Navigating the Ethics of Telling Student Stories

Using their stories without making them feel used

June 29, 2021  

As brand storytellers, we recognize the importance of telling a diverse range of stories from different people within our organizations. However, as you craft this type of content, it’s crucial to consider more than your content strategy. Without conscious effort, what starts out with good intentions can end up leaving a not-so-positive impression.

You might be familiar with the term tokenism: it generally refers to making only a minimal or symbolic effort, especially with regard to representation. Within higher ed communications, it’s all too easy to inadvertently tokenize students, using their lived experiences to simply reach a marketing goal. The primary problem with this is that it can cause harm to the people you intended to celebrate. A secondary effect is that it can degrade trust between your students and your institution, and affect how prospects, donors, and others perceive your brand.

To support you and your teams in building meaningful connections with students, here are some recommendations you can use to think critically about how you share their stories.

1. Know what you’re hoping to gain from their perspective.

Before you approach an individual and ask them to share their story, ask yourself a couple of questions: “By talking to this person, what do I hope to achieve for my content strategy? And what will I do if I don’t like what they have to say?”

When you interview people, using broad, open-ended questions is a tried and true method for soliciting strong and honest responses. But it can also lead to you hearing about experiences that may not fit into your content plans. Be clear with students about what your intent is, and explain why you’re asking them to share their story. This gives them the opportunity to decline if they don’t think what they have to say fits the topic. It will also save you from using their quotes out of context, or misrepresenting their experience as you work to meet your content goals.

2. Consider whether you’re trying to “check a box,” and whether you can support the message with institutional action.

When you’re in the weeds of creating and planning your content, it’s easy to slip into being performative — that is, taking an action to increase your social capital, rather than doing something that represents an authentic commitment. So think about when you’re asking someone for their story. Are you seeking out certain students only during the weeks or months that celebrate parts of their identities? Are you sharing their true point of view? Or are you framing your questions to get responses that support your perspective?

When you reach out to a student, carefully consider how and when you make the request. 

Instead of: Waiting until June to ask LGBTQ+ students about how they find community on campus.
Try: Reaching out to an LGBTQ+ organization on campus several times a year, to show that you care about sharing their voices on your platforms continually.

Instead of: Asking “What does Black History Month mean to you?”
Try: Prompting them with “What do you wish you could share with other members of our community during Black History Month?”

NYU Admissions’ Instagram account, @MeetNYU, strikes the right balance of curated content and organic sharing. Their feed is branded and published in the voice of the university, but the clear intent is to let student voices shine. The stories are by students, for students. In account takeovers, they answer questions, identify their favorite spots around New York City, and share what it means to be at NYU from their unique viewpoints. @MeetNYU spotlights a range of individuals, experiences, and topics, but the content never feels forced or scripted. With this type of framework, you’ll create an even more open-ended storytelling experience, where individual voices are amplified, not tokenized.

3. Give them the microphone, not a teleprompter.

The most compelling narratives are often told from an interesting angle — it’s an effective way to hook your audiences. This can be a great conversation to have with the subject of your story. And when you’re guided by a strong brand, you can draw on your brand pillars and personality to help the student understand why you think their experience relates. After explaining the angle you hope to take, ask if it resonates with them. The student may agree with you. They also might respond with a different angle that helps them feel like their story is being told more completely.

Instead of leading them to the sound bites you want to hear, or only picking quotes that fit your desired narrative, the two of you can collaborate to share the story that best represents both them and your school’s content goals.

Take Purdue University’s Boiler Ambassadors, for example. Purdue turned to its students to spread the word about safely returning to campus amid the pandemic. And after sharing brand tips and expectations, the university let its students lead the way. As campus ambassadors, they shared their ideas and their experiences — and Purdue helped them run with it. The result: a number of campus programs, a brand-aligned Instagram account, and an original content series that allowed students to take the reins.

4. Tell the story where it deserves to be told.

The strongest stories are the ones that reach the people who need to hear them. So consider: What platform are you using? Do you know the audiences that are active on that channel? When you’re evaluating which segments of your audience need to hear this story, use the data you have about your various platforms to understand where those people interact with you most. This will help you decide whether the content goes on social media, in a newsletter, in a printed piece, on the website, or elsewhere. You don’t have to spotlight every single story on every single channel you have at your disposal, but you should make sure those stories get in front of the right people.

5. Make sure students feel like they still own their stories.

After determining the platform for the story, clearly communicate that decision to the student, so they know where to look for it. (This reinforces the idea that you’re collaborating together.) Then take a final step back and evaluate whether what’s being said is in their words, or yours.

The Humans of New York series is known around the world for building connections through storytelling. The magic of this series is that its creator, Brandon Stanton, asks the everyday people he meets to talk about the memories and experiences that matter most to them. Typically, the interviews take 45 minutes to an hour, which means the final output is edited for clarity. But he takes great care to be sure that these stories — sometimes joyful, sometimes tragic, always heartbreakingly real — honor the people who took the time to share them. Stanton seems keenly aware that these narratives belong to the people who tell them and that it’s a privilege to have their permission to share them with millions of people.

It’s crucial that students get final say in what you publish about them. This is yet another way to build trust. When students see you as people who will safeguard and accurately represent their experiences, more of them will be willing to trust you to tell their stories.

Though this piece is anchored in higher education, the advice applies to any marketer who relies on storytelling. And here’s a bonus tip: just because someone tells you their story and gives you consent to share it, doesn’t mean you own it, and not all content is evergreen. The context can change, and the content that you gathered in 2018 might not accurately represent that person or their perspective in 2021. 

Ultimately, remember that this isn’t just content — it’s the lived experience of a human being. And by involving that human in every step of the process, you’ll find it’s much easier to stay true to their story.