The “Institutional Voice”?

Last week in class we discussed the merits of a museum’s social media accounts having an “institutional voice” and whether or not that was necessary. On the one hand, museums are considered credible places of knowledge, that should speak with authority. I think that many people would consider an authoritative voice to be formal and academic. But when it comes to social media, there is little that is formal or academic. So the question arises – what voice will your social media presence have?

With the majority of social media users being of a younger generation, I think the best choice would be a move away from a formal voice. I do not believe, however, that moving way from a formal voice will move away from authority. Social media is merely one form of communication between the museum and the outside world. There are many other forms of communication coming from within the museum walls that will present the authoritative voice – publications, exhibition catalogs, and blog posts for example. I think if the museum is considering audience, a relatable voice is ideal.

Having a relatable voice does not mean that the institutions social media feeds will turn into never ending streams of memes and pop culture references. The content that is shared will still demonstrate the expertise of the museum, it is just the delivery of said information that is different. In class we ranked different museums social media posts on different scales relating tone. Tone is part of what effects the voice of any type of communication. The level of humor, the level of authority, are all things that effect how a message is received. As we were completing this exercise, a couple question came to mind.

The first being, who decides what the institutional voice will sound like? As mentioned above, there are many different forms of communication that come from a museum – much of which comes from the communication, marketing, or public relation department. That team of people will decide what all formal communication to the public sounds like. But it has been my experience that in the fundraising department, they format the copy of the acknowledgement letters, either with the help of a consulting company or on their own. And, as a social media manager is becoming a more common position, that is one person who has total control over social media accounts, crafting the voice. Say you are a museum visitor that reads a press release, receives an acknowledgement letter after a donation, and follows the museum on Twitter. They are being exposed to three different voices – is it possible to create a cohesive  voice?

The second question, relating specifically to the social media manager, what happens to that voice when the social media manager leaves? If it is just one individual, their personal voice probably seeps through more than they think. And they have a huge hand in crafting the museums online presence (it is their job after all). Take Emily Graslie at the Field Museum for example. As the “Chief Curiosity Correspondent” she runs their blog/video portion of their site – The Brain Scoop. I understand that she already had some parts of this personal brand created before she was hired by the Field Museum, but now it has become integral to the museum’s online presence. What will happen to The Brain Scoop as her career progresses? Should museums consider training multiple social media staff members? Should they lean away from a distinct voice that might have an expiration date?

I am beginning to think that blogging is just shouting questions into the abyss that is the internet.

Week 7


10 thoughts on “The “Institutional Voice”?

  1. An inherent assumption of your post is that a single voice is a given. Our approach here at PEM has been to try to raise the profile of the individuals who comprise the staff. Rather than striving to make everyone adhere to an institutional voice (or default to only having trained PR ppl pump out SM), we are working with staff to find their own voices and use those on social media. Particularly with our curators, each of whom has a constellation of people who are interested in their area of expertise, we think it makes more sense to cultivate them to do it for themselves and build their communities, rather than try to do it all from a diffuse, centralized (and therefore weaker) institutional voice.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it is a great idea for museums to bring individual curators voices into the mix, especially because of their expertise. I think that is the appeal of #AskACurator and #AskAnArchivist on Twitter, the general public doesn’t necessarily get to hear those voices when visiting a museum (that they are aware of – of course they are always present in exhibit scripts, etc). Its great that your institution is open to this type of training, I can see roadblocks occurring if there are members of your team that don’t see the value in developing a social media presence.


  2. I think another angle is to think not about voice but about listening. Museum Victoria runs three museums, each of which has a channel that’s visitor-y with promotion, updates, offers etc. and a corporate one which is more collection/research. The museum channels are very responsive, friendly, approachable and are certainly not about authority or even very museum-y – in tone they’re closer to a cinema, IMO. The corporate one is conversational and authoritative. Each has developed different communities, listens differently and then has evolved differently. More powerful is, as Ed suggests above, the personal accounts of key staff members who have their own intersecting communicates of interest. Which includes digital, exhibition and social inclusion ed specialists, not just curators. Our social media policy rules on personal accounts (tldr: be nice, be legal, don’t slate employer) and the interesections are loose.


    1. In our classes this semester with Professor Cairns we have discussed different strategies when it comes to social media content. At first, I thought it was redundant for an institution to share the exact same post across Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, because when I follow all those platforms I am seeing the same thing. But, when I started to think about a visitor that might only follow one of those accounts, doesn’t miss any information. Switching the focus onto the audience is something that is clearly important when creating social media strategy.


      1. Challenge is that ‘focus on aud’ leaves open the question of to what end? To promote visitation (our needs for numbers/$) ? To deliver mission such as education (our needs re mission, implied audience needs) ? Both can be done without being especially audience focused but will always be better for considering audience needs first.


  3. I love the idea of ditching the institutional voice to sound more conversational. If social media is a two way communication device it is important to make that communication personal. Does that mean that platform differentiation is necessary?

    Your abyss is answering back. It is glorious.


    1. My worry about making the voice more conversational (as described in a comment above) – is what if there is no buy-in? Maintaining a social media account, as we are learning, takes a lot of time and energy, and I could see push back from those with much on their plate already. Its a process!


  4. Kia ora Kristin

    A fascinating set of questions! I’m a museum director in Aotearoa New Zealand – I run both a small social history museum (the Petone Settlers Museum) and a mid-sized contemporary art gallery (The Dowse Art Museum). It’s sometimes hard to communicate the difference of scale from here to America, but I guess you could say that we are like the Walker to MOMA, perhaps.

    I’m probably a bit unusual in that although we have comms staff, by dint of circumstance and habit, I manage our social media accounts. Earlier in my career I was there as social media became a thing in the GLAMs (so, from around 2006) and it’s become habitual to me to think about voice communicated in all different modes and situations; from a speech at an opening to responding to a complaint to interviewing someone for a job. In the institution, as with the individual, sometimes more formality (and clarity) is warranted, and sometimes you can be more playful – and perhaps less worried about your message being explicable to the largest number of people.

    To directly address one of your points – about 8 years ago a colleague and I set up the National Library of New Zealand’s Twitter account. We both moved on, and the account has passed through a few sets of hands, but the kaupapa (guiding principles) remain the same – trying to bring a bit of entertainment into people’s Twitter streams around morning tea and afternoon tea time on working days with a playful introduction to an online collection item. It is somewhat mortifying to me that the #tbreaktweets hashtag has been in operation for 8 years now.

    On this general topic, I read an interesting article this week (quite possibly via Suse Cairns on Twitter) from a social media manager at the Bodleian Library. While I think his use of the word “stupid” is – well, stupid – I tautoko (support) his point about even the most venerable institution being able to let it all hang out occasionally. After all, institutions are made up of people, who want to connect to other people.

    Nga mihi, and best of luck with your studies.



  5. It would be fun at our 5 museums in Bristol to ask visitors what voice they feel we do have! All of our material is produced by different people so I see the social media being the same – labels, marketing, add, cafe menu humour etc are the work of over 100 different folk. If anything I’d say our team culture defines our voice. I’d love to have an editor like news does sometimes but it isn’t a worry we sound V different online.


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