Until recently, Christina Garnett worked at a global agency managing social media accounts for Fortune 500 companies, running a team that moderated and responded to people’s online questions. During the first months of the pandemic, she would wake up at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m., anxiously checking her phone and email to see if there was yet another crisis that required a quick response: Did the stock market crash? Did the president tweet about a specific brand? Was there a potential Covid-19 vaccine?
The 37-year-old social strategist often felt depressed and misunderstood by upper management, who didn’t fully understand how much time, effort, and stress social media work entails — and how toxic it can be for those who perform it every day, for hours and hours. “They don’t know what it’s like to live in that Twitter feed… to live in the comments section and to be able to see a populace that is agitated, that feels hopeless, that feels angry, that feels powerless,” she says. “It has turned to a point where we are either crying into the void or we’re yelling at it.”
In the relentless news cycle of 2020, social media managers are first responders. At a time when many are feeling social media’s impact on mental health and the burnout of working through a pandemic, they are under immense pressure to stay online, always be on call, respond quickly, and not make mistakes. In some cases they are on the verge of psychological collapse. Yet the importance of their work is still often invisible and undermined.
When Garnett shared her concerns about how 2020 is affecting social media managers in a blog post, messages started pouring in from dozens of peers who told her they were also struggling.
She had first tried to minimize her feelings. She told herself others had it worse than her, that she wasn’t working 24-hour shifts at a hospital and lives were not at stake in her job. But eventually, she couldn’t take it anymore. In June, she quit her job at the agency and now works as a strategist for a tech company.
It hasn’t been easy for Alexya Brown either. When she started at the local news website DCist in April, just weeks after D.C. issued its first stay-at-home order, she was the first dedicated social media manager the newsroom had ever had. As a 22-year-old Black woman, managing social media for a news outlet became particularly challenging when racial justice protests all over the country erupted after George Floyd was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis on May 25.
In D.C., protests garnered national attention when the police tear-gassed and violently pushed away demonstrators on Lafayette Square so that President Trump could take a photo in front of St. John’s Church. Many other protests and marches followed in the capital, and it was Brown’s job to accurately inform audiences on social media about what was happening in real time. She would receive dozens of photos, messages, and quotes from reporters on the ground, but she also had to monitor protest hashtags and online conversations, which were full of abusive and racist comments.
“I feel threatened by the fact that people feel like they can say [racist comments] online very boldly, and I’m the target audience for that person inciting some sort of negative emotions,” she says. But Brown felt it was also her responsibility to provide reliable information to people, even if it was emotionally taxing for her. “I’d rather it be me covering news about racial injustice than someone else,” she says.
Sometimes it was hard for Brown to separate her work from her own feelings as a Black woman. Objectivity became a big discussion topic in her newsroom. “I have to maintain accounts that are supposed to have a more neutral voice,” she says. “And sometimes I feel that keeping that neutrality is ultimately a disservice to my audience and to the community.”
“If you’ve got a job that’s going to affect your mental well-being, you should get paid more for it.”
It took a toll on Brown’s health. She gained 15 pounds and felt her eyesight was getting worse because she spent so many hours in front of screens. She didn’t sleep well and would wake up in the middle of the night looking for her phone. To cope, she tried to set strict boundaries and log off from work around 6 p.m. to draw in her sketchbook or practice her DJ skills.
Brown has not been able to meet most of her co-workers in person yet and, as a social media manager and a young Black woman, she often wonders whether she is being taken seriously as an equal professional within the newsroom. Social media managers are in high demand. But these jobs are often performed by young people who are underpaid. The national average salary of a social media manager is about $57,000, considerably less than what marketing managers make — over $135,000.
Social media managers are making important — and very public — decisions all the time. They need to respond to news and conversations quickly to be effective. The public voice and image of companies, media outlets, public figures, and institutions are in their hands at a very delicate time. Yet their job is still often seen as something anyone could do, or left to those who are just getting started in their careers.
“It’s like putting an intern to be your press secretary,” says Alan Rosenblatt, a social media consultant for political campaigns who teaches digital and social media strategy at George Washington University and Johns Hopkins University. “It’s a recipe for disaster.”
In a press conference, you wouldn’t have your press secretary go check with their supervisors on how to respond to every question, Rosenblatt explains. You need a seasoned professional who knows the strategy well and feels comfortable about what they can and can’t say.
Matthew Kobach, who until recently worked as the New York Stock Exchange’s social media manager, agrees. “A ‘junior social media person’ should be an oxymoron,” he says. Before the pandemic, Kobach worked to “capture the cool stuff” that was happening on the stock exchange floor to make financial markets accessible and fun. He’d regularly meet the most influential CEOs, tech gurus, and sports celebrities and interview them for NYSE’s social channels. Then Covid-19 hit and the floor closed, turning Kobach’s job upside down.
In March, the stock market went through one of the most dramatic crashes in history, dropping by 26% in four days. “You can’t all of a sudden be cutesy or funny or witty when literally they stopped trading because [the market] was falling so quickly,” he says. “It went from shining a light on all the cool things to completely shifting to: What is the information that people need to know right now about financial markets?”
It was a stressful time for Kobach. During the hours when the market was open, he couldn’t be away from his phone or his email for more than an hour because everything was changing so fast. The market could drop at any minute, or there could be some coronavirus-related news he needed to quickly respond to. He couldn’t schedule anything or plan ahead. In July, Kobach left NYSE and now works remotely for Fast, a tech startup.
Kobach considers social media management a hazardous job that should be paid accordingly. “There’s a lot of stress you have to deal with as a social media person, and I don’t think that’s taken into account,” he says. “If you’ve got a job that’s going to affect your mental well-being, you should get paid more for it.”
“It’s a seamless and continuous drinking from the firehose at all hours now.”
Nikki Sunstrum’s social media team at the University of Michigan also went through a transition during the pandemic. A couple of members quit social media work for a variety of reasons — some unrelated to Covid-19 stress. An increasing number of communications professionals are “running away” from social media during the pandemic, she says, due to the increased stress of constantly operating in crisis mode with minimal support. Nearly 90% of social media managers in higher education say the pandemic has made their work much harder, according to a recent study by West Virginia University, and more than half of respondents say they are a “team of one.”
Days have gotten even longer for Sunstrum’s team in recent months. She says they work more than 12 hours a day, seven days a week, reacting to the latest pandemic news, student questions, complaints, and the university’s constantly changing plans to adapt their programs to social distancing regulations. “It’s a seamless and continuous drinking from the firehose at all hours now,” she says. The day we spoke, Sunstrum had to delay our conversation because the university had just issued an immediate two-week stay-at-home order for all undergraduate students. Since the pandemic started, the social team had to rush and completely change their plans, including the visual language they used to couple with their messaging. For example, now that social distancing measures were in place, they had to avoid photos of crowds on campus. “Essentially we need to pick the visual on behalf of the institution,” she says. “It’s an endorsement of behavior.”
Perhaps the field where social media has played the most vital role during the pandemic is health care. Chloe Politis, director of digital and social media at Mount Sinai Health System, started planning early on, as soon as she heard about the new coronavirus in late January. As Covid-19 expanded across the world and made it to the United States, so did fear and misinformation about the novel coronavirus. Politis’ priority was to be a “good source of truth” and to make reliable information from physicians and other medical experts easy to digest at a critical time.
People were hungry for medical information, and Politis felt it was a big responsibility for Mount Sinai’s social team to deliver expert advice quickly and accurately. They started publishing two to three live video interviews with experts daily to address audience questions. Their Covid-related videos garnered over 14 million views and notifications spiked to 500 per hour on all platforms. Physicians and experts understood the power of social media in the management of this health crisis, Politis says, and since the pandemic started they have been working more closely than ever.
Politis felt that she was making a difference with her job, and that sense of purpose helped her push through the 18-hour work days and the exhaustion. There was also this adrenaline rush. “Everything was moving so quickly,” she says. “We didn’t want to make people wait for answers.”
To help with the stress, she exercises for 45 minutes a day and this summer she spent almost every weekend at the beach. “I find my peace there,” she says.
With Covid-19 cases hitting record highs every other day, the news cycle shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. And relief for social media managers may require more than personal coping skills.
Sunstrum hopes that 2020 will help organizations better understand the value of social media and include social managers at the decision-making table. “If at the end of the pandemic we haven’t yet realized that the person that has been maintaining, creating, cultivating, and sharing on behalf of our brands is not absolutely vitally important to our overarching communication strategy, at the very least stop asking us to create a hashtag at the last minute to solve the problems of your event.”
“It is an essential job,” says Brown. “We need to have more infrastructure and awareness of the fact that we’re in service to our audience.”