By Tony Dobies
(Senior Director of Marketing at West Virginia University)

Social media has never been more important than during the COVID-19 pandemic. We may not deal with a crisis like this again in our lifetime (we can all hope). In this moment, we see the things that matter most. From a marketing perspective, I hope many view clearly the value of social media content, listening and engagement. Managing social media during a crisis isn’t easy. And it’s certainly not a one-person job. Yet, that’s the set-up of most institutions today. At this time – and moving forward – it’s more important than ever to better understand what your social media managers are thinking and feeling.

Below, you’ll see some generalized statements developed after hearing from dozens of higher ed social media managers. These statements likely ring true for the social media managers you work with. They may help to better understand what they’ve gone through over the last month and how you can take steps to better manage and support them.

Negative reactions and comments can damage their mental health

On any given day, they will receive negative comments on their accounts. While it’s not targeted at them, it’s hard to not react. It’s harder when they know they can’t create change. Check in consistently with your social media managers, and have a good understanding of what is being said about your institution on social media so you can reach out when necessary. Give them an opportunity to vent frustration.

A lack of information will stunt their success

Social media managers should be part of crisis communications teams. They should be brought into important messaging early. It’s hard for them to control the conversation that takes place if they are unprepared, and it takes time to develop traditional messaging into something that works for social media. Please note: “Post this to Twitter” is basically a swear word. Bring them into the discussion at the beginning, and you’ll develop a more complete campaign and gain increased audience engagement.

They know more about the reaction to news than any other person on campus

They read every single comment and mention, and they intentionally listen for insights into your brand. Before you react – or overreact – to a few negative phone calls or emails, check with your social media manager; they will add much-needed context and perspective. Use them as a gut-check – they’ll appreciate it.

It’s too hard to manage a full-blown crisis on social media without help

It is extremely beneficial to have multiple social media experts on campus, especially when in crisis mode. It makes things a lot easier when you have a peer to check your work or brainstorm a strategy. There are also two very clear roles for social media managers in a crisis (posting and monitoring), and it’s almost impossible to do them simultaneously and successfully. Social media managers do so much more than “posts.” They plan, prepare, monitor, react, analyze … every day. They must do those things to be successful, especially during a pandemic.

They don’t shut down – ever

This is a 24/7 job, and you’re likely underpaying them for the value they add. They speak to more people on a daily basis than anyone else at your institution. Vacations are impossible for a one-person social media staff. When they take a break, even if for an hour, their email inbox isn’t the only thing that’s growing; those comments continue, too. The best way to help is to provide additional full-time staff support. If that’s not possible, make sure a full-time staff member is cross-trained. If you need audience reactions or analytics, ask them for a synopsis, and you’ll likely get what you need.

They must be an expert to be successful

 Most of the decisions your social media manager makes are instinctive – learned and perfected by previous work. That successful post (let’s maybe not say “viral,” OK?) is due to their expertise. It was a coordinated, strategic effort that has been built through experience. It’s not healthy, but they do live off likes and shares of content they care about, so give them freedom to create things they love. Trust their work; if you didn’t have social media posts vetted prior to COVID-19, you shouldn’t do it now.

They were planning ahead way before anyone else

 Social media managers in higher ed spent days crafting crucial posts about the pandemic and then quickly pivoted to plan for when things become “normal” again. They are used to adapting to current events while simultaneously planning ahead. Ask them what content they plan to develop in the coming months; they may be the key to your marketing plans if the pandemic continues on well into the summer months.


Over the next few months, show compassion and share appreciation with your social media managers. Take time to look at your social media staff and invest resources into it. That might mean funding their participation at a conference, hiring a second social media manager, paying them a bit more, providing them scheduling, analytics and listening software and/or including them in additional meetings.

This pandemic shows we need social media managers more than ever, so support them in any way you can.

A great resource that will make the case for social media marketing’s critical role in a campus’s brand identity is Campus Sonar’s update to How to Manage Social Media in Higher Education. Liz Gross, along with some fantastic guest contributors expand on Liz’s initial roadmap to social media marketing. You can download the first edition and watch for the update early this summer. Also keep an eye on the Brain Waves blog for excerpts and more great resources.


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About the Author:

As the Senior Director of Marketing at West Virginia University, Tony Dobies has positioned the University as a leader in creative marketing and social media. Since 2011, he has been a vocal advocate for new and innovative approaches to marketing and social media in higher education. At WVU, he leads a team of talented social media managers, market researchers, advertisers, marketing strategists, brand and trademark licensing experts. Find him on -> Twitter | Instagram | LinkedIn