Kirsty Marrins: We need to talk about social media and mental health

We owe a duty of care to the people who manage our social media accounts, who are often at the front line when it comes to a crisis

Kirsty Marrins
Kirsty Marrins

The NSPCC is the latest charity that is having to battle a raging Twitter storm after it released a statement distancing itself from the trans activist Munroe Bergdorf, in the wake of criticism from an account calling itself the "Safe Schools Alliance UK" and The Times columnist Janice Turner.

This article is not about its statement or how it handled this situation. This is about the duty of care we owe to the people who manage our social media accounts, how we support them and ensure there are procedures in place to look after their mental health. This is a subject that we don’t talk about enough.

Recognising that this is an important issue for the first time, a soon to be reported on CharityComms salary survey included a question about how people felt their role affected their mental health. Of the 668 respondents, 33 per cent whose roles included digital work answered that their role negatively affected their mental health. It’s worth mentioning that the figure was 30.6 per cent for charity communicators with non-digital roles. Those are worrying statistics.

Sylwia Korsak, community champion at Off the Record in Bristol and a digital wellbeing specialist, says it’s time to normalise conversations around mental health, and this needs to start with leadership. Social media is a very different channel from any other because it’s so responsive, meaning any sort of negativity can escalate quickly.

It’s essential to have in place a comms crisis plan that includes social media. It should include a named senior manager who should be contacted immediately when a crisis is brewing. "It’s important that they do not feel like they are on their own in making decisions," Korsak says.

That decision also needs to be an informed one, and Korsak advises that social media teams are given at least an hour or two to investigate and assess the situation in order to avoid knee-jerk responses. Some crises can be averted if there is enough time to assess the situation and brief senior management with as many facts as possible.

It’s also worth noting the incredible speed and pace at which crises can escalate or change on social media, as the NSPCC team is probably witnessing first hand. More training needs to be given to senior leaders to understand this, how best to navigate it, and how best to support and empower their social teams on the front line, updating them as they see a crisis unfold and evolve and listening to their advice.

It seems that charities that have helplines or forums have frameworks and procedures in place to support the people working on those channels, but these don’t seem to be in place for the people who manage social media channels.

Having managed social media for many different charities, I can tell you that we are often the first point of contact and we see and read distressing things: images of torture and death, desperately ill children whose parents are pleading for help, images of badly abused and neglected animals, racist and homophobic slurs. The list goes on. This isn’t just about providing support when a crisis occurs and the abuse and vitriol comes in thick and fast; it’s about providing support for the day-to-day role too.

A top tip from Korsak, which applies to charities of all sizes, is to have at least one person trained as a mental-health first-aider. "Ideally, senior leaders and trustees should be trained too, because ultimately they are responsible for the charity," she says. "Being trained gives you the skills to spot when someone needs support and the tools to help them."

Another simple yet effective tip is to build mental health into your induction programme. This sets the tone from the outset that it’s OK to talk about mental health and you’ll be supported if you do. It’s essential that staff know what support is available to them and how to access it.

As managers, Korsak’s advice is: "In your weekly or monthly supervision or one-to-ones, start with ‘How are you?’ This allows people to reflect on how they are feeling and opens the conversation to talk about their feelings more openly."

These tips are great for a long-term strategy, but what about support during, or right after, a crisis? There is much that we can learn from our colleagues who manage emotionally sensitive online communities. Serena Snoad, online community manager at the Alzheimer’s Society, recommends having someone to check in with and debrief.

She says: "Find someone to support you, help you to talk things through and to reflect on what happened. This person could be a peer, a manager or a counsellor if you have access to one.

"It’s also important to recognise when you need to get more urgent help and to know what your organisation offers or where in the sector you can turn to for help."

Snoad has worked with the social team to share good practice and support, which is now being put in place for the team.

If you find yourself in the midst of a social media crisis, consider bringing in additional support for social media, whether it’s colleagues in other departments or agency support. This will help to share the load and the pressure, ensuring people get decent breaks and it’s not all-consuming. Share internally any messages of support or solidarity that you’ve had, whether personally or to the charity, so that you’re not constantly seeing negativity.

The NSPCC has issued a statement saying counselling is being offered to all of its staff. But for those who work at small charities, if your job is having a negative effect on your mental health, seek support from Samaritans. Mind also has lots of information on workplace wellbeing on its website.

Kirsty Marrins is a digital communications consultant

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