Why Harvard Medical School's dean thinks Twitter is a (risky) bet worth taking

Tweeting 'isn't a strategy of risk minimization for sure,' he says

How does the dean of Harvard Medical School (HMS) use Twitter? Cautiously, and with an eye to building connections, promoting thoughtful discussion, and learning from others, dean Jeffrey Flier writes in the Wall Street Journal.

New role, new challenges

When Flier became dean of HMS eight years ago, he immediately faced a new challenge that confronts many leaders: How should he balance his love of "vigorous debate on important subjects" with the need to serve the interests of HMS and not potentially stir up too much trouble?

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The 'delicate balancing act'

Flier says he has "sought to respond to this paradox in three ways."

First, he strives to be an authentic communicator. Flier "always [tries] to interject into official communications as many of my own ideas and views as possible" to give readers a sense of who is he is. Communicating in such a way is a "delicate balancing act," he says, that requires "forethought, sensitivity, and excellent advice from colleagues."

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Second, Flier makes it a priority to write pieces for outside publications that can influence broader debates in the field. Generally the more controversial his positions are, the more likely they "will cause some in the community to object that the dean has spoken out at all," he notes. But to not speak publicly, only exerting influence "behind the scenes," would be a wasted opportunity and a loss of his free expression, Flier says.

Making it work on Twitter

And third, Flier writes his own tweets—from the handle @jflier—which he acknoweldges "isn't a strategy of risk minimization for sure!"

Using Twitter brings both risks and rewards, Flier notes. On one hand, he writes, Twitter is a "valuable and enjoyable release for my desire to express ideas ... to a rapidly growing and interesting audience." But it also means he exposes himself to the "Wild West of social media."

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"You have no control over who your followers will be, what they will think of your tweets and links, or what they will say about them or to whom they will say it," he cautions. While his Twitter bio identifies his title, Flier qualifies that tweets are his own. And although most people understand the distinction, Flier says there is always potential for controversy.  

So, given the risks, why is Twitter worth it at all? Flier says Twitter helps him connect with and learn from interesting people he wouldn't otherwise be exposed to, including medical educators, economists, aspiring medical students, and policy wonks.

Flier also just enjoys it. "In a job where too many meetings intersect with often intractable problems, this isn't to be underestimated," he writes. By tolerating the risks—while still being mindful—Flier says he has made Twitter a "valuable part of [his] intellectual life."

"It makes every day an adventure" (Flier, "The Experts," Wall Street Journal, 9/29).

Thoughts on the story? Tweet us at @eab_daily and let us know.

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