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Dear Companies: Please Support Your Social Media Staff

Since day one, my time in my previous digital marketing job had not been easy. I once spent almost a year and a half without a manager, and eight months as the only member of the Digital Marketing team. I had to fight to get some of the essentials of my job because others did not understand the extent of my role. I faced a range of abuse from people social media, from homophobic comments to death threats – sadly, this is the norm for a lot of social media professionals.

Many of these issues, such as a lack of staffing and online abuse, were ongoing problems that I always persevered through. However, I faced more hardship in the last eight months of this job than in any other point of my career. It was the actions of a single senior member of staff which made my job more difficult than ever.

From day one, this person was desperate to get involved with my job. They demanded equal access to social media despite it not being their job. They soon proved that they had no expertise in this role, and so I was frequently forced to step in. I regularly did their work for them, including creating videos, posting on their behalf and running campaigns. It was a common occurrence that I would be approached for advice about a project, which I would end up running myself. It was also a common occurrence that my involvement would be swept under the rug, whether it was a lack of crediting me or even taking credit themselves. Despite repeatedly being spoken to about this, they never received any punishment.

These problems only got worse. They would “suggest” ideas to improve social media, and if I didn’t implement them the head of my department would get a sternly written email asking why I hadn’t done this. It wasn’t surprising when the head of my department told me I had to do “everything they told me to do”; I had to speak to at least two people if I felt uncomfortable doing something they demanded I do. They would force themselves into all of my projects, including staff training sessions and new social media accounts, and I frequently had to clean up the messes they made due to their lack of knowledge. On the flip side, they would pick and choose when they got involved. Things that were clearly part of their role, including dealing with student backlash or staff abuse, was left to me.

It’s unsurprising that this had a severe impact on my mental health. I regularly got home and broke down, bawling my eyes out. I told the people around me I was fine when all I wanted to do was scream and shout. Therapy helped to manage my emotions, but the problem was still unresolved. Similarly, going back onto my antidepressants had some effect but the root issue was still there. These helped me push away the frequent dark thoughts, but those thoughts never fully disappeared. It had a severe impact on everything I did, not just in my career but in my personal life. I went to work every day knowing I would be doing multiple people’s jobs, not just one person’s, and that it would benefit them on a far larger scale than it would benefit me.

When I left my job, part of me felt free. At the same time, I still feel chained to the trauma. The impact of the manipulation and abuse hit me full force shortly after handing in my notice, and I went through one of the lowest points of my life. Even now, I’m still processing everything that happened and trying to work through it. Meanwhile, the person who made my life so difficult was given primary control of social media. I felt like a sacrifice for someone else to succeed.

These incidents may have been unique to me, but the poor treatment of social media staff is a universal issue. They’re often overworked, underpaid and undervalued. They’re simultaneously “not an important job”, someone who “just tweets all day”, yet everything they’re told to do is suddenly “of the utmost importance”. Compared to more traditional marketing and communication forms such as print and ads, social media is seen as a fad. Despite these beliefs, social media continues to grow in popularity, and so does the workload of social media staff.

Links already exist between social media use and poor mental health. A study from the Australian Psychological Society states that “investment in [social networking sites] was associated with lower self‐esteem and higher depressed mood”. The research also highlights that social media use was “linked to more negative indicators for female adolescents compared with male adolescents”, a scary thought when considering social media roles are predominantly filled by women.

The mental health of social media professionals has received attention in recent years. Social media specialists such as Later and Sprout Social have written extensively about this, offering advice such as turning your personal social media feeds into a place of positivity. It’s also been covered by mainstream media outlets such as Metro and Vice, both who spoke to social media employees at various companies about their work. One spoke about the effect of negative comments on her wellbeing, saying “after a while, I started to get severe anxiety each time I got a notification on my phone because it was usually an irate customer”.

External abuse is difficult enough to deal with, but internal apathy turns it into an unbearable nightmare. Some of the most difficult aspects of a social media professional’s job comes from struggles with colleagues and senior staff. We’re regularly expected to drop everything we’re doing and help someone promote an event or campaign, and we’re usually one of the last to find out about it. We’re not invited to meetings, meaning projects exclude a significant amount of social media support (again, this is often dropped on us at the last minute). We find our roles dismissed, whether it’s our work seen as a “fad” or “just tweeting”, or whether it’s being referred to as unimportant or an “intern” (as if an intern is a useless role).

Many social media professionals are lucky to have supportive colleagues who outbalance the disruptive ones, or ones who eventually understand their importance within the company. However, getting the backing of senior staff is an entirely different story. Often, managers and leaders will underestimate just how much work we do and how little we get in return. We’re content creators (often in-house including graphics and videos), we’re PR experts, we’re customer service assistants, we’re report writers, we’re researchers, we’re policy enactors, we’re crisis communicators, and we’re training providers to other staff. On top of this, we have to deal with serious and downright bizarre situations online – during my career I’ve had abuse from a man who demanded his estranged daughter’s personal details, a graphic death threat where a man detailed exactly how he’d dismember me, and (on multiple occasions) been left entirely alone to handle accusations of racism. Nothing prepares you to deal with any of these, and they’re almost always tackled solo by a social media person. Consider that many large organisations will have a small social media team, often just a single person, and it’s no wonder social media professionals suffer under heavy workloads and online harassment.

The problem is that the concerns of social media staff are either ignored or underestimated. When former House of Commons and UK Parliament social media professional Sharan spoke to the Metro about her experiences in her role, she highlighted the lack of help and support to deal with her anxiety. She was especially keen to speak to another person of colour, as the abuse she had to witness online was racist in nature. When the Metro reached out to Parliament, their stock response highlighted wellbeing services and support groups, but didn’t go far enough in terms of social media support. This is the problem we encounter; when faced with an issue, we’re directed to wellbeing services, but little is done to tackle the root problem or make life easier for us. Why are our workloads increasing, with no hope of hiring more staff? Why do we not receive more support from senior members of staff, and why do they not recognise the work that we do? Why are we not more involved in the company, such as being invited to meetings or asked to contribute to large-scale campaigns? Small actions can help our workload immensely and reduce the stress we face.

As the relevance of social media increases, so too does the workload (and the frustrations) of social media staff. The anonymous account sippinsocialtea highlights some of the difficulties we face, from the lack of progression to the lack of respect. It’s clear to see that many social media professionals are at their breaking point, especially considering significant events of 2020 including Covid-19. Burnout is common amongst social media staff, meaning our work will suffer and our wellbeing will massively deteriorate. We have ways to look after ourselves, but we need our organisations to support us too.

Working in social media, you recognise some things are inevitable. You’ll get a ton of abuse online, and there’s little you can do to stop it. You’ll deal with things out of your control, such as company controversies. However, there are stresses which can be reduced or even eliminated, and it comes down to the support we receive from colleagues and senior staff.

The first thing we need businesses to do is understand what social media contributes to the company. You may not completely comprehend everything your colleagues do, but you develop a general understanding of what their work entails. For instance, you know that a Human Resources department will support you with internal conflict or hiring new staff, and you learn how to request help and what their processes are. The same should apply to social media teams; take the time to learn what they do, how to request support, and etiquette such as giving plenty of notice. It’s also incredibly important to understand just how much work we do, because this not only demonstrates our value but helps others understand the amount of stress we’re under.

The second thing we need is significant support, especially in terms of mental health. It’s not good enough to simply say “we have wellbeing services available” because as much as it helps us vent and process our emotions, we return to our desks and continue to deal with stress and abuse. Wellbeing services are good support systems, but they (understandably) don’t resolve the root issue. We also encounter wellbeing staff who don’t fully understand our role, for instance not understanding that we can’t simply stop using social media.

That’s where senior staff come in. Supporting us can come in many forms, from not overloading us with work and understanding time scales for projects to hiring more social media staff and helping us develop policies and workflows. Senior staff are often clueless about our work, sometimes by choice, and it means we don’t have people to turn to when we need it most. We’re regularly doing a high volume of work in smaller teams than other departments, and in some cases completely solo, and people don’t understand the damage this has on us. The backing of those in a position of power is vital.

While other colleagues don’t have as much influence over our job, their support still goes a long way. Understanding our work is important as it stops us becoming overloaded with tasks, but smaller acts are just as useful. Get to know us, check on us as you would other colleagues, and have our backs in times of need (especially online). Social media can be an incredibly lonely job, and the companionship will always be appreciated.

The third necessity is to give social media colleagues a voice. That means inviting them to meetings (as early as possible), asking them to contribute to campaigns, consulting them on project aspects including design and video, giving them the freedom to test creative new ideas and develop their own style, and recognising that they know best. Social media is where you’ll likely generate a lot of your traffic, so surely it should deserve the same love as your other forms of communication? Staff working in social media are content creators; they’re not there to share everything exactly as you want. Let them critique, change and collaborate, and the results will be wonderful.

Championing the success of social media teams is also vital. They get little to no recognition for their work, they’re repeatedly told “anyone can do your job” and when they try to celebrate their victories, they’re often drowned out or ignored. Instead, try celebrating alongside them no matter how much or how little you understand. If they’re happy about something they’ve done, keep uplifting them. Above all, give them the same respect you’d give other teams.

By taking the time to understand social media better, you can become a stronger supporter of social media professionals. You can fight their battles in meetings (especially if you’re a senior member of staff), you can recognise the potential of their work and you can use your own voice to strengthen theirs. Things that may seem small to you, such as nominating them for an award, means the absolute world to social media professionals.

Finally, you need to reflect on your own social media habits. It’s one thing to offer support to social media teams, but does it mean anything if your own habits are impacting their work? For one, do you do things “on behalf of” the social media team? If so, it’s likely they have to spend extra time refining your work, whether it’s redesigning a graphic or rewriting a post. Do you consult your social media team about updates such as new social media accounts? If not, consider speaking to them before you do so; even if they say no, they’ll still offer sage advice.

Your social media habits can be positive, though. Try sharing their work online (such as retweeting their posts) or being a social media advocate in meetings. Social media professionals work hard to spread the word about their work, especially within a company, but it doesn’t always have the intended effect. By supporting them as positively as possible, you’re not only lending a helping hand but forging stronger relationships.

Working in social media, I’ve always been told “you must have a really fun job”. In a lot of ways, I really do. I love the creativity, I love the problem solving, and I love interacting with people online. It’s the perfect job for someone like me. However, it’s a job that has its downsides. Online abuse is rampant, and the constantly growing social media sector means a regularly increasing workload. Sadly, many companies are unequipped to effectively support their social media team, and some even purposefully neglect them. Some believe that having a single social media person is viable, while that person is likely crumbling under the stress and pressure.

Whether you’re a huge organisation or small business, please make sure you’re supporting us as much as possible. We offer so much to your company, but we’re sacrificing our own wellbeing to do so.

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