Ease your student supervision speed bumps.

A Call to Campus Leadership: Your Social Media Managers Need You to Read This

How to support your social media managers in the COVID-19 era and beyond

With Dr. Josie AhlquistTony Dobies, and Katy Spencer Johnson, SMS

In 2020, higher education has moved from brick and mortar to Zoom rooms and Facebook groups. It’s unprecedented, as you all know by now. What we don’t yet know, though, is the permanent shift it will have on the foundations of higher ed. 

In the spring, as we sent our students home, all of us scrambled to provide quality access to education virtually. Without our students visibly on our campuses, we had to change our ways of communication, too. 

The reality is that there are so many people on your campuses who have never worked harder. From the leaders making critical decisions to the instructors developing multiple syllabi for endless scenarios to those learning new cleaning and living protocols in dining, facilities, residence halls, and more. Higher ed has gone through a monumental shift in six months. 

Communications and marketing at your institutions have shifted virtually, just as your classes. Email, social media and web communications have never been more important with your audiences. Many flooded to social media even more than usual at the start of the pandemic. Some are making the difficult choices to shift online-only after returning to campus plans just didn’t pan out as expected.

According to an article from The New York Times in April, Facebook saw a 27 percent increase in views from Feb. 29 to March 24; YouTube saw a 15.3 percent increase. Before the pandemic, you may have never heard of TikTok. Now, it’s part of our culture

Perhaps for a while, you’ve already considered social media to be valuable to your institution. Whether it brought in dollars during a Day of Giving, featured an on-campus recruitment event, or engaged the community with a photo of a puppy or meme, it helped amplify the mission. 

Now, higher ed should see the critical value of social media. 

Make no mistake, social media has never, ever, been more important than in 2020 as we continue to battle constant crises – online, in a very visible space for all to see.

Those behind institutional social media accounts have always been one of the most important front-line communicators on your campus; after all, they likely speak to more people on your campus than any other person each day through Facebook posts, tweets, YouTube videos, Instagram posts and Stories. 

In the COVID-19 pandemic, these social media managers were thrust into an even more significant role, as more traditional forms of communication on our campuses became all but impossible to utilize. Those campus posters … well … they may still be hanging up.

The pressure on a social media manager was already immense. Throw in a pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, some murder hornets and Carole Baskin, and it’s almost impossible now for a social media manager to navigate the ever-changing social landscape on their own. Yet, they continue to work hard – likely harder than ever. 

This piece is part of a two-part series. In the first, we took a much closer look at the role of a social media manager from the eyes of a social media manager. In this article, we hope to shed light on the role when it comes to leadership and how supervisors and senior leaders can best support their social media experts. 

We understand this post is pretty long, and even in a “normal” year the start of the academic calendar is taxing on time. So, we’ve put together five things you can quickly do to support your social media managers – so they can thrive! Each of these five methods are featured throughout this piece.

“No single person should be expected to shoulder the burden of multiple ‘once in a 100-year’ events as the manager of the digital front door and megaphone of the institution,” said Liz Gross, CEO at Campus Sonar. “Yet that is the case on campuses across the country.”

It takes expertise and time to manage social media well. It takes adequate support from leadership of social media managers, too. To help you better support the social media manager/s on your staff, we’ve pulled together expertise from senior leaders, direct supervisors of social media managers, and those who manage the institutional accounts.

What leadership should know about social media management 

Social media management is one of the most misunderstood roles in communications and marketing, because it’s hard to explain without experiencing it day-to-day yet so many feel they know what it takes to do the job because of what they experience on their personal Facebook or Twitter account. Some leaders just simply don’t acknowledge the value of social media. 

Managing institutional social media accounts over the last six months has been like getting Zoom-bombed each and every day. That constant anxiety and fear is very, very real. You could go to sleep, head out for a bike ride or just pop into the grocery store and return to hundreds and hundreds of complaints and questions. 

You know the feeling all too well of being in a meeting and your inbox filling up, and you know how long it takes to get your inbox back to a manageable number again. Not only does a social media manager have an email inbox (which, by the way, has never been quicker to fill) but they also have inboxes from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and more. Social media users are more than willing to tell you that “Sorry this got lost in my inbox,” just isn’t good enough. 

So, what does a social media manager actually do?

Day in the Life of a Social Media Manager

According to a study from West Virginia University, which surveyed higher ed social media managers in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, they do the following: 

    • 96% – Social listening/engagement
    • 96% – Gathering/posting content
    • 90% – Gathering/analyzing data
    • 90% – Developing goals/strategies
    • 72% – Crisis communications
    • 62% – Social media advertising
    • 54% – Photo/video production
    • 39% – Managing websites
    • 33% – Public relations
    • 27% – Event management/execution

It is truly a little bit of everything. And it’s a lot.

Gene Begin, Vice President of Marketing and Communications at Wheaton College shared, “2020 has been quite the rollercoaster and colleagues managing social media are not only along for the ride professionally but they are also managing the ride personally.

“Social media managers are taking the tickets, facing the complaints about the long lines, answering questions about the coaster’s history and uncertain future, managing criticism of its costs, managing the anxiety of children and families preparing for the ride for the first time, and then riding alongside in the rollercoaster with the community, oftentimes without the proper safety precautions.”

🕐 During the COVID-19 pandemic, the lives of social media managers might look like this: 

🕧  When first waking up, they likely check their phones for critical comments, mentions, and crises. If one happened overnight, it can turn a productive day into addressing community concerns, replying to often irate community members, and fielding customer service inquiries, a day spent fighting fires; that likely means a combination of: fielding comments, moderating concerns, working as a customer service professional, navigating and balancing the tone of an institution in a crisis. 

🕖  Then, if all is well, they may move onto content development for the day; in “normal times”, content can be scheduled or developed in advance and content planning can be a bit more predictable. But, the pandemic and constant social unrest in our world make it much harder to plan. They develop posts, which is harder than it looks. What works on Twitter won’t work on Instagram or Instagram Stories. That content might not work with Facebook’s algorithm. Adapting posts to each platform takes time.

 

🕤 If the day’s primary piece of content is a video, throw about a dozen additional steps into the mix (e.g. title, thumbnail, vertical version for Instagram Stories, captions, text for posts, rounds of approvals).

So what are social media managers doing really – and how can campus executives support them?

Christina Garnett from The Startup described social media managers in a recent story. She said:  “What are they really? Professionals who are strapped to their monitors doomscrolling, because they care. Because their work is attached to a brand and they see the success or failure of that work as a direct reflection of their efforts, even when that work is on a Saturday or Sunday … They are burning out, consciously aware of what they are about to consume as soon as they wake up. They are burning out as they sit at their home desks for 12–15 hours at a time, constantly on alert. They are burning out as they … worry that their own job may be cut at any time, while also seeing the world crumble around them, one TikTok video or tweet at a time.” 

The most important thing to know about these roles is that they are constant. As a campus leader and/or supervisor to a social media manager, it is imperative that you are highly aware of the toll of these positions. Those institutions who only have one social media manager should understand how much stress that person is under during an average day – let alone a six-month crisis. Terisa Riley, Chancellor at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith shares,

“It is easy for our marketing and communication professionals to become exhausted by the constant need to check each social media platform for comments and concerns. It feels as though the job never ‘turns off’ because the platforms – and our employees’ and students’ voices never ‘turn off.’”

Your social media managers have unique expertise and showcase a variety of skills. Job duties aside, your social media manager can share with you the pulse of the institution. In fact, they desperately want you to know and understand what people are saying in hopes that it can help you to make informed decisions. 

“Spend time understanding the why of their work and how you can support and enhance it,” said Thom Chesney, President of Clarke University. “If your social media director is not in your mobile phone contacts, you are not connected. You will miss something.”

Your social media and the social media managers are the front door of your institution. Don’t let them only be the doormat.

They can be your doorbell, security camera, branded garden flag, house number, and more … if you allow them the opportunity. 

What social media managers need from you

The truth is, social media managers may need different things based on their situation and institution. There is no cookie-cutter job description for the position, and there is not a one-solution-for-everyone answer. The best way to find out what they need is to ask them through a series of conversations. Meeting consistently with your social media manager – and that goes for all those at the top – is a wonderful step forward. 

In October, Liz Gross and a few other higher ed social media experts will publish an update of a book called “Managing Social Media in Higher Ed.” She has identified five key guidelines/expectations social media managers have for leaders: share between one and five strategic priorities of the organization; define success; identify between one and three target audiences; articulate the data or information you need to make decisions; and have a frank discussion about resources. 

Below, we’ll cover some additional needs from your social media manager and give you some ideas on how to make these actionable moving forward. 

Trust

Social media managers are a combination of creative and strategic, and that means they likely move at their own pace. They are creating strategies and simultaneously developing ways to creatively execute. 

“Let them dazzle you,” said Erin Hennessy, vice president at TVP Communications. “Charge your team to be creative, to push the envelope a bit, to help your institution stand out.” 

Social media managers are gaining experience and expertise each day – from each post. As Tony Dobies, senior director of marketing at West Virginia University said in a blog post earlier this year, a social media manager’s instincts are learned from experience. 

“Most of the decisions your social media manager makes are instinctive – learned and perfected by previous work,” he said. “That successful post is due to their expertise. It was a coordinated, strategic effort that has been built through experience.”

Any social media manager who has worked through the COVID-19 pandemic should have your trust – and vice versa. If they haven’t earned it over the last six months, there’s likely an underlying issue that should be addressed. 

When it comes down to it, though, there’s a high likelihood that your social media manager is one of the most reliable people on your staff, because they have to be with such a 24/7 position. Note: That doesn’t mean you should rely on them 24/7 but that they’ll probably pick up that phone call in the middle of the night in a campus emergency. 

Trusting in your social media manager and giving them a bit of freedom can go a long way toward successful social media at your institution. 

How to help your social media managers:

    • Provide them opportunities to create; let them do what they’re good at. 
    • Don’t stunt the productivity of you and your social media manager with unnecessary approvals.
    • Set expectations on what should be reviewed. 
    • Have consistent conversations with your social media manager to gain comfort in their abilities. 
    • Enforce and support them to take time off.

A seat at the table

Information is so important to a social media manager’s success. Context behind that information helps, too. 

“Even if we don’t have the answers, campus leadership needs to keep their social media manager informed,” Gene Begin at Wheaton College said. “Even providing them dates when a certain institutional policy, protocol or guidance may be available provides them some information they can share in response to community outreach. 

“They need to feel prepared and ready to engage your audiences at any time. And don’t worry; they will stay on message as long as they are provided key messages and kept informed.”

It’s important to note that it takes time to develop messaging for social media based on campus announcements and statements. Rarely – if ever – is it as simple as “tweeting it out.” In each of these situations, social media managers consider: character limits, images and graphics, accessibility, platform specifications and general social media best practices. Even with established templates and processes in place, it takes time. 

“These teams can pivot on a dime and often do – but don’t make them do it just because they can,” said Erin Hennessy.

Once these posts are sent, the job truly just begins for the social media managers. They could be answering questions and managing complaints for days. Jaime Hunt, the chief marketing and communications officer at Miami University shares,

“I establish three-hour shifts for staff other than the social media manager to monitor and respond in the day or two following the announcement. Everyone gets prepped on how to handle various questions and concerns and they know they can escalate issues to me … I want them to understand and appreciate how grueling it is to manage community during stressful times. I think this has definitely increased their understanding of the work being done to manage our community.”

It’s also important for you to set clear expectations around goals. Social media on its own can be helpful to build brand awareness, but strategic social media helps accomplish institutional goals. Work with your social media manager to relay those highest-level goals and trust them to help reach them. 

How to help your social media managers: 

    • Remember to include social media managers in meetings and discussions that could have large-scale impact on your institution. At a minimum, give them information to better prepare them for backlash. 
    • Try not to make key announcements in the late afternoon or evening. The hours after an announcement is the most taxing for a social media manager, and it might be better to wait until the morning. 
    • Give them time to prepare. If advanced notice isn’t possible, give the social media manager time to prepare content before the announcement is released. 
    • Share institutional goals and ask them for periodic reports showing how social media is helping to reach those goals. 
    • Find ways to utilize their breadth of knowledge of the institution and their knowledge of your general audience. 
    • This group has a knack for predicting how a message will be received. Listen to their concerns if they bring them up (they likely lost sleep over them).

Investment

As Jon-Stephen Stansel, digital and social media specialist at the University of Central Arkansas, said all the way back in 2017, social media shouldn’t be an entry-level position

“It belongs in the hands of a professional who has devoted the time and effort to become a master in the field,” he said. “This is what separates companies who excel in this important arena and those who merely get by…or worse.”

The work that social media managers do – solely as a front-line communicator – is worth more than the entry-level salary they may currently earn. Add in the content creation, strategy development and other aspects mentioned earlier, and these positions quickly become value for money in the mid-level salary range of your institution’s communications and marketing team. Those who manage crisis situations should be compensated for that work, as well.  

Managing social media is a challenge for a variety of reasons. It requires your social media manager to be an expert in many areas. 

“We’re quick to dismiss social media and its self-obsessed silliness, dedication to memes and eschewal of capital letters,” wrote Greta Rainbow of Money earlier this year. “The truth is, a social media manager is a copywriter, photographer, graphic designer, video editor, media analyst, data analyst, and customer service rep, sometimes all in one day.”

Your social media manager is probably a lead content creator, brand ambassador, customer service representative, marketing strategist, and more, all wrapped up in one job description (that likely doesn’t use any of those terms). 

It’s crucial that job descriptions reflect these tasks, and that compensation is considered for these tasks at the same level as those who may do it full-time. Consider their path into leadership roles, as well. 

“Instead of making them do all of these on their own, ensure team members within these other roles are providing them the support they need so that the social media lead can focus more on integrated strategy,” Gene Begin said. 

A high-performing social media manager is one who is posting accurate and consistent information, using brand guidelines. They should be posting content that helps achieve high-level goals (as long as they are aware of those goals). It’s important that those who are making decisions about a social media manager’s future – whether it be compensation, role or title – have a solid understanding of social media strategy. 

It’s important that social media managers have the tools to do the job, too, including content management tools, reporting tools, camera gear, editing software, etc. Gross helped provide a better idea of what a social media budget might look like

If budget allows, you should consider additional full-time support. 

The social media industry is constantly changing. Investment also comes in the form of conferences and trainings. You should allow your social media manager to participate in those frequently, especially if they are teams of one. 

“Resources are scarce everywhere right now, but there are low-cost webinars, certificates and training programs available. Encourage your team to build their skill sets, and make time for them to do so during the workday,” Hennessy said. 

Sometimes, the investment could simply mean taking the time to understand their roles a bit more. This article from Sprout Social does a nice job of exploring the role and all its pieces. 

How to help your social media managers: 

    • Ask your social media manager to write down all that they do on a regular basis, so you can have a better handle on what might be on their to-do list at a certain time. 
    • Seek advice from social media professionals when writing a social media management job description.
    • Start to move social media managers into at least the middle-tier of your salary breakdown. Their work warrants that, and perhaps more if they’re doing the following: crisis communications, executive communications, content creation, marketing strategy, project management or any task outside of the realm of social media. 
    • Make sure you have an adequate budget for social media to include opportunities to purchase tools needed to do the work. 
    • Invest in full-time support.

Time off

We’ve already established that social media management is a 24/7 job. Social media managers who do not have a solid support make it almost impossible to take breaks. 

Breaks are critical and necessary to the long-term success of your social media manager. 

“When you’re not your best, you can’t move at the speed required for today’s pace,” said Ashley Budd, director of marketing operations at Cornell University. “When people don’t take time off, it’s usually because they don’t feel like their work can be done by anyone else.”

Tyler A. Thomas, Social Media & Integrated Content Senior Director at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, and Professor at the Harvard Extension School shared suggestions on how social media managers should plan for time off and breaks in last week’s post

Sometimes, it’s not as simple as taking days off or vacationing for social media managers, either. While those longer breaks are helpful, there are short-term strategies they may prefer to help balance day-to-day work. Sometimes, it’s not so easy to shut the laptop at 5 p.m. Perhaps it’s better to give them the freedom to start and end days when it makes the most sense.

None of that happens, however, if social media managers do not believe they have adequate support behind them to sufficiently step away. Whether it’s additional full-time social media support and/or cross trained individuals, this should be a priority to support their needs. 

“If you are unable to cross-train other individuals or provide backup support, you could set the expectation that the social media manager set automated replies in social inboxes to contact a main email and/or phone line,” Begin said. “This could be done during vacations, weekends, a day off and/or for ‘off-hour’ times. Community management starts with setting expectations and you must ensure your channels are doing that with its audiences.”

Motivate them to create a routine that works for them, and ask them to share it with you. As part of consistent communication, make sure that they are continuing to take those breaks, manage their time and care for themselves. As Thom Chesney, President of Clarke University tweets out to his Clarke’s social media manager:

How to help your social media managers: 

    • Allow your social media manager to develop and lead the training of your communications and marketing teams on social media basics. 
    • Allow them to build a schedule – during the traditional work day and beyond – that works for them. 
    • Model good behavior by taking time off and embracing that time away. 
    • Do not overburden social media managers with tasks (e.g., asking to see social media posts about a particular topic/crisis, when you actually want a synopsis of the sentiment). 

 

Mental health support

One of the few benefits from this pandemic for social media managers in higher ed has been a flourishing community that has not been fearful to share their stories of struggles. Many, in fact, have shared challenges they face with mental health issues and how they’ve worked to overcome them in hopes of helping others.

The mental health issues of higher ed social media managers should be taken seriously by any institution who sees value in social media. 

According to survey results from West Virginia University, nearly half of higher ed social media managers indicate they do not have adequate support and/or resources to ensure good mental health. The average mental health of a social media manager, according to this research, is a 6.35/10 – and that drops to a 4.52/10 in a crisis. This research shows teams of one are, in many circumstances, at a critically poor point. 

We’ve yet to see the long-term mental health effects of a long-term pandemic on social media managers, but it’s bound to be lasting. 

“We will start seeing turnover the minute the economy starts to pick back up, and that will be particularly true among social media managers,” Hennessy said. “[There is] a real disenchantment and lack of trust in leadership. Staff are exhausted, they are stressed about plans for fall, they are working more hours than ever before, often for less pay and fewer benefits thanks to COVID budget impacts.”

Similarly, Nikki Sunstrum, director of social media and public engagement from the University of Michigan, says that social media managers are about to run away from the job. 

WVU research also shows that 82 percent of social media managers in higher ed are at least sometimes affected by negative comments – and there’s been a lot of them lately. 

“Since our audiences often forget that a human being is behind the account when they are reaching out or @ mentioning the brand in an activism campaign, campus leadership must be there to support and empathize with their social media colleagues,” Begin said. 

When a community is unhappy, they head to social media to complain. Those who run social media accounts are indirectly blamed for all decisions, actions and perceptions of the institution, even if they have very little power to solve for these issues. The feeling of helplessness can sometimes be crippling. 

Let’s be clear, though, emotions – as Jon McBride, director of digital communications at BYU, wrote in a blog post earlier this summer – are key to the success of a social media manager. Emotional responses bridge a gap between your institution and your community. Emotionless social media accounts are often ignored. Compassion and empathy have been key to successful social media engagement during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

How to help your social media managers: 

    • Have real conversations with them. Ask them frequently how they’re doing. 
    • Cross-train another employee and/or hire additional staff to allow them a true break from the madness. 
    • Give them opportunities to share social media posts of concern with you; allow their burden to become yours at times. 
    • Those who have just one social media manager on staff: Allow them to find their community, and support them by letting them attend social media conferences and trainings. 
    • Develop a culture where it’s understood that social media managers are valued and should be supported – from the top down.

Social media managers are digital mentors 

This piece was meant to open your eyes to the lives of your social media managers. Truly, it’s hard for them to describe what it’s like each day. It’s ever-changing. It’s rarely normal. 

This is a crucial time in their careers, as with many others in higher ed. We know we’re in survival mode right now, and changes with your leadership and mentorship are hard to implement with so many unknowns and shifting priorities due to COVID-19.

However, there are suggestions you’ve just read that you can implement starting today that will help your social media manager. In addition, when waters calm, there are suggestions on how to improve the long-term success of your social media manager, and, at the same time, your communications and marketing. 

Your social media managers are such hardworking and devoted advocates for your institution. They speak to more people every day than just about anyone else. They are great judges of what people think; if you want to know if the institution is succeeding in its mission in the court of public opinion, ask your social media manager. They’re even able to catch some crisis situations before they start. Listen to them. Invite them to the table. Make room for them. Take care of them.

Spend some time considering how much value these individuals add to your institution. Support them, and allow them to thrive. How has your social media manager helped your institution this week? 

Your social media manager will help lead your institution into the post-pandemic world – if you support them. 

Resources

Download the infographic: 5 things your social media managers need to thrive

Higher Ed Social Media Managers and Their Mental Health

The Struggle is Real: Social Media Management and Mental Health

The Power of a Social Media Break: Lessons Learned When I Locked My Phone in a Box 

Higher-Ed Response to COVID-19 Pandemic Shows Critical Value of Social Media

Higher Ed Social Media Managers and Their Mental Health

Thrive vs Survive: Life as a Social Media Manager

A crash course for new marketing leaders overseeing social media

‘Social Media Manager’ is One of the Most Popular Jobs in the US. It’s a Lot Harder than it Sounds

Emotions are information: Social Media Manager Mental Health

Erin Supinka Shares the Key to Understanding Everything

#BeWellHESM: a wellness campaign and check-in email 

Pandemic Punching Bag: Managing Social media & your health during a crisis

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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