5 Ways Companies Can Treat Social Media Managers Better (Beyond Paying Them More)

Over the holidays, I had a temper tantrum. Another viral tweet poking fun at “social media interns” came across my Twitter timeline and it set loose a rant in me that I’d been holding onto for years. You can read it here, but here’s the nutshell version: interns do not run the social media accounts of most companies, and social media is a real field staffed by real professionals who have real expertise. We’re also commonly undervalued, underpaid and emotionally taxed. I love my job, but I am tired of my job being made fun of. It’s a problem to which I am sure many people in a variety of professions can relate.

Many curious onlookers and concerned executives asked: What can we do to help? How can companies better support their social media teams? What should managers, executives and potential social professionals know about the field’s challenges? How do we prevent burnout and make people’s lives suck less?

I’ve been lucky to work for companies that put real effort into making their social teams feel empowered, supported and heard. But an organization’s culture is built, not created by accident. Social teams should work hard to accommodate each other’s burnout while valuing their varied skills and ambitions. I felt lucky, and I hated knowing that we are outliers.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but here are five ways companies can treat their social media teams better. Other than, y’know, paying them more.

1. Know what your social team actually does.

Understanding the responsibilities, challenges and skills of your social media team is Step One in making sure they feel valued. Take the social media manager at your company out for coffee and ask them what they’re working on, what’s bottlenecking their efforts internally, and what they think of the brand. I guarantee that your social team does not just write tweets: they are marketing experts, funny copywriters, talented video editors, and the digital ambassadors of your company to an audience of thousands, millions, or even billions. Social media managers don’t just hang out on Facebook all day and tweet memes, and even when they are doing those things, it’s with an intentional, well-calculated strategy behind their choices.

Some people assume that because they use social media in their personal lives, social media itself isn’t a real skill and anyone could do it. It’s a natural impulse to think that if you have a Facebook account, you could probably run Facebook for a brand. How hard can it be? You are – to be polite about it — not correct. The faster you discard yourself of this notion, the better you will work with your social teams, listening more and wasting less time.

A good social media manager makes their job look easy. Believe this at your peril.

2. Be mindful of the emotional toll that working in social media takes.

During a time of crisis, or everyday depending on your company, your social staffers are also your digital bodyguards. They moderate comments, trace 4chan threats, answer questions, and respond to upset customers. There is a real person reading the angry tweets that the NYC Subway account receives about late trains. There is a real person at American Airlines reading your complaints about your lost baggage. There is a real person over at Kirsten Gillibrand’s campaign reading all of that sexist bullshit from right-wing trolls. Those jobs are hard. They are hard and they are demoralizing.

Social managers are regularly required to review graphic, violent, disturbing and even traumatizing content. This can include everything from monologues about why rape victims should “just get over it” to images of animal cruelty to actual threats of shooting up your office. You cannot understand the emotional impact this kind of onslaught of the worst of humanity has on your team—but you can listen to them. You can ask them how they are. You can bare witness to the horrible YouTube comments and Facebook messages they receive on behalf of your brand. You can create a Slack channel where they are able to safely commiserate with other social managers and content moderators. You can take a turn reading Twitter notifications when they seem fried.

Make sure that you’re not requiring your social managers to only moderate Facebook comments and listen to social activity. Many companies don’t let their SMMs do more than four hours of listening and moderation at a time, instead sharing the task between multiple staffers on rotating shifts. This gives people a range of responsibilities to keep them interested and engaged at work, and it spreads out the emotional labor. It also prevents an angry, demoralized staffer from banning everyone named Kevin from commenting on your Facebook page after one too many Kevins make a joke about women preparing sandwiches.

Here’s a big, uncomfortable suggestion: No one should be moderating disturbing content for your company who is unpaid and who does not have health benefits. If your employees do not have access to mental health care in the form of a therapist or a similar resource, you are jeopardizing their sanity and running the risk of damaging their psychological wellbeing. Don’t do that! Don’t be that jerk.

Also, keep in mind that when being online is particularly miserable, like during a terrorist attack, upsetting Supreme Court testimony, the MeToo movement, and so forth, your social team doesn’t have the luxury of logging off and unplugging. Your social media manager is your company’s weathervane; they are exposed to the elements.

3. Pay them more. But if you can’t, give them flexible hours and create remote working policies.

Social media is a job that never sleeps because the internet never sleeps. SMMs regularly have to work weird hours because some misogynist decided to have a sexist meltdown in your Instagram comments or a customer pulled a misinformed temper tantrum in the brand’s Twitter mentions. Is an article trending? Great! That means more traffic to your site and that your SMM has to cancel her evening plans.

Not all social media staffers are salaried employees—many are contractors or entrepreneurial freelancers. But for those of us who are salaried, we may be exempt from paid overtime despite working a ton of it. If your SMM had to stay on the clock until 11PM moderating an out-of-control Facebook post, and you still expect them to be at their desk at 9AM the next day, congratulations, you’re the worst. You might even be putting your company in legal jeopardy. You are definitely at risk of losing an employee who had to work late through no fault of her own. Give that woman some protected recovery time, for goodness sake.

One of the best ways my boss created a collaborative, healthy team culture was telling us in advance that social media is not a 9-to-5 job. When we worked late, we were expected to come in late. When we could feel our brains leaking from our ears after a stressful week of damage control, we had her permission take a half-day or disappear entirely on Friday. Managers should let SMMs set flexible hours that make sense for their workflow and responsibilities. It’s also on managers to defend the choices their team members make when other departments expect them to be available at more traditional hours. Flexible hours make more sense for certain social media roles and show respect and trust in your employees.

Remote working is also crucial for SMMs because it gives them the freedom to hop online and park there if commuting will remove them from the Internet at an inopportune time. Because social media is a 24/7 job, their living room sofa can suddenly become their office. Lean into that and allow them to work from wherever, especially if their task is something emotionally taxing like moderating difficult comments. Have I read offensive comments about rape from a bubble bath? Yes. Did it make my job easier? Yes. Is it fun to be in an office surrounded by peppy people wanting to make small talk or get my input on a project quickly when I’m knee-deep in rape threats? Not so much. Social media work can be done from practically anywhere, and allowing SMMs to work outside of the office when it’s appropriate is a great way to support them at no extra cost to the company.

4. Bring your social team into strategy conversations — especially big ones.

Do not spring brand redesigns, discontinuing products, big launches or mission pivots on the team who is responsible for communicating them to the public — or responsible for reading the public’s reactions. Better yet, get your social team’s perspective on these conversations before a decision is reached. They can help you anticipate how your audience will react, and help you avoid disaster while optimizing for success. SMMs usually have a great knack for detecting word choices that will trigger weird knee-jerk reactions from people online too. Don’t see your social team as the cleanup crew. They have precious audience insights that should shape your strategy, not pick up after it.

Social teams are also content creators! We make videos for Facebook and LinkedIn tutorials and Snapchat episodes. Treating your social teams like the end of the content creation funnel is an outdated approach to digital in 2019, and you will miss out on valuable expertise about what people are interested in and how they like to consume what you make. Partner with your social teams and consider where they are situated within your company. How often do they work with editorial, video, marketing, partnerships and brand teams? Should any of those teams merge? Ask your social team what they think.

5. Stop sh*t-talking Facebook and social media in general in front of your social team.

Yes, social media is messing up democracy. It has totally upended journalism, and also fact-checking, and also privacy. I can guarantee you that your social media coworkers are interested in talking about Facebook’s data policies and breaking up the big tech monopolies. But your social team is also tired of hearing you say that Facebook is just for baby photos and cat videos. When you dismiss Facebook as a time-suck or a threat to civilization, you’re dismissing what your co-worker literally spends their entire day doing. It’s like if someone went up to the payroll manager in the office kitchen and started talking about how capitalism has ruined society. Perhaps true, but still rude.

Dropping “Maybe our brand shouldn’t even be on Facebook!” into conversation might score you cool points with other executives, but your ethical stand is also a threat to someone’s job, and likely their whole career. Your bold take threatens a layoff for someone who is probably economically precarious because they are underpaid and considered replaceable by senior leadership who doesn’t understand their job. Cut it out. You’re being cruel.

In conclusion.

Socialism! Labor unions! Give everyone promotions! Two-factor verification on everything! Don’t pivot to video! Be kind, and ask your social team how they’re doing. Go from there.


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(Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash)

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Ella Dawson is a sex and culture critic and a digital strategist. She drinks too much Diet Coke.

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