• Dusty Weis

Lead Balloon Ep. 28 - Wendy's Twitter and the Dangers of Social Media Burnout

Updated: Mar 24



With Amy Brown and Sallie Poggi -- How Can Social Media Managers "Take a Break From Social Media?"


Wendy’s, the burger chain, is infamous for its punchy, no-holds-barred Twitter account.

And social media manager Amy Brown was the creative instigator of that success. Many internet historians even point to her epic 2017 tweet-roast as the viral moment that launched an entire genre of Snarky Brand Twitter.


It certainly made her a hero to social media managers the world over.


So why, within just a couple of months, did Amy Brown feel like she needed to leave that high-profile dream job at Wendy’s?


Because social media burnout is real. And for professional communicators, who need social media to do their jobs, it can start to seem like there’s no escape from the creeping toxicity, the poorly-defined work hours, and the haunting, ever-present specter of the algorithm.


In this episode, Amy relives the moment she "went viral," and shares some of the lessons she's learned about finding balance in social media use and maintaining her personal well-being in the toxic environment of modern social media.


Plus, UC-Davis Social Media Director Sallie Poggi joins us as well with insights into how they’re creating a healthier environment for social media professionals... and why she thinks today's social media managers are tomorrow's CMOs.


While you're here:


(Original "Smug Wendy's" artwork by Twitter user @professorsugoi)



Transcript:


Dusty Weis:

Wendy's, the burger chain, is famous for its punchy, no holds barred Twitter account, and Amy Brown was the creative instigator of that success. Many internet historians even point to her 2017 tweet roast as the viral moment that launched an entire genre of snarky brand Twitter. It certainly made her a hero to social media managers the world over.


Amy Brown:

"Well, I've tried to have a productive conversation and it's not going anywhere, so maybe I'll give it back just a little bit. Definitely didn't expect all of what happened next."

Amy Brown
Amy Brown

Dusty Weis:

The new turn for the Wendy's Twitter account was a massive success. Retweets, news coverage, even a dramatic reading in prime time by CNN's Anderson Cooper. So why then, within just a couple of months, did Amy Brown feel like she needed to leave that high profile dream job at Wendy's? Because, social media burnout is real. And for professional communicators who need to maintain social accounts to do their jobs, it can start to seem like there's no escape from the creeping toxicity, the poorly defined work hours, and the haunting, ever-present specter of the algorithm.


Sallie Poggi:

At the end of the day, the algorithm doesn't care if my staff burn themselves out, but I do.


Dusty Weis:

Sallie Poggi joins us as well with insights into how they're creating a healthier environment for social media professionals at UC Davis. I'm Dusty Weis from Podcamp Media. This is Lead Balloon, a podcast about PR, marketing, and branding nightmares, and the well-meaning communications professionals who live them.


Dusty Weis:

Thanks for tuning in. We're continuing a little bit of a deep dive mini series on social media here this month. Last month, we talked to Tony Piloseno, the TikTokker whose viral success on the platform got him fired from Sherwin-Williams. And next month, we're going to be chronicling the moment earlier this year when the Pabst Blue Ribbon Twitter account tweeted something so unbelievably profane, it got the Tweeter fired in that instance.


Dusty Weis:

All that is to say that you'd be doing yourself a favor if you took a minute to follow this show in your favorite podcast app. It costs me about 35 cents a click right now to promote this show to new listeners on social. So just do me a favor, just subscribe. That way, you're getting the new episodes delivered to you for free. You can also follow Podcamp Media on social, if that's your bag, as well.


Dusty Weis:

Ironic ask, I know, seeing is the topic of today's episode is social media burnout. But a little bit later in the show, we're going to be talking to Sallie Poggi, a social media director at UC Davis who's got some important tactics for helping social media managers strike a healthier balance in their screen time diet. However, right now, we're joined by Amy Brown, the former social media manager for Wendy's, whose snarky tweets have basically come to define the brand social media presence. Since leaving Wendy's in 2017, she's continued to work in the social media realm for a number of employers. And now, she's consulting as a social media strategist and writer in the San Francisco Bay area. So Amy Brown, thanks for joining us on Lead Balloon.


Amy Brown:

Yeah, thank you for having me. I'm excited to be here.


Dusty Weis:

So Amy, I want to start out with this thing that I hear pretty regularly from some friends and colleagues that work in this business, and it's the same obnoxious story over and over again from different social media managers, but it always goes down the same way. You're called into a meeting with a client, and when they're describing the scope of work, the project that they want to do, they sketch this out for you. And then they end it by saying, "And we want it to go viral."


Dusty Weis:

Now, as someone who's actually gone viral, I think the story of how that happened for you perfectly illustrates why that is such a ridiculous notion, at the end of the day. Because what happened to you wasn't part of a carefully contrived and thoughtfully planned strategy. Up until your infamous refrigerator tweet, Wendy's Twitter account was essentially a pretty standard exercise in online community management, right?


Amy Brown:

Yeah. So I worked there from 2012 to 2017, a decent chunk of time in social media years, right? And over the course of my time there, we did try to push the voice a little bit further. We'd had a couple of run-ins where an errant community management tweet got a little bit of attention. But yeah, this was just kind of off the cuff. It was like the first business day after New Year's. I was working from home, back before we were all working from home. And so I just sort of wrote an offhanded reply that has sort of gone on to become this major iconic thing.


Dusty Weis:

And this, of course, is where I will get out of the way and let CNN's Anderson Cooper tell the story.


Anderson Cooper:

Wendy's has this thing about its beef being fresh, not frozen. Apparently, in the world of big hamburger, every distinguishing factor counts. A few days ago, Wendy's tweeted a reminder of its long and its standing policy on its meat. And I quote, "Our beef is way too cool to ever be frozen," smiling emoji with sunglasses. Totally innocuous tweet, right? It's like the kind of tweet no one could possibly have a problem with, right?


Anderson Cooper:

But of course, somewhere out there, someone was having the kind of day that made them say to themselves, "I believe I shall now spend a sizeable hunk of time arguing with the social media account of a fast food company." That someone's name is Thuggy-D. An exquisite Twitter exchange happened between Wendy's and said Thuggy-D. Tonight, I will be reading the Wendy's tweet, and Frank from our studio crew will be playing the role of Thuggy-D. Take it away, Frank.


Frank :

Your beef is frozen, and we all know it. Y'all know we laugh at your slogan, "Fresh, never frozen," right? You're really a joke.


Anderson Cooper:

I like that last line. To which Wendy's replied, "Sorry to hear you think that, but you're wrong. We've only ever used fresh beef since we were founded in 1969."


Frank :

So you deliver it raw on a hot truck?


Anderson Cooper:

Let me pause here, because you have to admit, that is an interesting question that Thuggy-D poses. And this is where Wendy's gets a little frosty and responds, and I quote, "Where do you store cold things that aren't frozen?" Ah, yes, a riddle, but how will Thuggy-D respond?


Frank :

Y'all should give up. McDonald's got you guys beat with that dope ass breakfast.


Anderson Cooper:

And Wendy's brings down the hammer with, "You don't have to bring them into this, just because you forgot refrigerators existed for a second there." Boom.


Amy Brown:

Totally nuts to think about in retrospect. But yeah, not something I think I could have engineered, even if I had tried.


Dusty Weis:

When did you realized that it was going to be more than just a snarky repartee? Was it pretty apparent right off the bat that, "Holy cow, this thing is blowing up"?


Amy Brown:

It was definitely same day. A little later in the evening, I started noticing that it was getting some attention. I had some mixed feelings about that. Obviously, as a social media manager, you want things to go viral, but also, I was a little bit nervous because of what you just said, right? I hadn't gotten approval from anyone to do this. It wasn't some part of a strategy. And so it felt really weird to me that this thing I did kind of on my own, not even my boss really knew about it, was the big thing we did. That was a really scary moment.


Dusty Weis:

Right, yeah. I guess, take me back to the moment of actually composing the tweet. Where were you, what were you doing, and what prompted you to just open up with both barrels there?


Amy Brown:

Oh, man. I was probably on the couch in my pajamas. I definitely remember just sort of sitting around, it was kind of a lazy day. Some of our partners, like our agency, they had the day off, because it was, like I said, first business day after New Year's. And the way I remember it going down is there was sort of a back and forth with this person. It didn't start off snarky. It was like very straightforward, very sort of corporate sounding. "Sorry to hear you think that," blah, blah, blah.


Amy Brown:

And this person just kept responding. And I was like, "Okay, I have the time for this." I wouldn't usually write, but on a personal level, I was just sort of annoyed like, "Oh, this is irritating." And I think that kind of came through, and I think that's sort of what made it popular in the first place, right? Is it was one of the very first times a brand has kind of taken the mask off, and you see more of the social media manager, than you do the brand. And they're like, "Oh, there's a person back there, and they're annoyed."


Dusty Weis:

Right. It was real, and it was inappropriate response. It wasn't a corporate response, but to someone who was sitting there just essentially purposefully being a jerk to your Twitter account, it's a perfectly legitimate response to say, "Knock it off, you knuckle head."


Amy Brown:

Yeah. And that's sort of how I felt about it too. I was like, "Well, I've tried to have a productive conversation and it's not going anywhere, so maybe I'll give it back just a little bit." But yeah, definitely didn't expect all of what happened next.


Dusty Weis:

I'll say this, it's funny to me too, because in the 12 minutes since I've met you for the first time virtually here, you seem like a really, really nice and good-hearted person. And so to be the person that pioneered snarky, mean brand Twitter is just a wonderful juxtaposition for me.


Amy Brown:

Well, thank you. I like to hope I'm a nice person, right? Yeah. I've always had a sarcastic streak. I've always been the one who's cracking jokes and stuff. I tend to ... I'm trying to think of a good way to put this. I run my mouth sometimes. If something's going on that is upsetting me or feels unjust, it's hard for me to not say something. So that guy I was tweeting back and forth with, got under my skin a little. And even though it's maybe not a best practice, I was like, "I'm going to respond the way I want to."


Dusty Weis:

So it started to blow up, and it became apparent that this was not just going to go viral, but this was actually going to get media coverage as well.


Amy Brown:

That was the moment I realized, "I don't know if I'm ready for what's going to happen next." I clearly can't foresee what I have just set off.


Dusty Weis:

Amy was interviewed by a number of online publications, the follower count on her personal Twitter blew up, and she had what many people in this business would call a dream job, doing high profile work that she enjoyed most of the time. And yet, less than three months later, she would resign from that position that made her internet famous. Not because she didn't love the work, but because she was spending all her time in the deep end of social media without a life preserver.


Amy Brown:

So the team at Wendy's, at that point, we had three people, including me, rotating community management duties. And at that point, we kind of made the call to steer into it. And we were getting such an influx of people both jumping on being like, "Roast me too." And then also just people taking notice of the Wendy's Twitter account for the first time, so we saw a spike in volume. I remember us taking shifts, late night shifts, because it sort of felt like ... and I don't know if any other social media managers start to feel this way, but you feel like if you step away from the internet for a couple of minutes, you're going to miss something big that happens. You don't want to miss anything. And I think that was sort of amplified, feeling like you're under the microscope.


Amy Brown:

So yeah, for a minute there, it was sort of all hands on deck. Not quite 24/7, but a lot of ... internally, we weren't really set up to deal with all the people who were suddenly talking to us.


Dusty Weis:

Now, management, did they have any trepidation? Did they look at this and say, "I don't know if we really want to be the snarky brand on Twitter," or did they look at it and say, "You got how much engagement"?


Amy Brown:

Yeah. So like I alluded to earlier, we did have a strategy that the Wendy's brand was a little more ... we always called it challenger with charm, with a little wink and a nudge. So it wasn't that far off base for us to have pushed the voice to where it went in that conversation. My boss, who had been super supportive the entire time I was there, had a very hands off approach to social, thought it was really, really cool. The people above him were a little ... they grew to be excited about what happened. But I think at first it was very much, "Well, what does this mean? And why did this happen?"


Amy Brown:

Nobody really paying attention to how the social media team works until suddenly we're in the spotlight. And they're like, "So you just tweeted this and nobody approved it?" And I'm like, "Well, that's how it works." And that made people very uncomfortable. And I was like, "I've been doing that for years without incident."


Dusty Weis:

Right, right. It's not a thing until it's a thing. Yeah.


Amy Brown:

It's not a thing until it's a thing. I mean, obviously, they grew to very much appreciate it. You still see the impact of what happened in 2017 on the Wendy's social presence now, even though it's not so Twitter focused. They've obviously expanded and moved on to new things, they've got new people running it. But I would say it took some getting used to, for sure, I think for management. We had to do some education around why is this happening? We had some people at Twitter come talk about why this is good, because obviously, they were very excited about it, as a platform. Yeah, it did take a little work to get everyone on the same page about it being a good thing. Right?


Dusty Weis:

Right. And I mean, clearly, when you're looking at the metrics, you're like, "Holy cow, this is a good thing." But you alluded yourself to having some mixed emotions about it. How did that continue you to play out for you then in the months that followed? Because it seems like your job was seemingly redefined overnight, to the point where you were spending an awful lot of time and mental energy composing zingers for people. How did you feel about that?


Amy Brown:

I got very tired, you could probably assume from the hours we were keeping and stuff. But yeah, it felt very weird. It was a lot of attention that I wasn't necessarily used to. Being the focus of a lot of attention can be very cool, right? I think a lot of people are like, "Wouldn't it be neat to be famous or even internet famous?" But it is not normal to have that many people talking to you at once. It's really a lot. And a lot of it spilled over into my personal life.


Amy Brown:

By January, 2017, when the Wendy's Twitter account went viral, I had been experiencing burnout for a while prior to that. In the fall of 2016, I took a medical leave of absence from Wendy's and did an intensive outpatient mental health program. I suffer from depression, and I just hadn't really been taking very good care of myself, and combined with the demands of a social media job, it came to a head. I just couldn't function.


Amy Brown:

Part of what I sort of came to realize in that program was maybe my job, or at least the way I am engaging with my job, is really not healthy. As I started to dig into how I was feeling, a lot of my stress was work related. I just felt like I was going and going, going. And when I finally took time to sit still, it was sort of like, "I really don't feel very good."


Amy Brown:

So I got back from leave, and I'm there for a couple of months, and then we go viral. And obviously, it's a huge deal, and we're getting a lot of attention. And at the same time, I'm still thinking that I need a change. I loved my colleagues, I loved my boss, I loved the work, but it was just not working for me on a personal level anymore. So I'd had to have some pretty frank conversations with my boss about some things that are maybe not so comfortable. I don't know about you, but I don't love talking about my mental health in the workplace. Just a thing I'd rather not share with more people than I have to.


Amy Brown:

But it came to a point where I felt like I had to do what was best for me, even if it seemed really insane. And then of course, there was so much attention. And people online kind of think they're entitled to the details of your life. So I left Wendy's trying to figure out what's next, and all these people are DMing me, like, "Why'd you leave Wendy's? What's the tea?" They want the gossip, right? It's like, "Well, frankly, that's not any of anyone's business." But also, it was pretty difficult to navigate. You don't want to tell everyone, "I'm struggling," but that's what it was.


Dusty Weis:

I think that last part there, people DMing you to be like, "Why did you leave Wendy's," I think that speaks to part of the problem there with the toxicity of the internet. Frankly, that's really what prompted me to want to do this episode here, because it is an ongoing problem, and I think that it's only getting worse. It certainly doesn't seem to be getting any better, of the toxicity of the internet spilling over into the lives of people that work in this as professionals.


Dusty Weis:

But it's odd to me, because if you work at a toxic waste dump, you start every day by putting on a hazmat suit to protect you from the toxicity of the environment in which you work. And if you work in social media, they don't make a hazmat suit for your brain and your emotional wellbeing.


Amy Brown:

No.


Dusty Weis:

There's no hiding from that. It would be a lot easier if it wasn't such a toxic environment in social media. And certainly, it wasn't always like this. How has social media changed to become more toxic over time, from where you're sitting?


Amy Brown:

Yeah, I think that's a really good question. And I've thought a lot about this, just what is the difference? Why isn't this fun anymore? I think one of the things that really strikes me is as social networks continue to engineer their algorithms, so more things go viral ... like Twitter, for example, you see things getting engagement numbers you never used to see, and regularly.


Amy Brown:

And it's this idea that as the platforms figure out how to engineer that attention, you're also routinely hitting people outside the audience for what you're saying. So you're reaching a broader cross section of people, so it's easier to talk to people who maybe you weren't meaning to talk to, have your message misconstrued. I think that's one part of it. I think another part of it is that social media has just allowed us to have this flattened perception of people. You sort of forget, there's a person on the other end. You see their tweets and you think you know them, and I think that's been a big part of it too.


Amy Brown:

I've even caught myself doing that. Part of the reason I've stepped back personally a little bit from social is I'd started thinking about the way I was interacting with people. And I was like, "I don't like the way I am sometimes when I'm talking to strangers about hot button issues." It's so easy to lose that humanity and be like, "Well, you're stupid," and it's not productive, and it doesn't feel good.


Dusty Weis:

For folks who have more of a casual relationship with social media, it might not be quite as striking just how bad it's gotten out there. We all see the rancid political discourse, the wacky QAnon conspiracy theories that took root in the era of Donald Trump. But most of us haven't ever received a death threat. And as Amy's social media career took her into the realm of political candidates and causes, it became apparent just how unfortunately commonplace that sort of behavior can be.


Amy Brown:

It was really spooky. I will say that working on the political side was not the first time I've been on the receiving end of a death threat. You would not believe the number of people who are sending death threats to fast food restaurants. Actually, if you work in social media, you would probably believe it. Yeah, so I worked for Need to Impeach, and then subsequently, Tom Steyer. And for those of you who were paying attention to the news, Tom Steyer, the FBI intercepted a bomb that someone had sent him in the mail, while I was running social media for him. So that sort of made me take a look at the threatening messages in a very different light.


Amy Brown:

The likelihood that someone's going to do something is pretty low. But knowing that you're working for someone who could be a target because he's got lots of money, and Q people think he drinks the blood of children. And it was definitely a different tenor than I was used to, for sure. Like you said, even when people are mad at a fast food restaurant, it is not on the same level as like, "You're a member of the Illuminati." I got to assume that a lot of political candidates don't read their own tweets, because I feel like a lot of them would be real weirded out by what people are saying to them.


Dusty Weis:

And so, Amy's struggle to find balance in her professional and personal social media continued as she moved from job to job. But she's dialing it in, or trying to, at least.


Amy Brown:

Suddenly, I'm supposed to be an expert in TikTok too, or I'm supposed to be the on camera talent.


Dusty Weis:

And so coming up after the break, how social media professionals can combat burnout, personally, professionally and organizationally, with insights from Amy and Sallie Poggi, the director of social media at UC Davis.


Sallie Poggi:

This is a simple boundary that you can create as an individual, or as a brand. You can actually set your hours. You do it on storefronts all the time. Why can't we do that on social media?


Dusty Weis:

That's coming up in a minute here on Lead Balloon.


Dusty Weis:

This is Lead Balloon, and I'm Dusty Weis. When you're a social media manager who needs a break from social media, it can start to feel like your options are pretty limited. Quit your job, or lose your mind. It's up to you. But if Amy Brown, the infamous viral tweeter for the Wendy's brand feels like she can't find the right balance, what hope is there for the rest of us? Well, at the University of California Davis campus in the Sacramento area, social media director, Sallie Poggi is working to build an updated professional framework for practitioners in this space. One that recognizes that social media as a career field isn't new anymore.


Sallie Poggi:

I started working specifically in social media, trying to become a social media professional in 2007. So I guess that dates me a little bit, but there was no journey, there was no pathway forward. And so I think one thing that I'm proud of and I see in a lot of other social media managers and experts in this field, is we are used to trying new things, we're used to change, we are curious beings.

Sallie Poggi
Sallie Poggi

Sallie Poggi:

But at the same time, because there is no traditional path for this particular profession, or set of skills at, it's a bit of the Wild West still. And so there's not a lot of structure, which can be advantageous in some places and sometimes. But as it matures, I don't think the systems have adapted as fast as social media has adapted, in the way that we support and structure this particular profession. And so I think it's actually led to a lot of people questioning if this is a pathway for a real profession, that isn't a recipe for burnout.


Dusty Weis:

Sallie, you and I are from the same unique micro-generation that grew up without social media. But we were in college when Facebook first launched around 2004, 2005-ish. And back, then it only allowed college students to sign up for the service. So it's kind of like we were the guinea pigs for what's essentially become a new way of life, for better and for worse.


Sallie Poggi:

People weren't even taught talking about it as a job, Dusty, back then. I mean, I don't know how your professional journey has been, but I just happened to be the youngest person in the room when all that was happening. So they would just kick it to me, and be like, "What's this Twitter thing? Hey, 25-year-old, go figure it out."


Dusty Weis:

Literally, you just described the experience that I had at the first three jobs that I had out of college.


Sallie Poggi:

Yeah.


Dusty Weis:

Where each time it's like, "Oh, you're the youngest person in the room. Figure out YouTube for us." "You're the youngest person in the room, build us a blog."

The UC-Davis Social Team
The UC-Davis Social Team

Sallie Poggi:

Right. I truly believe that social media folk who are growing up and becoming professionals in this space are the future CMOs. Because you have to know crisis comms, PR, news, marketing, advertising, corporate comms. You have to tie all those disciplines together simultaneously. And the recipe for burnout is you're under resourced, oftentimes, understaffed, or it's thought of as like, "Eh, a kid could do that, or an intern could do that work." When it's actually, you're making so many micro-decisions.


Sallie Poggi:

But I think when we were growing up, like when I was working at the agency, there was a big moment in time where everybody was competing for where does the social media person sit, or that department sit? "It sits under marketing." "No, it sits under news." And the thing that I'm the most excited about in terms of the future of the structure of communications shops is that social media actually sits at its own unit. It has its own budget, it has its own team. It sits as a peer to marketing and to news, if you will, or other disciplines. But it deserves that level and that seat at the table.


Dusty Weis:

But in order for today's social media managers to make it to that point in their careers, where I agree with Sallie, they will make excellent communications leaders, the profession has to mature to provide its practitioners the career stability they need. And there are three areas where we need to see changes here. Organizationally, the platforms themselves, and in each of our personal relationships with social media. Okay, so let's start with the organizations we work for, right? When we talked, Amy Brown touched on this as one of the big things that made her job a challenge.


Amy Brown:

A big one I've been up on my soapbox for since my last few gigs is this idea that social media is a one person job. I think, potentially, it could have been in the past, and if you work for sort of a smaller company or organization, maybe that's still feasible. But no, just the idea that suddenly I'm supposed to be an expert in TikTok too, right? Or I'm supposed to be the on camera talent? Yeah, it's a lot.


Dusty Weis:

At UC Davis, Sallie Poggi manages a social media team of four other full-timers and 13 students, in addition to offering guidance and guardrails to 150 other university employees who use social media as a part of their jobs. And while just having that many hands to help with the work might already seem like a big win, she says they've even collaborated with management to develop policies that further professionalize their social media management.


Sallie Poggi:

It was about two years ago, it was the summer after Black Lives Matter happened. There was a lot of extra attention to Black influencers online. And I was watching an Instagram story of design influencer, her name is Carmeon Hamilton. She now on HGTV, she's amazing, so this is before she got all that. And she was just talking about her boundaries. This is her space online, this is how she likes to be acknowledged. If you want to come into this space, this is what her expectations are of you as an audience member. And I remember, gosh, I think I went on a walk and just thought silently for at least an hour after watching that story, because it really struck me as really unique.


Sallie Poggi:

I wasn't seeing very many influencers kind of draw that boundary line. I'm sure she had some pretty negative backlash to that, unfortunately. But I started to ask myself the question, what does this look like for a brand to draw boundaries with your audience? And as a team, we actually came and sat down and talked a lot about that. And we had kind of been a little fuzzy with our audience about when will we answer questions? When will we not answer questions? This is a simple boundary that you can create as an individual or as a brand. You can actually set your hours. You do it on storefronts all the time. Why can't we do that on social media?


Dusty Weis:

Right. You don't need to be responding to somebody's complaint about the admissions process that comes in after part-time.


Sallie Poggi:

Yeah. Part of our responsibility is saying, "Here is when we will answer, but we don't need to necessarily answer that on the weekend." And so when we sat down as a team and made that decision light bulbs went off, because they're like, "Oh, yeah. I don't have to answer that question on a Saturday. It's not urgent." And what this forced us to do is actually sit down and think through very carefully, what is urgent? For real, real what's urgent, and what are we thinking is urgent when it's not really? Drawing boundaries with your audience is actually a really healthy thing. We also took a holiday break, and we put an out of office up on our Instagram.


Dusty Weis:

Oh my gosh, that's brilliant.


Sallie Poggi:

Yeah. We said, "Hey, there's a team of people who are behind this account, and we're taking a break, and we'll see you January 3rd. Bye."


Dusty Weis:

Was that scary for you guys? Because-


Sallie Poggi:

Oh my God, yeah.


Dusty Weis:

I mean, it's part of the reason why it's so hard to put the darn thing down, is because you worry that if you walk away from it, that you're going to miss out on something important. And that that burning disaster tweet is going to sit there and fester for days until you're able to respond to it. How do you manage that part of it?


Sallie Poggi:

Oh my gosh, FOMO is a thing, and I think that's why we were really intentional about understanding what actually is important and what can wait. And that is a really hard thing, because on social, it's moving so fast, so you want to be like, "I have to be current. I have to be in the stream, I have to be in the river with everybody else." And what we've learned is we can actually step back.


Sallie Poggi:

And what we were nervous about was, is the algorithm going to penalize us for that two week break? So we watched our data really closely. No. Our audience was like, "Bye, see ya." They were happy, they were supportive. Also, what we were able to do is we set precedent for the rest of our social media communicators here on campus to also step away. It was very powerful, for a huge organization like this. We weren't penalized in our metrics, our audience was fine, everything was fine.


Dusty Weis:

It's funny that you mention the algorithm, because this is the elephant in the room with all of us at this point. It's almost like there's this presence in the room with you at all times that, "Well, what is the algorithm going to think of this? Are we better off using this hashtag? Is the algorithm going to like this hashtag? Is the algorithm going to like it that we do a video in 16:9 instead of 1:1? What's the algorithm going to think of this?"


Dusty Weis:

And that is perhaps one of the most frustrating things about working in this space, is trying to get into this black box of decision making that is so far out of your hands, that you're just guessing all of the time and trying to find something that works. How do you go about building policies and procedures for interacting with the algorithm?


Sallie Poggi:

Okay. I might be pretty controversial in saying I kind of stopped caring about the algorithm.


Dusty Weis:

Just DGAF, just threw up your hands and said, "Screw it"?


Sallie Poggi:

It's not that I don't care. It's that I'm actually more interested in what my community wants. And yes, we track and we look at content performance. But I just stopped making so many decisions guessing on the algorithm. I look at my data, and I see what my community wants. That's it. It's that simple. One, I'm going to choose my staff, and the health of wellbeing of my staff and team, over an algorithm any day. Because at the end of the day, the algorithm doesn't care if my staff burn themselves out, but I do.


Dusty Weis:

Right.


Sallie Poggi:

And that's where I think the power of having your leaders, because our leaders were on board with this too.


Dusty Weis:

Having leadership buy in on creating a healthy environment for social media professionals is important, Sallie says, not just when it comes to setting work hours, but also for establishing KPIs and goals that don't hinge on an algorithm that's beyond anyone's control.

The UC-Davis Social Media Mantras
The UC-Davis Social Media Mantras

Sallie Poggi:

I think, especially for those who aren't in this space, there's an idea that you can measure everything and anything on social media. And while, certainly, you can measure a lot of things, determining success is a little bit more difficult and challenging, and you have to be very clear on what success is. And I think, traditionally, success is often thought of in social media as growth and reach. But I would say one of the things that we're doing here at UC Davis, honestly, as part of burnout is, is that really what we care about? Is that really what we're defining as success? Is a viral moment in TikTok how we're defining success for this?


Sallie Poggi:

And so before we launched our TikTok, because our TikTok is only a year old, and it's completely driven by students. We call it, "Managed by gen Z with minimal millennial supervision." That's how we proposed our TikTok. And when we set out to do that, when we communicated with leadership, why we're doing it, why we're doing it the way that we have chosen to do it, how we clearly define success was not views.


Sallie Poggi:

It just wasn't views. That's part of something that we're watching, but is it getting it into the hands of potential students, and is it being helpful? So what we're looking at are comments, and are people engaging with specific kinds of content? And that is what is determining our success. We get to choose that. If you leave it up for somebody to just tell you what success is, then yeah, you kind of run into false expectations.


Dusty Weis:

That degree of all autonomy and respect for management isn't something social teams have in many organizations. And for folks like Amy Brown, that's always been kind of a sore subject.


Amy Brown:

I feel like people don't talk this way to engineers, but I've run into this issue where people are like, "Why didn't we talk about X or Y, or why didn't we do this?" And it's sort of trying to balance people being excited about your company's social with the realism of the fact that you're just one person. There's only so much we can do. But yeah, I think that can also be very challenging, is in a lot of parts of an organization, I would not know what you're working on to comment on it, but everyone sees what I'm working on.


Dusty Weis:

Not only that. Everybody has their own Facebook account, and so everybody feels like they have some degree of expertise in social media.


Amy Brown:

Oh my God. Everyone's got a nephew who runs a viral Instagram for their dog and would love to hop on the phone and chat. Yeah, everyone has one of those.


Dusty Weis:

Of course, the platforms themselves are another big reason that this is such a toxic space in which to work. Historically doing little to accommodate the needs of social media managers and offering few, if any, protections for the people in this space.


Amy Brown:

In my experience, I have found that the platforms have been pretty hands off. I think a lot of social media managers would agree with me. And I say this knowing that the teams at Facebook and Twitter and all the other social media sites have a very difficult job on their hands, which is sort of looking at the state of discourse on these sites, the state of misinformation, things like that. And that's a huge issue to tackle. And I don't want to minimize how much work and how much effort goes into that.


Amy Brown:

But no, I don't really think they've done a ton for social media managers. When I was on the Steyer campaign, we would get some death threats in private messages, and there was literally nothing you could do to report them to Facebook. You can report a post comment, but not a private message. At least that was the case back then. I don't know if they changed it. And I even went back and forth with Facebook a couple of times, and it just sort of got ... they didn't really follow up on it. Which on one level, I get. During that same time, they were also dealing with allegations that Facebook helped swing the 2016 elections.


Amy Brown:

So maybe social media managers saying they don't feel good about the messaging is lower on their priority list, and for good reason. And I've iterated this opinion before, but it's this idea that social media platforms, they invented this industry. They created an industry of workers who don't really have worker protections. Like you said, there's no hazmat suit for your brain. So if you're feeling unsafe, who do you go to? What do you do?


Dusty Weis:

Right. And that's the very big flashing letters, bold, this is a problem kind of stuff. But even just down to the day-to-day of being a social media manager, the transparency about how the algorithm works and how do you reach the most people, it's a game that you're playing where the rules change day in and day out.


Dusty Weis:

And so trying to define a path to success, trying to demonstrate to your employer, "No, we have a plan to get this message in front of X thousand number of people, and here's how we're going to do it." And then you go to implement that plan, and the entire algorithm has changed, and now you can't go forward with that. It makes it that much more stressful of an environment in which to work.


Amy Brown:

It's incredibly difficult to keep up. I wish I could credit whoever tweeted this, but it's the idea that in 2014 or 2015, you could say with certainty the exact right time to post and the length of the caption and like things like that. And now it's just sort of like, "I don't know, post it whenever, and we'll try to figure out what the algorithm's doing." Yeah, it's hard as a social media manager to even feel like you know what you're talking about sometimes. Because it's like, "Well, do things work that way? They worked that way yesterday, but I don't know if they work that way today."


Dusty Weis:

We're essentially reaching the point in this business where social media management has existed as a career, as a job title for the better part of 10 years. And we're still just flinging spaghetti at a wall and seeing what sticks.


Amy Brown:

Yeah.


Dusty Weis:

And I feel like when you try to pitch this stuff to executives at an organization like Wendy's, if they're talking to the people whose job it is to get the beef from point A to point B and turn that beef into a burger, they have a tried and true method and a plan for it. And then it's like social media, "Well, we sent out a tweet and it didn't land. So we sent out another tweet and that one went great."


Amy Brown:

And what's the difference? I couldn't tell you.


Dusty Weis:

That's what we sound like to these people?


Amy Brown:

Yeah. It feels like you sort of show up in the job as completely different every day. Which on one hand, I do like. It's cool to work in a field where no two days are the same. But also, man, yeah, it would be so much easier to get respect and for people to feel like social is a legitimate field. We're not just interns writing tweets, if we could sound like we know how things work.

UC-Davis Partners in Social
UC-Davis Partners in Social

Sallie Poggi:

I think the other thing is we have to stay grounded in what is important. And we have a saying here, "It's PR, it's not ER." And every once in a while, yes, we actually do save a life, but that is so rare. Everything else is going to be okay. Even if it's a reputational crisis, we will weather it. It's going to be okay. That's sometimes hard to feel when everybody's shouting at you online.


Dusty Weis:

For Sallie Poggi at UC Davis, readjusting her personal mindset when it comes to the job is just as important as getting support from management and the social platforms. So important, in fact, that she workshopped the problem with her team.


Sallie Poggi:

One of the things that we talked a lot about together as a team is just managing notifications, which by the way, has become a full-time job, almost, it feels like. Because you're managing your inbox, but now you have to also manage your notifications. You've got your Slack notifications pinging, and your TikTok DMs, and whatever else that's going on, because it's all in different places. And you do have to make a conscious effort to manage them.


Sallie Poggi:

I don't necessarily need to know every single time somebody likes a Instagram story. I can turn those notifications off. And in fact, especially when you're doing so many different channels ... I have access to the UC Davis Police Facebook page. I do not need to know every interaction then that happens over there. But what I do like to do is time block. Okay, so manage your notifications and make sure that they're coming to your phone.


Sallie Poggi:

Also with iPhone, there's a new feature where you can have a daily roundup, so you can round up all your notifications for the morning and for the night, which will help you kind of just create some space. The other thing that I noticed is at universities, there's lots of crisis comms. And sometimes when something happens, it was sending to my iWatch.


Dusty Weis:

Oh, no.


Sallie Poggi:

It was so bad, Dusty. Anytime somebody had something bad, it was actually physically buzzing on my arm. And I was going on a walk, and it was like, "Bzz." That is really unhealthy. Nobody should know that, not even the director of social media. So what I do is I time block a lot of that. In the morning, I look at notifications. In the afternoon, I do not. There are very few instances where immediacy is going to be necessary. And I've had to train myself to step away, because that's not easy. I used to be the kind of person that was the first to know, the first to say something. We've had to untangle ourselves. That's not necessarily our role.


Dusty Weis:

Not only that. It's not necessarily, as you said, healthy. We're not meant to live in a constant state of adrenaline, of that dopamine hit of seeing that notification. "Ooh, somebody liked my post. Ooh, I feel good about that."


Sallie Poggi:

Yeah. And one of the tricks that we do here at UC Davis is we have two phones. Two phones.


Dusty Weis:

I've heard that from a lot of social media managers. When I worked at the Trade Association, our social media manager there would not let anything work related onto her personal phone. And she said it worked wonders.


Sallie Poggi:

Yeah. I mean, I know it's not a solution for everybody, but one, if your place of business is asking to do social media, and it's not providing you a phone and data, that needs to be corrected. There's a lot of places that are still not paying for their people's phones. But yeah, there's a great separation that happens there. So I have my work phone, and I have my personal phone. And I carry them around a lot together. But then, at the end of the day, I can turn one off and put it in a drawer.


Dusty Weis:

What do you hear from the folks on your team now? You've instituted these policy changes, put up some firewalls to protect them from feeling like they're in it all the time. How are they feeling now? Has it made a difference for them?


Sallie Poggi:

I mean, I'd like to say yes, because I think we haven't had turnover on my team in a while. There's five of us total, plus the 13 students, but we've all been here for a long time. I've been here for six years, my other colleague, six, five years. So we've been through a lot together. We've seen many crises. We've not always seen eye to eye on everything, but I think we're at a place where we really appreciate that we have a team. I don't think a lot of people even have that. So we can say, "Hey, I'm going to be off grid this weekend. I'm putting my phone in the drawer." And everyone steps up and says, "I got you. Go." And when you see that trickle down and you see that attitude coming up, that to me is a measure of success.


Dusty Weis:

I think that Sallie lays down a good groundwork for detoxifying the social media manager profession a little bit. Maybe there's not much we can do to get the platforms to be more transparent, but working with management to set realistic expectations and setting boundaries for ourselves, these are attainable goals. Of course, the first step is simply putting your foot down and saying, "Nope, this isn't okay. I've got to do better." And that's why I think that Amy Brown, the former Wendy's social media manager, is so brave for doing what she's done. These days, she's doing some freelance consulting in the Bay Area, and she's got a brand new outlook on life.


Amy Brown:

So I left my most recent full-time job in March of 2021. I was working for a tech company called Figma. Great job, loved the people, but I felt like I was in a really ideal place for a social manager. There's really no crisis comms to speak of, pretty good work-life balance. Never really anything urgent that popped up late at night or over the weekend. And I was still just not feeling great about it, especially after January 6th, just watching all that unfold. And I'm also like, "Am I supposed to just keep tweeting? What do we do here?"


Amy Brown:

But I think I sort of ended up in this place where I started wondering is this what I want to keep doing? Do I want to keep being a social media manager? And my inkling was, "No, I think I want to do something else."


Amy Brown:

So my boss and her boss were actually very understanding about it. Shout out to them for being so cool, because I was literally the whole social team. So your social team comes to you and they're like, "Actually, I think I want to do something else, but I don't know what it is yet, but I'm quitting," and they were very cool. So I left with the intent to sort of figure out a career change of sorts. And then literally the month I quit my job, I got pregnant. So that sort of reshuffled everything again in a different way. But yeah, sort of I've been freelancing kind of looking around to see what's out there. Do I think there's a social job that would be right for me? Am I still going to change careers? All of these are questions I am pondering.


Dusty Weis:

Well, it sounds like you're in a really sweet spot as far as having the option to, as you said earlier, kind of go wherever you want with it. I mean, you have the notoriety, you have the profile, and more than anything right now, you've got the time to kind of figure it out. So that's awesome. And congratulations, by the way, on becoming a mom. That's awesome.


Amy Brown:

Thank you.


Dusty Weis:

I know from experience that becoming a parent can really kind of shift your perspective about just about everything. So given your experience personally and professionally with social media, how are you going to approach it someday when your kid comes to you and says, "Hey, mom. I want to join TikTok."


Amy Brown:

Yeah. So I mean, ideally, there would not be any internet by the time my kid is old enough to do that. TikTok will just not exist, and I won't even have to think about it. That's my ideal scenario, which is obviously not super realistic. Yeah. He's got some time, because he's only two months old, but probably not as much time as I would like to think there is. I guess I just want to impress upon him things like, what are reliable sources of information? Because I don't think misinformation is a huge thing, it transparently obviously is.


Amy Brown:

And also just making sure he realizes, like we've been talking about, that people on the internet are still people, even if interacting with them feels different. And I want to make sure he's out there being a nice kind person, and also just letting him know that there are people out there who can and probably will be mean to you. And that says more about what they've got going on than what you've got going on.


Amy Brown:

I like to think there's still a way out. We're not too far gone, right? There's still a way to fix what we've destroyed. And the internet was very important to me, growing up in rural Ohio. I grew up on a farm and I didn't feel like I connected with people in my ... it was my lifeline to the outside world. And I guess I hold onto the hope that it's that for other oddball kids in small town America. So I think it would take a lot of work. It's not like you just push a button, the internet's fixed. But I'm trying to remain optimistic that there's a way out of this.


Dusty Weis:

It seems for a while there, we were in sort of a social media arms race, almost. Where everybody wanted to be the edgiest and the snarkiest. And for a lot of folks, still, is how you define success on social media, is that's snarkiness is what gets the retweets. It's what gets the likes. Do you see that changing anytime soon? Especially with this sort of growing sense of burnout. Do you think that snarky social media is still the way of the future here? Or are people getting tired of that?


Amy Brown:

I definitely think people are getting tired of that. I mean, you see it in the replies to every brand tweet. The silence brand, right? Consumers are not as excited about brands on social media as they were 10 years ago. And I tend to think that's because there are so many brands, and some of them are very annoying. No offense. Just as a consumer, it's like, "Damn, ads everywhere, all the time."


Amy Brown:

I mean, I think especially right now, it's not necessarily what the internet needs either. We're talking about where the internet is and how discourse has sort of frayed around the edges. And it's like, do we really need brands to be leading the way of us being jerks to one another? Probably not. And I feel like we've seen a lot of brands start to move away from that too. And especially from the idea that snarkiness for the sake of being snarky is good.


Amy Brown:

Whenever something big happens on social, lots of people try to replicate it. Like when Oreo did the dunk in the dark tweet, for years, it was all about real time of big events, like what can you get to break through? And then after the Wendy's thing, it was like, who can be the snarkiest? Without thinking about why do we want to be snarky, what is the goal? So I'm hoping as that falls out of fashion, brands will start to look inward, I guess, and develop strategies that have more to do with them, and less to do with what they think the audience wants.


Amy Brown:

Even Wendy's doesn't really do the snarky thing that much anymore. They do the roast day once a year, but they've largely moved on from that, which I think should kind of be a signal to a lot of those other brands that it's not even really for them anymore. We've moved on. It was fun, and it's time for something different.


Dusty Weis:

Well, I've dedicated myself to just, when you see something that gets that primal, tribalistic, "Hell, yeah," out of you, I really hesitate. And I'm purposely trying not to like it, not to reshare it, and to sort of just focus myself on sharing the good again. Because I do, I think that that's the way that you start to see that change, because you don't fix the internet overnight. You do it one person at a time, and I guess we all have a part to play in that.


Amy Brown:

I think that's true. I've tried to be a little more mindful about ... tried to take a little more responsibility with things like, "Oh, if I quote tweet someone just to dunk on them, is this providing any value to anyone anywhere?" And the answer is usually no. I think sort of in a similar vein, try to really think through those impulses, right? It's easy to join a pile on, or be like, "This is the dumbest thing I've ever read," but also if it's the dumbest thing I've ever read, why am I amplifying it? So stopping and thinking about how what I'm doing on social impacts the ecosystem as a whole. Which even though I work in social, it's kind of hard to do for your personal account. I'm still figuring it out.


Dusty Weis:

I think we all are. Like the world of social media, I think we're all just figuring it out day-to-day. So Amy Brown, freelance social media strategist and writer, former viral tweeter for Wendy's, I will say this. I think that you are the leader that the wholesome social media revolution needs. And we're so glad to have had you here on the Lead Balloon podcast.


Amy Brown:

Thank you for having me.


Dusty Weis:

That is going to do it for this episode of Lead Balloon. Thanks as well to Sallie Poggi, director of social media at UC Davis for sharing some really cool insights about how they're trying to detoxify the social media profession. Speaking of which, Eva, from the City of Wauwatosa, called into the Lead Balloon Comms Gripe Line with something that's been driving her up the wall about this profession we all love.


Eva:

Okay. So my pet peeve in communication is a lack of strategy behind important initiatives that require multiple mediums. I respect professionals who can be nimble and scrappy, particularly in a world with uncertain information. But there has to be some thought behind it, and you got to get team communications involved early on. I also understand that tools like Canva have some of us thinking we are graphic designers. False. So before you print off flyers that look like 1992, or slap a QR code on it because those are trendy now, make sure team communications is involved with some strategy upfront.


Dusty Weis:

Oof, the double whammy there from Eva, and they're both good ones. Between us, I'm pretty sure that we could do an entire episode about communications initiatives that made it halfway down the runway before the comms team actually got involved. So thank you Eva, for engaging in some much needed catharsis there. And if you have anything that's been on your nerves about PR and marketing, ad cliches, awful trends, click the gripe line link in the episode description and leave me a message to tell me about it.


Dusty Weis:

Don't forget to subscribe to this show on your favorite podcast app. I'll be saying that until I'm blue in the face. Lead Balloon is produced by Podcamp Media, where we provide branded podcast production solutions for businesses. Our new podcast studios are located in the heart of beautiful downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but we work with brands all over North America. Check out our website, podcampmedia.com. Larry Kilgore III handled the dialogue editing for this episode.


Dusty Weis:

And I'm going to end it on this. I wouldn't know Larry, or about 50 more of some of the best people that I know, if it wasn't for a fellow by the name of Dave Black. Dave Black was the general manager at a scrappy little student radio station called WSUM, at the University of Wisconsin. He built that radio station himself, and in doing so, he created a learning laboratory for thousands of students to mature and grow as professional communicators over the years.


Dusty Weis:

Dave passed away unexpectedly last month, a week before we had planned to celebrate his well deserved retirement. None of us would be the people we are today without Dave's caring guidance, and that customary smile with which he greeted you at the door to his office.


Students:

Hey. What's up, Dave?


Dave Black:

Oh, no. What'd you guys do this time?


Dusty Weis:

And his legendary sense of humor. We're going to miss you, Dave. So until the next time, folks, thanks for listening. I'm Dusty Weis.

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