At Any Age, Social Media Management Means Taking Responsibility

Some afterthoughts about ageism and community management

by Kat French |

I’m happy to be back at Social Media Explorer, sharing insights gleaned from my experience handling corporate social media in an agency environment for the past six years.

Of course, according to Cathryn Sloane, I shouldn’t have bothered, since I’m almost 15 years past my expiration date to be qualified as a social media manager. Don’t worry — over the weekend, my eyes had time to rest up from the strain of rolling over that arrogant declaration.

When I first read the article, I thought it must be deliberate linkbait. I waited for the “Gotcha!”  I waited for the sly, knowing Sloane to show up with a reply that she’d managed to get a bunch of gullible geezers to “engage” with her post. Surely, a woman who had the chutzpah to post that she’s better qualified to manage a company’s social media presence than almost everyone currently holding that job, based on the sole criteria of being in high school when Facebook and Twitter launched, didn’t publish such a post with no plan whatsoever for handling the potential backlash.

Yet at this point, it seems pretty clear that’s exactly what she did.

It seems pointless to address anything directly to Cathryn. She’s refused to respond in any way to the backlash, blocking anyone with a negative reply from her Twitter account. Her inability to handle the negative blowback from a single blog post says more than anything I could add about the flaws in her hypothesis: that everyone under 25 is more qualified than anyone over that age to handle social media professionally. One wonders what she would do if faced with an “Artic Ready/Shell Oil” situation in that job she’s stated anyone in her generation, regardless of other qualifications, is best prepared to deal with.

As Mack Collier pointed out, it wasn’t that she didn’t have a good point in there, somewhere, buried under the blind hubris, poor writing and hyperbole. Millenials have some distinct strengths and advantages when added to a social media team. I won’t argue that point. She could have come out of this looking like a clever trickster who deliberately sparked a controversy for attention. Instead, she looks like … well, like a coddled Millenial who’s never had to deal with harsh criticism and folded completely under the pressure.

If the post had been titled “Why Companies Should Consider Social Media Managers Under 25,” or “Are Companies Overvaluing Experience?” a thoughtful debate could have followed. Heck, even if that title had been pure linkbait to get the click, and the body had been a well written and supported argument about the advantages those under 25 have in social media, or the struggles they have convincing hiring managers that their personal social activity is relevant, I doubt she would have gotten the vitriolic response she received.

I reached out to the editorial staff at NextGen Journal, to find out if they give their writers publishing capability without review.  According to Connor Toohill, two other people reviewed and approved the post before it was published. Apparently neither editor warned Sloane that the piece was poorly written, or that there was a strong possibility of negative response. That would seem to indicate that either they were caught in the same Millenial blind spot as their writer, or else they were willing to let her get mauled by a mob of angry old folks in order to get a traffic spike. Toohill wrote a tepid response to the criticism that seemed to miss the point of the criticism entirely.  They did publish a thoughtful response from “designated old guy” Mark Story.

In considering the whole situation, I drew a few key takeaways that both camps, above and below that magical age marker of 25, might find useful.

  • If you’re going to bait a bull, be ready to deal with the horns. Is there a place in social media for outlandish, unpopular opinions and abrasive, egotistical attitudes? Sure. Ask Loren Feldman. There’s a whole school of thought in social media marketing promoting outrageous linkbait and “anything for a click.” It may not be my preferred strategy, but I respect a committed and shameless linkbaiter. But if you’re linkbaiting, have a plan to capitalize on that exposure. Think a few moves ahead. And put on your big girl undies (or big boy underoos, as the case may be) and deal with your mess. Otherwise you end up looking like a scared kid. Not an adult professional capable of handling grown-up situations like people being mean on the internet. Shockingly, social media managers have to deal with people being mean on the internet. A lot.
  • In journalism, especially electronic journalism, hyperbole and absolutes are not your friends. Sloane’s article was peppered with “every,” “everyone,””all,” “no one,” and “best.” There was no modulation. Hyperbole and absolutes are hard to support even in a reasoned debate; and you don’t often get the luxury of reasoned debate on the internet. It’s the verbal equivalent of painting yourself into a corner. You’ll notice when I switched from sourced information to my assumptions above, the words “apparently” and “seemed” appeared. That’s called wiggle room. Wiggle room is your friend. Real journalists don’t present their opinions and unresearched assumptions as fact, even in an op-ed blog post. Real journalists can make their point without resorting to blatantly discriminatory or offensive statements.
  • Opinions are like… a whole lot of trouble, if not handled with careThere’s a difference between clarifying or supporting an unpopular opinion with data, and insisting that any opinion, no matter how silly, has merit. There’s a difference between “Your opinion is of no value because you’re young” and “This opinion isn’t supportable, but you probably believe it because you’re young.” The official NextGen Journal response accused those who commented of the former. I saw many examples of the latter sentiment; if anyone was espousing the former view, I didn’t see it. But I didn’t read each and every comment and reply.
  • The personal and vitriolic response was uncalled for; it was also completely unsurprising. There’s no excuse for attacking someone personally on the internet. Show of hands from anyone who’s posted a controversial opinion on the internet and not received replies that were personal and below-the-belt? I’m not excusing the replies that went over the line. I’m saying anyone who wants to work professionally in social media needs to expect to deal with exactly that. People will call you names. They will make threats. It’s part of the job. The responsibilities of a social media manager are not confined to coming up with sparkling witty status updates. A high tolerance for the anger of others is one of those qualifications, aside from being in high school when Facebook launched, that makes a person a good or bad fit for this career.

Speaking of careers, I asked my friend Crystal Miller, Co-Host of #TalentNet Focus Radio Chat, a weekly Twitter chat on social recruiting, for her take. I wanted to hear Crystal’s reaction, since many comments implied that Sloane had torpedoed her chances of a social media career with one ill-advised blog post.

“The enthusiasm that she, and that generation in general, displays is a major asset for companies when appropriately harnessed and mentored. However, the limited exposure they have within the ranks of the working world can lead them to grossly over-estimate their competence level. The entitlement associated with their generation can also lead them to expect a higher position relative to their more experienced counterparts.

They believe that playing with social media and using it in school projects is the equivalent to business experience, and it’s just not. The dynamics are far more complex with work; they’re out of their depth. They’re often unaware and ill-prepared to handle the  situations they find themselves in. It’s important that their supervisors work closely with them to ensure they learn plan development, have “if-this-then-that” response scenarios in place, and that their actions are in keeping not with just their own belief system, but the company/brand they serve as well.”

I’m not sure whether to feel sorry for Cathryn Sloane or not. If her ambition was to garner attentionthen she must have succeeded beyond all expectations. She absolutely demonstrated the ability to obtain visibility online. She apparently lacked any plan whatsoever for capitalizing on that visibility, or the backbone to respond to the hornets’ nest she’d kicked up.

“Ambition should be made of sterner stuff.” – Julius Caesar, Act 3, Scene 2

Sloane and other people her age often have ambition in spades. I’ve been privileged to work with people that age who also had talent, character, and a gift for leadership. One or two in particular could handle criticism impressively well, and respected the value of others’ perspectives. That respect was sadly lacking in Sloane’s ambitious declaration. Ambition without the sterner stuff to back it up is a good way to end up a pincushion.

I love working in social media, probably for many of the same reasons younger people are drawn to it. But it’s not all witty online banter with an audience comprised of people my own age, who all share my personal beliefs. I started working in social media right around the time Kathy Sierra quit her popular and influential blog because of cyberstalking. It gave me pause. I had to stop and consider whether I really wanted to work in this field. Cathryn Sloane and other people her age probably have never even heard of Kathy Sierra. Dealing with mean people is part of the gig.

So is taking responsibility for poorly-received decisions: your own, and often those made by others within your employer’s or client’s organization. If you think it sucks dealing with your own missteps, try being the unfortunate soul stuck with the response to your employer’s oil spill. Or thoughtlessly insulting advertisement. Or product recall. Or their decision to move their manufacturing plant to Mexico during a recession.

Many people have reached out to Sloane offering mentoring, and if she still wants to work in the field I hope she grabs the olive branch. It’s possible that the reason she hasn’t responded is because this has given her a taste of what social media managers have to handle in the real world, not just in their college fantasies of the ideal job. Faced with her very first truly applicable, relevant experience in social media, she may have decided it wasn’t a career direction she wanted to take, after all.

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About the Author

Kat French

Kat French is the Client Services and Content Manager at SME Digital. An exceptional writer, Kat combines creativity with an agile, get-it-done attitude across a broad range of experience in content strategy, copywriting, community management and social media marketing. She has worked with national brands like Maker's Mark, Daytona Beach Tourism, CafePress and more.