Socially Savvy

September 1, 2015

A tweet here, a blog post there—do you give much thought to your social media presence? This author explains how to devise an effective, comprehensive online strategy.

The following article appears in the September 2015 issue of Training & Conditioning.

By Mike Hopper

Mike Hopper, MS, ATC, is Head Athletic Trainer at Bishop Lynch High School in Dallas. His Twitter handle is @mnhopper1s, he blogs at mnhopper1s.wordpress.com, and he is co-host of the Twitter chat #ATtalk. He can also be reached at: [email protected]

When I first began working as a high school athletic trainer, I was most comfortable behind the scenes. I didn’t expect anyone to notice a successful rehab plan I created or the after-hours calls I made to recently injured athletes. I stayed out of the spotlight and quietly cared for my student-athletes.

That anonymity was rocked, though, when I posted six letters on Twitter: #AT4ALL. I was simply trying to come up with a short phrase that summed up my thoughts on the importance of athletic training coverage. But the hashtag spread like wildfire and put me in the public eye.

Since then, #AT4ALL has been used on social media by sports medicine professionals across the country, as well as leading organizations such as the NATA and the Korey Stringer Institute. During one recent week, for example, the hashtag was featured in approximately 160 tweets.

I’ve received negative feedback on it, as well. Some people feel it is too simple and efforts are better spent in other ways. I was told once that it did very little to advance the profession.

In a nutshell, my #AT4ALL story sums up using social media. It’s a powerful tool that is unpredictable, in good ways and bad.

In today’s world, utilizing it is also somewhat unavoidable. Communicating via social media is the norm, and not doing so puts an athletic trainer a couple of steps behind their peers and patients. So how can you use it effectively, even if you prefer face-to-face communication?

I’ve been blogging, tweeting, and using Facebook actively throughout my career, and I’ve found that the keys are determining your audience, becoming familiar with the different platforms, and embracing short and sweet messages. It’s also critical to understand how a post can go viral—and how your words can wreak havoc when you did not intend them to.

KNOW THY READER

Whether you are just starting to dip your feet into social media or looking to upgrade your presence, the first thing to figure out is your audience. Who do you want to reach with your posts?

If you manage a school account, your audience is fairly straightforward. You will be engaging coaches, student-
athletes, parents, possibly faculty members, and maybe even local media and fans. Find out what type of information these people want or need.

If the account is a directive from school administrators, ask them what their goal is. Do they want you to disseminate general health and safety information or something more specific to the school? Is the primary audience student-athletes, coaches, or parents?

I do not personally use social media to interact with people here at Bishop Lynch High School in Dallas, beyond contributing to our athletic department Twitter account. But others have been successful doing so, and it can be a great way to communicate schedule changes and important events. It can also allow an athletic trainer to quickly disseminate health care information to athletes and parents.

A second potential audience is your peers. Social media has bolstered the growth of professional networks, which can help you advance in the field. It also allows us to learn from each other, share stories, and build relationships even when we are thousands of miles apart. In a profession like athletic training, networking is critical to career development, and social media enables you to interact with peers right from your computer or phone.

I regularly use social media to connect with other athletic trainers and doing so has helped me grow in many ways. Through group chats, I’ve gained insight on specific topics. Through Twitter, I have been made aware of important news items and new research. And by sharing stories and anecdotes across multiple platforms, I have been able to better understand the nuances of our profession.

Connecting with peers on social media also helped me land my current position. In 2014, I was applying for new jobs across the country. For the majority of those positions, I knew someone through social media who was linked to the opening. A peer I have partnered with frequently on Twitter introduced me to a connection who got me an interview for the job I now hold.

Most recently, I’ve been focused on a third audience—those who influence change in high school sports medical care. My passion is expanding athletic training coverage for high school student-athletes nationwide, and I try to spread my message through social media. I aim for a variety of targets, but mostly I hope to connect with parents of athletes and leaders of organizations. I have already partnered with groups like Advocates for Injured Athletes and MomsTeam to push the importance of athletic training coverage.

One audience I try to limit my communication with is my student-athletes, although some follow me on Twitter and read my blog. The prevailing wisdom is that school employees should avoid the slippery slope that “friending” students can lead to. However, I will reference my Twitter account in interactions with them, if I’ve posted something they might be interested in.

On the rare occasions that I do communicate with students through social media, I also tag the school’s official Twitter accounts so everything is out in the open, which offers some protection against claims of impropriety.

If you are interested in engaging with student-athletes on social media, I suggest finding out what the policies are for your particular institution or employer. Some states have even enacted laws restricting private online messaging between students and school personnel.

THE BLOG WORLD

My first big foray into putting my thoughts out on the Internet was blogging. In 2011, I began writing briefly for The Concussion Blog, and I then started my own blog. Shortly thereafter, I was asked to write some posts for the Board of Certification blog.

As blogs have waned in popularity over the past few years, I’ve slowed down my posting frequency. But they are still an effective way to spread a message. The key with this form of communication is to carefully define your audience and topics. For example, Dustin Fink keeps his focus on The Concussion Blog entirely on head injuries, while the Board of Certification has posts that cover the broad spectrum of the athletic training profession. Another example is the AT4AT blog written by graduate students at Indiana State University, which focuses on professional development and advocacy.

When starting a blog, know that it takes persistence to garner any significant traffic. You will need to build followers by providing consistent, high-quality posts. Also, don’t set your expectations too high. Many blogs fail because the authors expect readers to simply show up. It takes time for a blog to catch on because you are typically one of many people out there who are sharing a similar message.

If your audience is a general one, be sure not to write in technical terms. And it’s always a good idea to be entertaining. Few people search the Internet for a dull blog post about a new study. Bloggers must find ways to liven up educational posts so they are appealing to their readers.

One method that has worked well for me is to use numbered lists, which are catchy and easy to read. My “Ten Reasons Your School Needs an Athletic Trainer” post on my personal blog was viewed 28,000 times, and it simply consisted of 10 bullet points.

TIME TO TWEET

When Twitter first came out, I thought that “communicating through 140 characters” was a stupid idea. I did not believe there was any chance it would survive. But the unpredictable nature of social media quickly proved me wrong.

I started my Twitter account in 2012 and now embrace it fully. Originally, I simply attached it to my blog, hoping it would help generate more site views. I began to use Twitter regularly later that year and it took off. I have sent more than 35,000 tweets—and counting—and there are more than 2,000 people following me.

Now, Twitter is where I am the most active and have had the most success advocating for athletic training. The biggest reason is that I can start a conversation that spreads quickly. The platform relays a message to a lot of people rapidly as followers retweet or respond to my initial tweet, and those individuals’ followers begin to see the message. It spirals from there!

The secret to a good tweet is to be as concise as possible while still getting your message across. It must be unique but also logical. The best tweets are thought-provoking or provide new information. I also love asking questions on Twitter—this generates interaction and offers insight into topics, which leads to more engagement. And that results in more followers.

Retweeting, which is simply sharing an already published tweet from someone else with your followers, is also a big part of the game. I retweet all sorts of things. If someone makes a good point for sports safety, I will certainly retweet it. If someone talks about the positive aspects of athletic trainers, that’ll get retweeted.

Another neat aspect of Twitter I have really enjoyed being involved in is TweetChats. These discussions can connect people quickly to create a flowing discussion, which participants can follow through a hashtag.

For example, Kristi Messina, ATC, LAT, Head Athletic Trainer at Rockwall-Heath (Texas) High School, and I host a monthly chat for athletic trainers using the hashtag #ATtalk. (She and I connected via Twitter a few years back and did not actually meet in person until June of 2014.) We will select a topic and present a series of questions related to it. These chats often have 20 to 30 athletic trainers across the country participating.

Some of the topics we choose resonate more than others. The three most popular have been: entry-level master’s degree programs, emergency action plans, and concussions.

I also sometimes direct tweets to our school athletic department account (@blathletics). I offer information or share something about our student-athletes. For example, one post showed some of our athletes in the library taking their neurocognitive test. Another relayed a warning about high temperatures and humidity.

HASHING IT OUT

If you want your tweets to be effective, it is important to understand and include hashtags. They are a great way of developing your personal brand and helping get your message across very quickly.

Hashtags are a means for connecting thoughts and people through simple abbreviations or phrases. They are used mostly on Twitter, although they can work across other platforms.

On Twitter, for example, a user can search using a specific hashtag, and they will find a significant amount of posts related to the topic. People sometimes start their own informal discussions by connecting through a specific hashtag, much like Kristi and I do with our TweetChats.

Hashtags are also often used to disseminate information from a meeting. Many conferences today are developing their own hashtag and suggesting that people use it when posting information from their sessions. For example, this year’s NATA Clinical Symposia and AT Expo used #NATA2015, which allowed athletic trainers to easily find posts about the event.

BEFORE YOU POST

There is a common warning about social media coaches offer their athletes along the lines of, “Don’t let 140 characters ruin a $140,000 scholarship.” I believe that this advice is applicable to athletic training professionals as well. At all times, it’s important to be careful about what you post.

We have to be especially cautious regarding what we say related to athletes. Posting pictures of injuries can be informative, but patient privacy takes precedence.

If you want to post on athlete injuries, use discretion. I tweeted about an injury one of my athletes suffered last year for several months, yet she never knew because I did not offer any identifying information. She even said to me one day, “None of your tweets are about me.” I laughed and was pleased to know I was doing a good job of generalizing the information in a sufficient manner.

Bad-mouthing your employer is also not a good idea. I think this should go without saying, but it is amazing to see people continue to do it.

One more suggestion is to consider carefully what kind of image you want to portray on social media. I like for my posts to have a personal touch. But since some of my student-athletes and their parents read them, I am careful to avoid anything that might be viewed as inappropriate or controversial. So, while I may become passionate about sports medicine coverage, I very seldom venture into topics such as politics, racism, war, religion, and the like.

I also try to avoid heated arguments. I am not afraid to write the occasional controversial post, if I can do it in such a way that is going to promote critical thinking and respectful conversation. Controversy is not a bad thing in and of itself and, in fact, is a great way to build a following on social media. But venomous argument is not okay. When polite debate turns into personal attacks, it’s gone too far and will end up hurting your cause.

If I were interested in discussing more contentious subjects, I would consider voicing them only on a very private Facebook account that my students did not have access to—and even that might be risky. We all should know by now that nothing on social media can be truly hidden. Even when you use privacy settings, there’s no way to guarantee a post will remain behind a wall. To stay on the safe side, some topics are best left untouched when you work in a school setting.

Sometimes an employer will request that you add a line to your site saying, “These are my views and not the views of my employer.” Whether you are asked to do this or not, understand that you are always somewhat connected to your school or employer in anything you post.

I include this disclaimer on my blog but more importantly, I am aware of my position as a school employee when I am on social media. Before I post anything, I consider if a reader might be offended for any reason. If the answer is “maybe,” I take a step back. Do I need to be more gentle? Should I not post it at all? Do I want to get someone else’s opinion before going forward? Even though my blog and Twitter account are my own, I want to be seen as a positive ambassador for my school.

FUTURE FORAYS

One of the most difficult aspects of social media is deciding what platforms to focus efforts on. For me, it’s been blogs and Twitter, but there are many options. You have to figure out what will work best for your message and audience.

For example, while I do have a LinkedIn profile, I have not personally found it an effective way to connect with others. However, I know many colleagues who have used it to foster professional relationships. Instagram and SnapChat are also wildly popular, but since these are geared more for teens, they don’t reach the audience I am most interested in. I’m keeping Periscope (a live-streaming video platform for Twitter) on my radar, although I haven’t used it yet.

Social media is a never-ending, current events adventure that is growing every day. I love the way it helps me connect with others and impact the growth of our profession, and I’m excited for what it may bring in the future.

 

Sidebar: GOING VIRAL

People often ask me about the #AT4ALL hashtag I created. I am fortunate that some big names in athletic training, sports safety, and sports medicine have used it and praised me for it. So I get a lot of questions about how it came to be.

When I first started blogging, I coined the phrase “Every Athlete Deserves an Athletic Trainer.” Once I began tweeting, I wanted to use that phrase, but was struggling with how to fit it in the 140-character limit.

I sat down and thought about it for a while. I don’t know exactly how I came up with those six characters, but I somehow did. And they seemed perfect for encapsulating the message I wanted to send.

The hashtag #AT4ALL has since defined my social media platform, and it has helped spread the word about the importance of placing athletic trainers in every high school in America. Many organizations have picked up on it and use it as an avenue for advocacy every day.

Most recently, I have been using the hashtag more at the grassroots level to campaign for an additional athletic trainer here at Bishop Lynch High School in Dallas. To my motto of “Every Athlete Deserves an Athletic Trainer,” I added “Every Friar Athlete Has One.” We were fortunate enough to improve on that by hiring a part-time assistant athletic trainer for the 2014-15 school year, who has now become full-time for 2015-16.

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