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Social media managers are underpaid, understaffed, and overworked

Those tasked with managing social media responses should be treated as on a par with management – and paid as much – given the impact of their work.

By Chris Stokel-Walker , written on October 27, 2020

From The Culture Desk

A recent row over sanitary pads and period products has highlighted one of the key issues with pronouncements on social media – and the disparity between the positions of power those behind our favourite brands’ Facebook and Twitter accounts hold, and the training and pay they receive.

On October 26, a shopper at Tesco, the UK’s biggest supermarket, claimed on Twitter she couldn’t buy sanitary pads because she was told they were not “essential items” under coronavirus rules. The rules are designed to stop disadvantaging smaller stores that have to shut while large supermarkets remain open. Tesco incorrectly included period products in a fenced-off area of one store.

But the retailer’s social media account doubled down on the mistake. “We understand how frustrating these changes will be for our Welsh customers,” the social media representative, Raza, wrote. “However, we have been told by the Welsh Government not to sell these items for the duration of the firebreak lockdown.”

The tweet quickly went viral – and was rapidly removed from the internet and replaced with a subsequent one, saying sanitary products “clearly… are an essential purchase”. A Tesco spokesperson said the reply implying they aren’t “was sent by mistake and we’re very sorry for any confusion caused.”

The argument is one of many examples of those running social media accounts messing up.

 In 2019, Chase bank raised the ire of then-presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren for what was designed to be a lighthearted tweet. The same year, Sunny D was criticized for co-opting mental health issues for its brand.

All of the incidents highlight a major issue for companies and brands who have a digital presence on social media platforms: as sites like Twitter and Facebook become the quickest, most convenient way to contact companies about customer service queries, the people managing their profiles have become more important than crisis communicators and PR executives.

Yet these employees are often underpaid, understaffed and overworked, relying on rote scripts that can and are often misconstrued – resulting in blunders like this one.

“One of the biggest problems social media workers have faced in the past 10 years is the market transition from having jobs that were seen as entry-level customer service gigs that anyone could do, to highly technical positions that place people in charge of an entity’s largest communication outlets,” explains Nathan Allebach, a social media manager who runs the Steak-umm Twitter account. 

The speed and agility needed to run an effective social media account also means it can be difficult for organisations to maintain a strong public-facing policy on pronouncements. With the expectation set that customers will receive rapid responses to questions during working hours, and the looming fear that an angry customer’s tweet could go viral if not quickly answered, those on the digital front line are forced into action – and like any one of us, they sometimes get things wrong.

However, because social media is such a public-facing platform and the biggest brands have audiences of millions on these sites, any mistakes are amplified far beyond their intention within a matter of minutes. 

“I do think that social media teams are becoming more powerful as gatekeepers of information,” says Toby Howell, who helps run Morning Brew’s Twitter account. “Everything moves at an accelerated rate on social and oftentimes teams are forced to issue responses before they are armed with the proper info.”

That lack of support when making potentially momentous nationwide decisions on policy is something that preys on social media staff – and it’s partly because of the rapid advancement of social media profiles as the first point of call for customers, rather than traditional phone helplines, that companies have found themselves in this situation.

“Prior to social media, companies and institutions would have hierarchies of PR people, marketing strategists, customer service call workers, copywriters, designers, and so on,” says Allebach. “Social media jobs disrupted that hierarchy and have become increasingly important in recent years, while the titles along with them have remained seen as low status with low pay outside most places of employment.”

But those tasked with managing social media responses should be treated as on a par with management – and paid as much – given the impact their words can have. 

“Many places are still understaffed and disjointed in their communication, which often adds enormous stress on social media workers,” explains Allebach. “There are constantly new security measures, crisis escalation policies, rules on advertising, cultural references to stay aware of, and more to be on top of each day. People in these fields need more resources and respect.”

Howell believes that while the mistake is embarrassing, it’s far from terminal – and the controversy was in part a storm in a teacup. “The power of social lies in its ability to quickly share info to a huge audience,” he says. “It’s a double-edged sword, but I think correct info eventually rises to the surface because as soon as the mistake is caught, teams can issue a correction instantaneously while removing the incorrect info.”

He believes that, although the occasional tweet may end up wrong, “social is a decent place to get reputable info”.

“There are hundreds of thousands of instantaneous fact checkers ready to catch you at a moment’s notice if you post something incorrect,” he explains. “To me, the speed and malleability that social media offers information gatekeepers is a net positive.”

Whether it’s a minor error, quickly rectified, or a more serious mistake, the Tesco brouhaha over tampons should be a wake-up call to companies to pay more attention – and respect – to their social media teams. 

“Social media has become the primary tool for entities to take care of customer service and marketing,” says Allebach. “Each entity has to strategize which platforms to prioritize with people who have intimate knowledge of how they work.”

Whether they end up doing that in practice is another question entirely.

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