is an editor with many years of experience. I trusted him and still do, but even reliable sources make mistakes.
  • I knew the official trailer was set to be released on Nov. 28, so a leaked version appearing on YouTube a couple of days beforehand seemed plausible.
  • The fan-generated trailer is pretty convincing. It even fooled Rolling Stone magazine.
  • I didn’t read the comments on the YouTube post that would have tipped me off. But I tend to ignore reader comments, especially on that site.
  • I am a big fan of the original “Star Wars” trilogy, and my excitement about a new movie let my defenses down. It was a trap.

I regret the error, and I apologize for sharing bad information. I will double my efforts.

Q&A with Brian Long of the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs

Brian Long is director public affairs North Carolina’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. In that role, he oversees the department’s communication efforts, including the N.C. State Fair. He is a 1988 graduate of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill. In this interview, conducted by email, Long talks about his job and what to expect at this year’s fair.

Q. Describe your job. What is your typical day like?

A. Unpredictable. It doesn’t matter what I’m planning to get done on any given day, there’s always the possibility that I’ll end up spending my day working on something entirely different.

The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has a lot of service and regulatory responsibilities, so there’s always a possibility of some issue popping up. The unpredictability keeps my job from being boring, but some days can definitely be a challenge.

I usually start my day reviewing news stories related to agriculture or other topics the department has some connection to. I spend a good chunk of time editing news releases, speeches and blog posts written by the other members of the Public Affairs staff. I also do a bit of writing myself, though not as much as I would like because I find myself pulled into a good number of meetings.

Q. It’s almost time for the State Fair. How does your job change in the weeks leading up to this event? In the aftermath?

A. We begin working on the State Fair in the winter, developing a theme and working with the fair’s ad agency on a media plan and creative concepts. We do some publicity during the summer — announcing the theme, updating the website and publicizing the concert lineup and advance ticket sales, which usually start in early August.

We get more focused on the fair in September, planning what I call “events within the event.” Our staff is responsible for organizing a pre-fair media lunch, a press conference focused on safety, an opening ceremony and the annual State Fair Livestock Hall of Fame induction. We move our office from downtown to the fairgrounds a week before the fair opens.

Once the fair opens, our duties involve responding to media requests and helping reporters with story ideas, publicizing winners of livestock and cooking contests and taking photos of the fair. After the fair, we typically deal with any follow-up media requests regarding attendance and our overall impression of the fair, and we announce any remaining livestock show results.

And before we know it, we’re getting ready for the next year. I also should mention that even though we’re absorbed by the fair, we still have responsibilities for assisting the rest of the agriculture department with any communications needs.

Q. Each year, the fair has a theme. This year it’s “the October Original.” How do those themes come about?

A. Caffeine and sugar usually play a role in our theme development. We get together and brainstorm ideas based on the fair’s characteristics.

We strive for themes that create a certain mood or feel. For this year’s theme, we wanted to play up the fact that the fair is a unique North Carolina experience.

Q. Unfortunately, the fair is not just fun, food and games. Last year, an accident on a ride injured several people. This year, a concealed-carry group said it wants to bring guns to the fair, bringing a political debate to the event. How does your office handle these situations?

A. We believe in transparency and accuracy.

When the ride accident happened last year, we immediately began gathering as many known facts as possible so that we could hold a news briefing and put out a news release. The initial focus was on what happened, because we didn’t know when the investigation would determine why it happened. By providing accurate information as quickly as possible, we hope to guard against speculation and rumors.

When situations like this occur, the relationships we’ve built with news media over time are invaluable. We have a track record of being accessible and helpful to the media, and there is a mutual respect for our respective jobs.

Q. Social media must play a role in the fair nowadays. Any advice for those of us visiting on how and what to tweet and post to Instagram this year?

A. Because of the popularity of selfies, we are rebranding our photo-op spots as “selfie stations” this year. We also encourage visitors to post about their favorite things at the fair, whether it’s the food, the exhibits, the rides, the animals or the entertainment. Use #ncstatefair or #octoberoriginal (this year’s theme).

A show of hands in Hong Kong

Pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong are front-page news around the world this week. This helpful primer on the BBC provides background on the reasons for the protests.

Tens of thousands of people took to the city’s streets and refused to budge. The demonstrations are reminiscent of the Occupy movement in the United States and elsewhere in recent years. There’s an #OccupyCentral hashtag on Twitter.

Some protesters have also held up their hands in a “don’t shoot” gesture. That has led some U.S. journalists to compare the Hong Kong movement to the demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri. Some have drawn a direct connection, as seen here:

handsup

I wonder whether such a link exists. Are people in Hong Kong aware of what has happened in Missouri? Are they using the “hands up” gesture in solidarity with protesters in the United States? Or is it coincidence?

Via email, I contacted three people I know who live in Hong Kong. Here are their impressions on this topic:

  • “Was wondering myself. Seems like a natural defense gesture to me. That story [Ferguson] isn’t as big in HK as in the US. Race relations and sensitivity are rarely debated, so that story wasn’t as prominent in local media.” — Eldes Tran, copy editor at the International New York Times
  • “That’s the word on the street, but I can’t say for sure. It would be a good story if so, but hard to prove the origin. There was also talk of police threatening to use rubber bullets Sunday, so it’s possible it was a coordinated show of peacefulness.” — Emily Matchar, author and freelance writer
  • “I don’t think there was any conscious move to link events here with Ferguson. Certainly no one I’ve spoken with here believes the issues at stake are in any way similar, except for the fact that police overreacted to demonstrators. It’s also worth noting here that the police force here is overwhelmingly Chinese and still viewed with some respect. While they overreacted, they’re not like the cops in Ferguson.” — Jeffrey Timmermans, lecturer at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong

I know that these are the views of a few. It’s possible that there is a Ferguson connection, but at best, it’s unclear. We simply don’t know, and it’s OK to report that uncertainty. But drawing concrete conclusions in news stories and tweets is irresponsible.

In the end, a firm connection between Ferguson and Hong Kong (or lack thereof) doesn’t matter that much. Each story is important in its own way, with its unique issues. I hope that journalists will continue to cover them both closely — and accurately.

Edit like a pirate

College football is in full swing, and with it, so are the rivalries and trash talk.

Here in North Carolina, East Carolina is emerging as the best team in the state. ECU smashed rival North Carolina 70-41 last weekend. It was the second consecutive win for the Pirates over the Tar Heels.

That resounding victory has apparently inspired this billboard, which is making the rounds on Twitter:

ecu-billboard

The sign includes the score of that game as well as a mocking reference to N.C. State University’s retired “Our State” slogan. ECU and NCSU are also rivals.

Some UNC fans have responded by questioning the billboard’s grammar. Shouldn’t the hashtag be “#beneathwhom” rather than “#beneathwho”? Technically, yes. But I reserve my who/whom distinctions for formal writing like cover letters and academic journals. I’ll give this casual usage a pass, though the hashtag’s meaning is a mystery to me.

My problem with the billboard is a different one. Happy pirates say “arrrr!” not “aargh!” And ECU fans are certainly pleased, not dismayed, with how their team is playing this season. (You can read more about pirate vocabulary at the Talk Like A Pirate Day site.)

Finally, we come to the question of whether ECU fans are trolling their rivals, as some on Twitter are suggesting. That depends on the billboard’s location. If it’s west of I-95, it is. If it’s east of I-95, it isn’t. Proximity to campuses and their fan bases is our guide.

The sign is apparently in Winterville, a town that’s east of I-95 and less than 10 miles from the ECU campus in Greenville. So this is an example of fans celebrating, not trolling.

I wish ECU fans well on the rest of the season. May you say “arrrr!” throughout the fall. But like Jerry Seinfeld, I don’t want to be a pirate.

No time for trolls

troll
A troll can be annoying in role-playing games and on social media.

Twitter can be great for exchanging ideas and sharing links. It’s my favorite news source, a sort of wire service that I can customize and interact with.

It has its downsides, too. A big one is the problem of trolls — people who seek to harass, badger and engage in straw-man arguments. They’ve been an issue online for a long time, including in comment areas on news websites.

I’ve fallen into trolling traps on Twitter a few times over the years. Lately, I’ve been working on ignoring and, in some cases, blocking trolls. Here’s how I decide whether to respond to someone on Twitter:

  • How many followers does the person have? Less than 100 means it may be a troll.
  • Does the account have a profile photo and a link to more about the person elsewhere online? An egg avatar and lack of a link mean it may be a troll.
  • What is the name on the account? Is there a first and last name, or name of an organization? If not, it may be a troll.
  • What are the account’s other tweets like? If they are mostly replies to other accounts that take a hostile tone, it may be a troll.

I like chatting with people on Twitter. I’m open to constructive criticism and civil discussion. But I have no time for trolls.