On Friday, the NextGen Journal published an article titled "Why Every Social Media Manager Should be Under 25" by Cathryn Sloane. This article predictably generated a TON of traffic (More than 6K Facebook likes, 1K Tweets, and about a billion times more traffic than any other article on the site) not to mention a ton of online vitriol from the social media community. Let's put aside the content of the actual article – there have been plenty of posts made already by really smart people that do good job of offering alternative viewpoints. Let's put aside the discussion around what Cathryn did (she wrote a blog post that pissed off a bunch of a people – join the club) or didn't do (she hasn't responded to the people carrying pitchforks outside her window – I don't know that I would have done any differently at that age either). Instead of discussing what Cathryn said or should have done, let's discuss how we can help her and others like her and move forward from here.
Cathryn could have easily been one of my team members or mentees. Lord knows I've pushed and prodded the junior members of my teams often enough over the years to do more writing, sharing, and commenting online. If you were going to be advising a client or colleague how to use social media, you damn well better be using it yourself too, right? That's why I've spent an inordinate amount of my time on internal mentoring, giving presentations at colleges, sitting on the SMCEDU Board of Advisers, and holding social media training for internal teams. To say that I've been passionate about helping this next generation use social media more effectively, both personally and professionally, would be an understatement.
That's why I want to use this opportunity to do what my friend Mark Story recommended in his rebuttal post and offer Cathryn some career counsel.
First of all, I want to tell you congratulations. You took a step many aren't willing to take and you played the game. It's a hell of a lot easier to sit back and say that you don't have the time to start a blog or that you're just a kid so who cares what you think and never actually use social media in a professional manner. You got up on that stage and took a chance, which is more than most will ever do. You've written posts for NextGen Journal and USA Today. You've already taken the most difficult step – going from doing nothing to doing something. You've already done more in this space than most people you've graduated with and for that, you should be congratulated. It shows me that you have initiative and that you can take risks and that's something to be proud of.
Right now, you're getting a first-hand education about social media that you wouldn't learn in any class or from any book. Last Friday, you published a very controversial post that angered a lot of people (and understandably so). I'm sure you've already read through all of the rebuttal posts and comments people have posted and have been completely overwhelmed by it all. I've read through many of these as well and was a little taken aback myself. As you read through them, remind yourself that most of these comments were written by people over the age of 30 who feel as though you were attacking them and their livelihood. Please put yourself in their shoes and empathize with them before dismissing them as trolls. You have to understand that there's a history of ageism within this community – for the longest time, employers automatically assumed social media could only be understood by the young kids and so they were the ones given these new positions instead of more experienced individuals. Only recently have employers and the C-suite begun to realize how important social media is and how important it's become to identify the right people for these positions. So when they read your post, I think many people saw it as an opportunity to again demonstrate their value, to show potential clients why they should hire them instead of someone under 25.
That said, a lot of those comments were made by people who should know better. People who should realize the difference between disagreeing with someone's opinion and vengefully attacking the person behind the post. People who should realize that their comments, whether they're made online or off – "good luck getting a job in this industry, you idiot!" – reflect on them too. I hope they know that just as they bully you and try to destroy your reputation, they're doing the same to themselves from a managerial perspective – I don't know about you, but I wouldn't want to work with someone with a history of treating people like that, be it online or off.
Once you've gone through the thousands of comments, posts, and Tweets and weeded out the hateful ones, spend some time absorbing the feedback. Do you have a better understanding of why people were so upset? Do you feel any empathy toward their position? Do you still agree with the basic premise of your article or have you changed your mind (there's no right answer to that one, but either way, make sure you have some thoughts/facts to back up your assertion)? What were some of the most beneficial pieces of feedback you heard? Once you've collected this feedback and filtered out the garbage, start drafting a follow-up post. One of the reasons this situation spiraled out of control so quickly was because your voice was MIA the entire weekend. As Tony Heyward or any of the dozens of CEOs who have paid the price of silence can tell you, it's important that you communicate early and often. Now, I'm making the assumption that you haven't spoken up because you were utterly overwhelmed by what was happening and had no idea what to do. That's totally understandable, especially given the tone and amount of the feedback as well as your experience level in handling stuff like this.
Boil the feedback you received down to 3-5 key points and then address each one. Admit where you were wrong, but also don't be afraid to disagree with them. Don't give in to the mob collective just to get them off your back if it's not something you believe in. Did people misinterpret what you were trying to say? If so, tell us why. Were you just not aware of some of the points made in the comments/posts/Tweets? If so, tell us which ones and why they've changed your mind. Tell us what you would have done differently. By the same token, tell us what you would have done the same. Explain what you've learned and how you'll apply that in the future.
In your follow-up post, I would inject a healthy dose of humility but I would also tell you to balance that by telling you to stick with what you believe in too. No one wants to see a "I'm sorry if I offended anyone" post where you essentially back off everything you wrote. Turn the whole thing around on everyone and tell us what people of any age can do to show employers that they know what they're doing when it comes to social media. No one, at any age, likes to hear that they're disqualified from doing something simply because of their age. Talk to Dara Torres or Missy Franklin about being told they can't do something because of their age. Give some advice to your generation about the things they can do to bridge the gap in years of experience. The opportunity is there for all of you – YOU are already taking advantage of it. You can write blog posts, engage with professionals on LinkedIn, participate in industry Twitter chats. You can bypass recruiters and job postings entirely and talk directly with VPs and other hiring managers. If they're impressed with your writing and approach they're not going to care that you only have four years of experience instead o five.
Once you write the article, send it to a mentor to review before hitting publish, someone who is knowledgeable and whom you can trust. Whenever I write a post, at a minimum, I always have my wife review it first to tell me if I'm coming off too arrogant, if it flows nicely, if she can understand it, if she's having the reaction I aimed for, etc. Hell, send it to me and I'll take a look at it for you. I'd recommend having at least two people familiar with the whole situation read through it before publishing and then publish it – the sooner the better.
The other thing that I'd recommend to you and I can't say this strongly enough – don't let this incident get you down. When I was building the social media practice at my old firm, one of the first things I told our SVPs was that yes, social media will do a lot of great things for us, but there WILL be mistakes made. We can't stop them but we can mitigate the negative impacts by planning for them. That's what I'd recommend you do as well – don't stop writing. Don't disappear. Continue writing, but develop a plan to back you up in the future. Have someone you trust review every post before publishing. Never post anything before you go offline in case a firestorm erupts. Never publish something without sleeping on it at least once. Develop a mentoring relationship with someone in the industry with a lot of experience and run your ideas by him/her. Before publishing, spend 30 minutes thinking through the potential negative and positive reactions the post may elicit and be prepared with a response.
But most of all, just get back on the horse. This post isn't your legacy. How you react and move on from it will be. Everyone makes mistakes out here. Everyone has posted something they wish they hadn't. It's the cost of playing this game. Write your follow-up post, put in some processes to help guard against similar issues in the future and continue writing. As Mack Collier says in his post, "another thing about social media and such firestorms is that we all tend to move on quickly. In another day or so most of us will have moved onto something else and your time in the spotlight will be over." I can't imagine not hiring someone over a single silly post, but I can easily see interviewing someone who wrote a post that caused a firestorm and then recovered from it. Because we're all going to make mistakes – that's a given. I'm more interested in how someone recovers from those mistakes.
After all, you've already taken the first step and done something. You've also already gone through your first challenge. Now, you just have to react and move on. You'll be fine. In fact, if you do get up, dust yourself off, and continue writing, give me a call – I could use people who have this type of real world experience.
To the people who continue to personally attack Cathryn for this post, use this as an opportunity to empower those in Cathryn's generation to use social media more professionally. We need more people like Cathryn out there using social media now so that they're better equipped when we need to hire them. We can't afford to drive this young talent away by publicly crucifying them for not being experts.