This profile is part of Destination Ann Arbor’s Great Minds Think a Lot series, highlighting influential leaders in Washtenaw County who make a positive impact within our community.
Between having six young, active kids and working as the University of Michigan’s Director of Social Media Communications and Public Engagement, Nikki Sunstrum’s leisure time has been, well, pretty sharply limited since she moved to the Ann Arbor area five years ago.
“I must admit, we haven’t done a really good job of exploring Ann Arbor,” said Sunstrum. “ … And we actually did an entire content series this year for the University called ‘Summer at Michigan.’ It was a series specifically for Youtube that showcased everything that was happening over the course of the summer. However, I executed that from my office, and didn’t actually go (to the events).”
Hopefully, Sunstrum will get to experience more Ann Arbor things in person in the coming years. But in the meantime, let’s find out more about her, since she somehow managed to carve out a few moments to talk about her work, her home life, and what drives her.
Q. Do you have some favorite local restaurants or activities?
A. I like Frita Batidos. I’ve taken the kids there. They’re very entertained by the lemonade in the baggies. It’s like getting a fish at the fair. But mostly we’re really outdoorsy people, so we do a lot of walking. … And when we travel, we tend to be big road trippers, and so from my family’s standpoint, for example, we just drove all the way to the West Coast in 10 days, and all the way back. … We’ve actually finished the 48 continental United States with the kids, purely road tripping. It’s a lot of fun. We don’t book anything in advance. We just fly by the seat of our pants, so if everybody’s getting a little cranky, we stop, and if not, we keep going.
Q. Tell me about where you grew up, and how you came to live and work here in Washtenaw County.
A. I am a West Michigander by nature. I grew up in Ionia County, right between Lansing and Grand Rapids, in a small rural community called Lake Odessa. I did both my undergrad and my grad degree schooling in Grand Rapids – first at Grand Valley, and then at Aquinas College – and then I spent 8 years working in Lansing. [Before taking the job at U-M, Sunstrum worked as Social Engagement Coordinator for the State of Michigan.] My first degree was in poli sci, and my second was in education. I had a passion to teach civics and engagement, but then I realized it probably wasn’t going to sustain my very large family financially, and so I ended up going back to government, teaching executive leadership development. And just one of the topics that I was focused on was how we could, in the very, very early days, leverage this crazy thing called social media to engage and be transparent amongst our constituencies - to communicate the different resources that the State of Michigan and our respective departments offered, and then also really promote feel-good messages and improve customer service. Then Governor Snyder came into office, and he ran on the One Tough Nerd platform. So we had this new governor in office who really had a passion for social – specifically, he’d seen the power of it. That ended up then becoming my full-time job. I found myself moving closer and closer to overseeing all of the statewide coordination; wrote the first policy for social media for the State of Michigan; and started to really build our footprint. We declared a Social Media Day, which is now something that’s been around a long time, … but we declared the first one in Michigan. And then, five years after doing that job, U-M called me and they said, “Hey, we’ve heard your name a lot, and what you’re doing in Lansing, and we wondered if you’d come down to talk to us.” That’s how I ended up in Ann Arbor.
Q. What excited you about the job enough to move your family here?
A. It was the perfect marrying of my political and educational background. It really gave me an opportunity, at a much higher level, to evaluate how to speak on behalf of a very large brand and engage a huge number of stakeholders around the globe – which previously I’d been doing primarily for the State of Michigan, but this operated at a totally different scale. Obviously, the Block M is a globally recognized logo; we have the largest alumni base, … not to mention the fan base; so there were a lot of new challenges that I was excited about. It also gave me an opportunity to really demonstrate in another arena – higher education – how social media is just a tool, not a solution, and to really start to apply communication strategy in a social space, across the entire university and our subsidiary campuses.
Q. Why do you think U-M engenders such enthusiasm and loyalty?
A. I didn’t go to U-M for either of my degrees, so I had a lot to learn, but having an outsider perspective was really quite valuable. I had to learn, in the same way that I’m trying to communicate to other people, what happens here. Also, being a native Michigander and a tax-paying citizen, our tax dollars go to public institutions, so I think there’s always an added value in communicating that U-M doesn’t just educate the students that go here, but they impact the entire state, they impact the nation, and they impact the world. So communicating that research, and really helping people understand that we have some of the smartest in the world here on campus (is our job). We’re fortunate enough because of that notoriety to have significant people – Presidents, elected officials, and dignitaries – come to speak here on campus. And then I get the pleasure of showcasing that impact through all the different channels, and I think some of that is why people have such an affinity here. It is both the campus life and the community that you build, but it’s also knowing that you’re part of an over 200 year legacy of changing the world. And that’s pretty profound.
Q. You work in Ann Arbor, but you live with your family in Dexter. What was the basis for that decision? And what was your transition from government to higher education like?
A. We were very much looking for something that felt like home to us. (A place) that felt rural but gave me a quick commute in and out of the office, … so (Dexter) was a really good fit for us. … As far as ideology or pace or bureaucracy, (U-M) is oddly similar to coming out of government. … I think the biggest thing we struggle within an online environment is the perception and reality of who people think actually reside here, and what those people think and what they do. So we spend a lot of time crafting creative communications to help translate that. That we are incredibly welcoming, that we’re diverse and inclusive, that we want to make sure that we’re translating what happens in a classroom for the greater good to everyone, and that they should all have access to that information and that knowledge and education. So I don’t think it’s too terribly different than where I was from. And I still have a cow within throwing distance from my driveway, which is perfect. But my parents did pick on me when we moved. They were like, “Oh, you’re going to the big city,” and I said, “Mmm, something like that.” … And we didn’t have field hockey where we came from, so when we got here, my kids were like, “Wait, what?”
Q. What initially sparked your interest in politics when you were young?
A. I’ve always been really very passionate about civic engagement, and before moving out of Portland and into Dexter, I sat on City Council and was an elected official there. I was a member of the Main Street Board, planning commission, and Promotion and Marketing committee chair; I threw a lot of events, I’ve always been a party planner, … and we’d host parades. The adage I always gave my children has been, “You can’t complain about something if you’re not willing to be a part of it.” So I really apply that to everything we do, whether its politics or school issues, and certainly community development. Currently, my 15-year-old daughter is the student representative on the planning commission in the City of Dexter, which is probably something most 15-year-olds would not want to do. But certainly, when that came out as an option, we’re always looking at, A, how will this look on a college resume? But also B, there’s a lot of new development going on in Dexter. … The stats showed that over the last decade, it’s quadrupled in size, and it continues to grow very quickly. And so, if you want to know about the storefronts or the new condos, there’s the meeting that you can go to. She has her binders and her agendas, and it’s very cute, and she can tell you exactly how many parking slots a new business is allotted, and it makes me laugh. But that’s something that she will hold with her, as far as civic engagement is concerned, hopefully forever. I just told someone a story that has always made me laugh. It came up in my Facebook Memories. Instead of playing house, my girls used to play “meeting,” and I would hear them every once in a while. They’d be calling each other on pretend phones and go, “Hello, this is Governor Snyder, and I need to talk to you about - “ and it would just make me laugh.
Q. What do you love about your work?
A. The interesting thing about social media is that it’s evolved at such a rapid pace. And it’s a communications outlet with unprecedented potential for connecting people around the globe instantaneously. But what we’ve seen, particularly over the course of the last couple of years, is that the mechanisms that were built were never intended for this type of conversation. And so there’s a lot of accountability and integrity and privacy issues that have stemmed from that. So we have wanted, here at U-M specifically, and within higher ed, not only to create really high-quality communications in these vehicles, but we also have a duty and a responsibility and the ability … to also educate stakeholders everywhere on how to use these tools for good, and to really change what is a very toxic online culture. … Last year, we launched a website called socialintegrity.umich.edu, and a marketing campaign that went with it, that talked about encouraging civil discourse online. It talked about personal accountability, and essentially the disintegration of any line between personal and online life. It talked about accountability and responsibility for what you post, and how that can impact you; and it addressed things like my grandma, who still thinks she’s going to win free Spirit Airline tickets by posting that status and telling stakeholders and users that haven’t grown up in a digital culture, there are a lot of issues here that you should be aware of. … So that’s the thing that I love most. I can engage people on a level that is both fun and educational, and I don’t think you can do that necessarily everywhere.
Q. Tourism has a significant part of Ann Arbor’s economy. What role do you see the University playing in that?
A. One of the things that we by happenstance recently created … is the Michigan Wings Project downtown. We actually partnered with Destination Ann Arbor and the DDA on those, because we see it as a destination, and it also helps people post photos on Instagram and tag the U. So it benefited all of us. And by far, Instagram is still the highest and quickest growing community for us, particularly among the perspective, current, and young alumni demographics, and we post pretty pictures of downtown. We align all of those obviously with the goals and objectives of the University, and do a lot of narratives in Instagram stories, but we want to make sure that we’re continuously showcasing what it’s like to experience the culture of U of M and the community of Ann Arbor. And thankfully, Ann Arbor makes that job really easy for us. We have beautiful buildings, we have great people, we have wonderful shops, so that part is not hard at all. But we also know that the U brings an enormous number of people, particularly on Fridays and Saturdays in the fall, to town every weekend. We have ample opportunity to leverage user-generated content, to help people celebrate with us on things.
Q. I would think part of the challenge of your job involves the moving-target nature of the social media landscape – where a platform is huge one week, and irrelevant a month later. How do you negotiate that? Do you dip your toe into things and watch to see how things evolve, or do you wait and see if a platform has legs?
A. A little bit of both. When I arrived at U of M, right after the first of the year in 2014, one of the first things I did in my first couple of months was set up a Snapchat account. It was something I was never going to be able to do in state government, and because of the target demographic on that platform, it made a ton of sense for our student community. We were the first of the largest Big Ten schools to do that, and the second anywhere within higher education. For a couple of years, it went gangbusters. We had phenomenal response, tremendous engagement, but then Snapchat started to evolve, and they wanted you to invest if you were going to get access to certain functionality. And Instagram, as Facebook and Instagram have done in many circumstances, started to mimic and mirror available features within Snapchat. So we abandoned ship, and it just made sense for us to transition back. We already had an existing Instagram feed with a lot of followers, and we weren’t getting analytics elsewhere, so we make those decisions – we try to be strategic about a lot of things. Or about everything, really. Tik Tok keeps coming up. We’re not on it. I personally have started an account purely for research, but we’re keeping an eye on that one, because right now, I don’t see the return on our investment. The time and resources that it takes to create content for that platform are tremendous, and the value add is not there yet necessarily.
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