Joel Goodman and J.S. Stansel discuss the challenges of covering a global emergency as a higher education social media manager.
Note: this transcript has been edited for clarity.
Joel Goodman: You’re listening to the inaugural episode of the Thought Feeder podcast with your hosts, Joel Goodman and Jon-Stephen Stansel. We originally weren’t going to release this episode as our first one, but with the urgency around COVID-19 thought it was probably better. So thanks for listening. We hope you enjoy it.
You’ve all felt it, you’re probably currently feeling it. Um, if you’re listening to this later, you’re having very traumatic memories of the week. That was, um, we are of course talking about the COVID-19 pandemic that has made it to the United States and has affected pretty much every university, every business, every, every person, unless you’re in denial and some people are, but most places are struggling. And, our friend and, and host here, J.S. is in the middle of handling all of that for the university that he works at. Let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about it.
J.S. Stansel: Yeah. Um, it’s. It’s been a month. What, what a, what a month this week has been, um, if you’re listening now we’re recording on March 16th, Monday morning, um, and so far last week the big news was, pretty much every single university has shut down and moved towards online courses and in the best of times moving towards online courses would be difficult and not without hiccups and, uh, and questions.
Trying to turn the slow-moving ship of a university in just a matter of days is a Herculean effort. And I think communications teams and web teams are all kind of struggling right now to answer the questions students have and keep up with event cancellations and keep people safe, timely, and accurate information right now.
So I think we can kind of talk about what we’ve seen, um, what, I’m doing here at the University of Central Arkansas and, um, and what, what we have coming up.
JG: I mean, I want to hear first off about kind of what you are seeing on social media in higher ed and, and you know, you’ve been tweeting a lot —I mean, you do that anyway, uh, you know, with just normal days, but the sort of, you could call it like “light abuse,” maybe heavy abuse, that some social media folks, you know, pretty much all social media managers get on a day in and day out because of this, you know, this kind of, this kind of social forgetfulness, that there’s an actual human being on the other side of the Twitter handle or the Facebook name.
Um, what, what exactly have you been dealing with in specifics? I mean, what are students asking about? What are parents asking about? Are people scared? Are people just frustrated?
Is it, you know, what’s it been like on the other side of your social media accounts?
J.S.: I think it’s a combination of everything. You know, it’s kind of what you would get in any sort of crisis situation. Just a request for more information and more knowledge. People want that information and they want it right now, even though, you know, some of these decisions take a considerable amount of time before they’re made and then communicated.
So, um. One thing I’m noticing that you know, I’ve handled so many crises in my time in higher ed and running social media professionally from major floods to snow days, which we’ve all had.
J.S.: You know, I did Hurricane Harvey for the Texas Department of Transportation. But in each of those, I felt very, and I think every social media field manager feels kind of isolated and alone because it’s happening at your institution and you’re the only one dealing with it. The thing different here is every college campus is dealing with this right now.
So we have the advantage of, you know, our community. Of other social media managers, you know, here in Arkansas, we were kind of hit later than most States, right? So we kind of had the advantages of being able to see what other universities were doing, what problems they were having, what was working well, what didn’t.
And we’re able to, for the most part, learn from that. Uh, the questions that we’re getting right now are mainly, the main question we had last week was, you know, when are you going to moved online courses?
JG: Because everyone else is doing it, why haven’t you done it yet?
J.S.: Exactly. Yeah. Um, and I think this week is going to be some of the questions about how the online courses are going to work, both from faculty and a lot from parents. You know, a lot of questions like what about lab classes and art classes and things that don’t really easily translate to online. Um, we’re going to be talking about graduation ceremonies and if those are going to be how those can be rescheduled or if there’s going to be an online component to a virtual graduation.
So all of those little details I think are going to come up this week. We’ve got a lot of questions about housing and the library hours being open, what services are still going to be available on campus and for how long?
JG: Yeah, I kind of want to talk a little bit about the online course thing because I think this is, um, it’s interesting because it’s all, you know, it’s all kind of hitting the fan right now all at the same time.
Like it’s forcing a question that shouldn’t be a question anymore because you know, so many institutions have been doing online classes since even the mid-nineties, honestly. How are you feeling on the side of having to deal with this? Like, I think for me as sort of an observer of this industry that, you know, that I’ve worked in for, you know, almost 15 years. And, someone that has a master’s degree that was done completely online and who has worked, you know, on the institutional side, having to help people implement these classes — I think it’s weird how long it has taken so many institutions to figure out how to do this. You know? They’ve been very cautious and we know we’re a risk-averse industry. They’ve been very, very cautious to move to doing online classes. That seems, you know, at this point, like kind of a mistake.
I mean, I think a lot of people knew it was a mistake anyways. You start seeing smaller universities and colleges have to close down because they can’t afford to stay open. Now it’s kind of, you know, forcing the logistics. And I think on the other side of that is, you know, 10 years ago this wouldn’t have been able to happen either. I mean, maybe people would have been forced into in online classes, but you, I think you probably would have seen a lot more of, uh, of, of our institutions just taking a massive hit because they didn’t know what to do.
J.S.: Right. I think that’s an excellent point if we’re looking on the bright side of this, if it is, 10 years ago, we would have been in a completely different ballgame and probably would have been closing down campuses rather than moving to online courses.
Then, uh, even though many universities are not prepared to shift their entire course catalog online, you know, it’s better than shutting down completely. And definitely I think there’s still advantages to having your courses online, but it’s a good test time for a testing ground of some that some of these things.
And that’s kind of what we’re seeing, you know, questions from parents about how it’s going to work. We have kind of a mix of students. Some are very excited about it and thankful that it’s happened. And then others that are like, Hey, I don’t want to do this. We also have to consider know. We’re in Arkansas and a lot of our students are going home to very, very, very rural areas where —
JG: Yeah, the, the digital divide like really starts to show up here and, and you know, like, this was something I studied when I was doing my master’s degree. It’s a lot more than just digital literacy, you know, how do you use computers? How do you learn online? It’s do you actually have access to an internet connection that’s going to allow you to have the same advantages as your classmates, or do you have access to an internet connection at all?
In a lot of cases, you know —
J.S.: Or even a laptop. And most of them are a lot of students here who their primary device is their phone and they go to the library to write their papers. Right? So that’s another issue that we’re going to have to confront. And, and I think a lot of it just kind of comes down to flexibility among faculty and understanding, that, hey, these students are going to be at home.
They may not have access to reliable wifi.
The public K-12 schools just shut down for two weeks here in Arkansas. So I think a lot of students are going to be default babysitters to younger siblings.
JG: Yeah. And that, and that’s hard, especially like, you know, how are you supposed to do these kinds of familial duties that your parent or guardian is putting on you while trying to stay engaged in class? I saw, I saw a tweet earlier, uh, earlier last week, I guess, or towards the end of last week. And a student had said how much she, hated the idea of learning online because she recognizes that she doesn’t learn as well. Like she went and did a traditional program specifically because she knew she was going to respond to the education better and stay focused. And, you know, like very, like, in my opinion, a very responsible way to look at your own education and a very thoughtful way to think through it and that does become difficult for sure in something like this.
But I don’t know. I mean, I think I probably have opinions on, you know, kind of like “suck it up and learn to be flexible.” And that’s a terrible thing to say about it. But it’s true. I mean, they’re being forced into these learning modes that may not be best for how they personally learn. And that’s, that’s a, that’s going to be difficult. I mean, it goes into all these questions about access. And I mean, you know, it’s, it’s inclusivity and it’s, it’s, there’s a, there’s a kind of edge case for accessibility within all this.
J.S.: I understand how it can feel harsh to say, you know, “suck it up and do it that way.” But in reality, we have to look at the fact of like, we’re all going to be required to make some sacrifices here until this all this blows over. Um, and you know, it’s tough and we need to, to handle it with compassion, but also we need to be — we all need to be reasonable. And, you know, it takes all of us. We’ve all got to be doing our social distancing and all of that.
So, um, again, I think it’s a good way to look at it, that we’re in a position where we can do this and we’re not, uh, we’re, we’re, we don’t have to cancel classes. We can do it, do it in another way. Yeah. So another issue is just the continued communication that we’re going to be, have to doing, uh, doing from our social accounts.
It’s not over yet, and it’s gonna continue for a long time and people are going to have questions about all sorts of events on campus. Athletics are canceled. We’re going to have a, our cafeteria is still open for the time being. And, I’m not sure if that’s going to change as we’re seeing more and more how different States are shutting down bars and restaurants and how can that apply to our food services here and those students who are food insecure. So having access to the things they need.
JG: Are you seeing any, uh, or are you having to deal with, you know, the kind of misinformation that’s been put out a lot? Like, is that really playing a role in some of those communication aspects? Or are you foreseeing that you might have to deal with that?
J.S.: We are foreseeing it, we’re, you know, um, when, before we moved into “Switch to online” mode we had a student that was being tested, this is, it feels like a year ago, but it was less than a week ago. But just a few days ago where the student was, had been in contact with someone who had tested positive for coven 19 and, um, was being tested. And. Came to the test, came back negative, but while that student was being tested, there were all sorts of rumors going around. And what I’m seeing here is those rumors and this is what worries me and keeps me up at night.
Those rumors are not happening in the public social space they are happening and private groups, they’re happening in the peer to peer networks and we might see little bits of little spots of them here and that pop up here and there on social, but we can’t really get the full details of where it is.
And that’s where it comes down to why putting out information on a regular basis is so important. One thing that we’re doing, and I’ve said, you know, if we don’t have something to put out today, we’re putting a reminder of where you can find that information.
JG: Cause if you, if you have that, if you have that empty space, it’s going to be filled by something else. And so you have less of a chance to control the conversation and make sure that it’s going in fact-based, you know, I guess truthful ways and, and, uh, you know, that does become a serious challenge because, in the space of people not getting information, they’re going to make something else up or they’re going to read something else from somewhere.
And I mean, that’s not necessarily a bad thing if they’re reading good sources and, and sourcing it. But …
J.S.: Yeah. Another thing to watch out for. We ran into and when that student was being tested, in the comment threads, someone posted some comments that could have revealed the identity of the person. And where I normally feel we don’t delete comments and that sort of stuff, in this situation you have to, so —
J.S.: You know, you have to stay on top of those comment threads. So you’re on call 24-seven to kind of monitor that. Cause. That needed to come down almost, you know, as soon as it went up.
JG: Well, I mean, I remember checking in with you on Friday and asking if you were going to get a weekend at all.
Did you get a weekend at all?
J.S.: And that comes down to another, another topic we need to address is taking care of yourself and practicing that self-care. Cause this is not going away after a week. We’re going to be, be in this for a little while. Um, so kinda settle in for a bit of a marathon, and that means taking regular breaks.
You know, I put breaks in my calendar of at one o’clock, I am taking a break. It’s the best way to do it. And I don’t always do it, but since it’s in my calendar, I feel a little bit more obligated to it. Or I get that little chime that says, Hey, stand up and go get some fresh air.
JG: Yeah. I mean, as hard as it is to remember it. You know, it is true that five minutes to go take a little walk outside is, you know, is not gonna destroy anything. So, you know, take that break and when you get back, you might be a minute off something, but it’s, you know, it’s gonna be helpful for your mental health. I mean, even for your body, just moving around, like go, get some movement.
J.S.: For sure.
JG: I, I think, um, I think there’s also a side of this where for those of you that are kind of in deep with having to read everything and communicate everything and live the mental cycle of what’s going on, like “this is my life right now.” Just walk outside for just a couple of minutes.
I think it was Friday or Saturday. I had been reading tons of news and following all of it. And some of the work that I’m doing is getting behind cause I’m dealing with other clients that are dealing with this and having to talk through some of these things with folks.
And I stepped outside. It was warm, you know, it had a nice breeze going. There were still birds, there were flowers blooming, and the world is still, the world is still there and the air outside is healthy to breathe, hopefully, depending on where you’re at. But I think for, for me anyway it helps kind of reset a little bit of, of all the craziness that’s in my head.
Find something that can do that for you — whether it’s walking outside or, you know, going in your garage and swinging a kettlebell or, you know, I dunno, just. Find something that can, that can kind of break the stress for five, 10 minutes and then, and then get back to it.
J.S.: And that’s going to be super-vital for anyone running social media who has to read all of those comments, right?
Because you’re going to hear and read some things that are going to break your heart. You’re going to want to help people with things that you have no way of helping them with. When I was running social media for Hurricane Harvey, which a lot of people considered the first social media crisis, you know, it was one of the first a major disasters where everybody had a phone, everybody was on social and people were saying they couldn’t get on 9-1-1. They were getting on Twitter and I would get tagged in conversations of, “Hey, I’m stuck on a roof here in Houston.”
J.S.: You know, me and my office in Austin, Texas, back then, there’s nothing I can do to help other than point them in the direction of somebody who can, right? So from a social media manager perspective, who’s got to monitor those situations and, and you’ve got to take care of yourself and understand what you can and cannot help with.
JG: For those of you there that are listening to this as well but aren’t on the front lines of the social media side of things. Check-in with your social media managers. And even if you are a social media manager, check in with your fellow social media managers. There’s definitely a lot that lots of us aren’t dealing with day in and day out, an hour in and hour out. And, you know, by the minute. There are a lot of things we can do to check in with, uh, with our friends and colleagues and they’re not always gonna think to check in with you cause they are busy.
And I would say beyond that, I don’t think anyone, at least, no one that I know in the higher ed industry, anyways, would think this way — or think the opposite of this rather — but feel free to check in with people, even if you’re feeling stressed, like, you know, shoot me a text, shoot me a tweet, shoot me an email, whatever. Give me a call if you’ve got my number. I’m happy to have just a quick break and conversation. I think most people are, just don’t kill what they’re working on, right? I think definitely it helps to make sure that, you know, we do still have a human connection within all of this because it’s hard on the media front to get past the sinking sensation that everyone is terrible or worried or stressed out or whatever.
And that just makes you more anxious.
J.S.: And I think that’s one positive that I’m finding here is, like I said, this is not a crisis where it’s just you and your university. It’s everybody. So if you get on Twitter and look at some of the high ed web communities and look at the hashtag #HESM and see those conversations happening, there are other people out there in this. Incredibly supportive people sharing resources, sharing their thoughts. Knowing that you’re not alone, you know, one thing I’ve always said about being a social media manager is. Unless you have done it in a crisis, you can’t relate. You can’t really understand. So there are other people who can do it and can sympathize with what you’re going through. And you know, lately, I’ve seen a lot of people who are new to the profession, and this might be their first year in the field and this is their first crisis to handle and really can use that support.
So, you know, put it out there, reach out for help when you need it, but also, you know, give that help too.
JG: Definitely. And one really great thing to come out of. Uh, all this. I mean, as great as it can be, cause it’s really stressful everywhere.
J.S.: We’re going to be in it for a while. So let’s be positive about
JG: what we, yeah.
Well, one of the really great things is, is the number of people that are, that are sharing resources online as well. Um, and, uh, you know, J.S. has a good list of folks. And, if you’re looking for resources on how best to handle this, how to think through some of your communication strategies, and how to take care of yourself in this space, these are, these are some great resources to check out.
J.S.: I would definitely start looking at some of the schools that are doing a really good job of, of getting that information out. Texas A&M is doing a great job of putting out very regular updates if you want to take a look at what they’re doing and kind of model after that.
Baylor as well. So I would take a look at them, but also don’t neglect some of the smaller schools. University of Arkansas — Fort Smith is doing a really good job. And there are some smaller community colleges as well. So you know, if you’re at a smaller school, look at the big schools, but don’t forget your peer institutions as well. There are some folks doing some really good, good work in that space, and they’re probably having the same problems and resource issues that you are. So go out and find yourself some, some role models, and I think those are a couple of good places to start with.
Also, Liz Gross in her team over at Campus Sonar are putting out regular social listening briefing updates. They’re doing an amazing job. You talked about great things happening in the space and making the most of the situation, and there’s a part of me that reads those the moment they come out, for really good information. And then the other nerd part of me that’s just in awe of the quality of information that’s coming out in the research that the team’s doing there. So if you haven’t already signed up for their updates, be sure and get on board with that.
And then be sure and kind of look at your personal community. Like I said, look at the #HESM hashtag and all the people out there that are just talking about their daily work and get on board with that.
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