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  • Writer's pictureJon McBride

Emotions are information: How to process and endure through the hard times as a social media manager

There's no doubt that there are some hard days as a social media manager.

In the past few months, amid a global pandemic and significant social and cultural unrest, things have been especially hard as our comment sections become outrage magnets.

It's probably safe to say that we've had more hard days on the job in the past few pandemic-filled months than our entire social media management careers previous.

Much has been said about social media mental manager health lately, especially within higher education, which is great. This has been thanks in part to this groundbreaking work spearheaded by my friend Tony Dobies at West Virginia University, putting together a major survey on mental health for higher ed social media professionals. This is something that all higher ed marketing and communications leadership needs to see.

Knowing that we aren't alone in feeling the way that we feel is helpful. But outside of needed systemic changes, what can we do in the meantime to manage and improve our day-to-day mental health in the work we do, within our own control?

I'm going to share a few things that have been important for me to remember and might be helpful to you as well.

Empathy is a good thing

First of all, it can be hard emotionally to have to scour through negativity and outrage among your community. If it can be hard for you, know that, that is good news. It would be really a bad sign if it wasn't hard. You are a human being, and you contain an important measure of empathy. That empathy is really, really important to your work, and you don't want to lose that.

So remember that. The very fact that this is hard, shows that you care.

Emotions are information

I want to share some important mental health tips I learned from three therapists at my institution and which they shared on this video project we worked on together.

There is a lot of good information in there for us all, but for whatever reason, that "emotions are information" stuff near the end from Dr. Ofa Hafoka-Kanuch really struck a chord with me.

I loved the idea that it can be really easy for us to categorize the emotions we feel as good or bad. But while some emotions can be difficult to feel, that doesn't necessarily mean it's bad to feel them. But it takes some intention on our part to connect some dots, identify what we're feeling, what that feeling means and what we can do, or not do, with that feeling.

I think it's also worth noting that along with our own emotions being important information for us to understand and utilize. The emotions that we can observe being expressed by others is also important information to understand and utilize.

Let me try to illustrate more what I'm talking about, with an example.

Imagine that you just posted a statement on social media addressing a major societal issue and what your institution is doing about it. (This is most likely not so hard to imagine.)

Here are a few types of comments you may or may not see on such a thread:

Comment Group 1: This isn't enough! You should be doing more! This is so tone deaf.

Comment Group 2: It's a shame this institution is caving to societal pressures. This is unnecessary.

Comment Group 3: Finally. The institution should've addressed these issues much earlier.

Comment Group 4: Here are all the negative things I've experienced personally with this issue at the institution.

Comment Group 5: This is a fine first step, but what about [blank].

For me, the practice of even just going into the comments section knowing that I'm looking for comment groups and common sentiment — information — is helpful for me. But once the comments have ended, you've seen trends and evaluated total sentiment, then you can really do something with the information you have.

It's also important to fully feel the emotions I'm experiencing personally such as frustration or disappointment or even anger or fear as I read through many of the comments. Why am I frustrated? Because I wish these types of experiences being shared didn't happen at my institution. Why am I disappointed? Because I want to believe my institution is better than that. Why am I angry? Because there are so many trolls saying unproductive things that are deterring others from engaging productively. Why am I fearful? Because I don't know what's next or how things might improve, exactly.

Some of those things I can do something about. Some of them I can't. And that's OK. I'm going to control what I can control and take some solace in that.

So in summation for this section, here's a bit of a formal way to put what I've shared and how I try to handle emotions as information on hard days.

Emotion I'm feeling right now: Fear

Why: Because I don't know how exactly the thing that needs to be improved at the institution is going to be improved

Can I do something: Yes

Can I do everything: No

What I can do: Include in my monthly social media report to university leadership productive things that are being suggested on social media re: these issues and relay sentiment analysis that shows how important these issues are to our audience

What I can not do: Make all of those changes myself

Adding value

This is hopefully a consideration in all that we do as social media managers.

Adding value, or at least trying to, is something we can control in some way, shape or form.

As we listen to what our audience is saying and identify the emotions/information being shared, we are then in a position to do something with everything we've learned. If all of the hurt and pain and outrage and distress stops with us, it's first of all exhausting, second, not getting to the people it ultimately needs to get to and third, not going to ultimately help the people it needs to help.

We can add value by being an effective go-between, curator and advocate for our audience.

I would recommend getting into the habit of making a report. Whether it's a report that just goes to your boss, around your whole office or to the president of the university, I've found that the process of putting together the report has been very helpful in managing my mental health. It can be difficult still to have to scour through a lot of negative sentiment, but I'm going to have to look through it while monitoring anyway ... I might as well do something with it.

So looking back up to the comment group examples, if I was putting together a report to university leadership regarding how that institutional message was received, I would have a written section explaining the things that went well. (Remember, even on the posts that get a ton of negative comments, you most likely have exponentially more likes than negative comments. Those likes aren't always as visible and can be easy to look past, but it's important to remember that there is always a nonvocal majority there supporting us.) I would share a bit about the positive comments received. Then I would talk about the negative sentiment, just how much of it we saw and any common sentiment groups. As part of the report I would also include screenshots of comments that might have either been extremely liked or very representative of the larger sentiment trends.

There are a lot of ways to do social media reports. I would recommend less numbers and more context for leadership overall. Definitely use data, but explain what exactly that data means and why it's important. Don't bog down reports with data that isn't important.

Be a good (social) listener

As social media managers, we talk a lot about content and what we're posting and not as much about listening and how important that is. Being able to listen well, especially right now when there are so many voices that are in dire need of being listened to, is so important.

IMO ... the best thing we can do right now is listen. And that can be hard. But a lot of us are in times when we're not able to post as much as usual or reply to as many comments as usual, not having answers for a lot of questions. As hard as it is when the posts and comments and tags and DMs are all so negative and hard to read, we've got to read them. We've got to create reports and send them up the line.

Let leadership know just how hurt our community is, convey how hard it is to earn back trust when negative things go viral about our institutions. Outrage spreads so much further than reactive messaging ever can. Be the expert in this field that you are to talk through these thing with data and industry best practices to back you up.

The challenge and the opportunity here is to be able to strategically communicate to university leadership just how big of an issue some of these things are and to strategically look at ways to add value from our accounts if/when the time is right and the content is right.

I firmly believe these are the issues that provide us with our biggest challenges but also our biggest opportunities as social media managers. Beyond issuing a statement, beyond finding a way to change the subject ... how can look at all of the emotions and all of the information we're getting right now, and then how can we truly add value to our communities in these areas, addressing actual, big-picture university issues in a productive, engaging way?

It's not the easiest work, but when we do it right, it can ultimately be the most satisfying and important work you do.

Therapy is good

Let me just say one thing at the end here that is maybe a bit of a disclaimer but also very much an unpaid testimonial.

The disclaimer is that I am (obviously) not a therapist. The things I've shared in this piece have been helpful for me personally. I shared them in hopes that maybe they'd be helpful for you, too. But often times when we're struggling in our lives, it's not just about one thing, just like when we're struggling at work it's not just about one post. There can be some complex and nuanced elements for us to address and work through.

The unpaid testimonial is that when I went through a really, really hard thing a few years ago (that had nothing to do with work) and found myself in a pretty hard place, I finally decided to try therapy. The idea of sitting in an office for an hour every week and coming up with things to talk about never appealed to me, and I had heard about new, robust online therapy options and their effectiveness. I joined Talkspace, and it was 100 percent helpful and perfect for me.

I would highly recommend therapy for anyone. There are lots of options and ways to do it.

I would also recommend a myriad of other self-care practices, including unplugging, getting outside, exercising well, etc. The stuff I've shared in this piece is a little bit microfocused on one element of our work to assist in areas of mental health, but it's definitely worth spending time finding and recognizing those self care elements that are most important for you, individually. For me, shocker as a stereotypical Canadian, it's playing rec league hockey once a week. Your thing is probably different.

Wherever you find yourself these days, please take care of yourself.

Be well.

You matter, and you are loved.

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