You Are Not Helpless: SM in Crisis

How can a job, which, at its core, is no more than pasting links into an empty field, adding a description and pressing the return key, help anyone when something terrible is happening?

5 minutes
By: Andrew Cassel


That feeling best describes what it’s like being a social admin during a crisis or a calamity. Outpourings of suffering and confusion flow across every social platform and flood into the eyes and mind. 

There’s a wave of emotions when something dreadful is happening. Adrenaline carries the work during the first few hours for those communicating about the event. Professionalism keeps the engines moving as the events continue. 

Then, as the initial response crests and settles down, there is an upwelling of feelings: Despair, fear, anger, confusion and, under it all, a kind of helplessness. These feelings only deepen as the hours and days arrive following the calamity.

Will content ease the grief of losing a friend to violence? Will content lighten the spirit of those displaced by a disaster? Will content repair trust that’s been shattered by a poor decision?

The right content shared at the right time can do these things. Posting on the internet can help a community heal. Higher education social admins are not helpless as their community recovers from a crisis. They are essential to the process.

By increasing the capacity for effective communication through social networks, a community may be created that is resilient to a broad range of stressors.”  — Applications of Social Network Analysis for Building Community Disaster Resilience: Workshop Summary (2009)

Three years after Facebook opened its gates to any user 13 years and older, members of the National Academies of Sciences began to research how this groundbreaking tool, and others like it, played a role in crisis response and recovery. They found that the daily work of social admins is vitally important when preparing a community for a calamity. 

The quote above this section refers to this work as “increasing the capacity for effective communication through social networks.” When translated from the academic, it reads as the importance of using a data-driven strategy to support and expand a content calendar and to engage with a community.

Taken just a bit further away from jargon, it means that sharing content regularly and showing audiences they’re being heard by the school establishes trust. This trust is essential when an admin finds themselves undertaking the work to help mend a community’s heartbreak.

As the Resilience workshop document notes, “A community’s ability to respond to and recover from natural or human-caused disasters is, in part, dependent on the strength and effectiveness of its social networks.” 

Developing a strong, effective social network is the job of a higher-ed social team, which can be a single person. Recruiting the next class of students, celebrating alumni accomplishments, posting news stories about faculty members or sharing comforting photos of people reading under a tree, all play a part in that development.

Although the everyday work of a social admin lays the essential foundation for community healing and resilience, necessary preparation allows the admin to respond effectively to any calamity that sends shockwaves through the community.

The sudden experience of a significant, novel experience that affects a large number of people in comparable ways (creates a sense of shared fate) can create a context in which shared unique needs, expectations, and goals emerge.” — Communication, Sense of Community, and Disaster Recovery: A Facebook Case Study (2016)

There’s some comfort in knowing that a regular content calendar will help set the foundation for using social media and social networks to support a community’s recovery after a crisis. Building on that foundation, like building any shelter, requires a blueprint to shape the construction. For higher education social admins, that blueprint is preparation.

The above quote from the Disaster Recovery Case Study mentions that a “novel experience” would call for “unique needs.” In more actionable terms, an earthquake necessitates different approaches to healing content versus a student suicide, a fire or a violent assault that has sent a student to the hospital.

These scenarios are difficult to think about, but this is the real work for higher-ed social admins.

It is certainly entertaining and personally gratifying to share a hilarious meme or perfect the timing for the latest content trend. Those all have value in “increasing the capacity for effective communication.” However, being able to create a good meme or capitalize on a trend is not what’s necessary when it’s time to use the capacity to communicate effectively with a suffering audience.

Preparation is necessary. This preparation is an ongoing process.


Start by pulling images that will support the kind of communication that begins in the days following a crisis, such as photos of well-known campus buildings in all seasons. If the recovery is happening in winter, lovely spring images are jarring to see, and vice versa. 

Doing this while not occupied with day-to-day recovery efforts frees the mind to take the time needed to search for and find the right photos rather than trying to comb through the database when emotions are running high.

Build this recovery library of generic, evergreen images. These images should not have people in them.

There’s a small risk—a non-zero risk—that a person in the image will have been directly affected or even involved in the incident from which the community is recovering.

Create a place, such as a folder, that will hold the photos (organized by building name, season, etc). Make sure that others know of its existence and have access to it as well.


Whether the storage place is a folder in a cloud drive or other shared-access location, it is where you should store strategy documents. This, again, is an ongoing effort.

Start booking regular calendar time to develop recovery strategy documents for any scenario. Include links to the resources throughout the school’s web pages that will be helpful during the aftermath.

Keep in mind the “unique needs” for each scenario. Resources for recovering from a student’s death are very different from resources for recovering from an athletics program being cut because of budget concerns. 

Those examples can both inflict trauma in the community but require very different strategies to support healing and recovery. Developing a brief strategy document outlining sources of content to address the community’s needs will be very helpful when the necessary time comes.

Everyone hopes that they will never need them, but as has been said many times in many ways, hope is not a strategy.

These strategic documents should not be checklists or content calendars themselves. They will provide much-needed focus when the campus world is turned on its head. They are a place from which to start and develop as the sharing of healing content begins. When it’s difficult to see past the campus’ immediate hurt, these short strategic outlines will be a much-needed light in the darkness and illuminate the content path ahead.

Make a Plan

Prepare for the worst. Collect bland images. Develop several short strategies for events that include an active shooter with fatalities, a building fire with fatalities, a natural disaster and disruptive weather events. Include links to resources connected to each of these scenarios. Include books from the library about recovery, as well as the standard mental health resources.

Preparation is not execution. These all serve as starting points. But it’s better to have a place to start when needed rather than trying to build it as the crisis evolves.

Everyday social sharing builds capacity. Preparation is necessary to use that capacity effectively to aid in healing.

“Disaster victims report a psychological need to contribute, and by doing so, they are better able to cope with their situation.” — Emergent use of social media: a new age of opportunity for disaster resilience (2011)

Social admins are disaster victims, too. They have the psychological need to contribute, as described in the quote above. Before the disaster, admins have built audiences that are attentive; they’ve prepared images and strategy documents to face almost anything that happens.


Now it’s time to practice.

Practicing recovery and resilience strategies is best begun by attending any crisis tabletop workshops happening on campus. The ongoing healing work happens after the crisis modeled during the exercise. However, these tabletops are a great reminder about what it’s like to experience a crisis and to see what kind of calamities emergency responders on-campus practice.

This could mean a little extra work at the beginning. If social admins are not part of the crisis exercises (which they often are not), it will mean contacting the emergency response offices and getting on that list of attendees. Even if there’s little interest in developing specific recovery strategies, social admins must advocate for and are included in crisis tabletop exercises.

Following each exercise, go back to the office and check that folder of material to see if there’s a recovery strategy document for that scenario. If not, add one; if so, review it with eyes that have been freshened by the exercise experience. Check the links to resources in the recovery folder that were added months ago. Make sure they still work.

You could also practice sharing healing content by adding a piece to regular sharing even when not moving out of a traumatic experience. Write a post to practice how to express support without retraumatizing the audience. 

Community crisis healing is some of the most important work a higher education social admin does. Audiences are there to celebrate with us during times of joy. Admins need to plan, prepare and practice to be there to help audiences recover in times of anguish. 

Andrew Cassel

Andrew Cassel

Andrew Cassel has been creating and curating social media content for higher ed since 2011. Cassel speaks regularly about social media content at conferences and symposiums. Cassel was awarded a best-in-track Red Stapler and is a five-time winner of the Aurora Awards of Excellence from the Public Relations Society of America – Alaska. In 2019, he was a host for Higher Ed Live – Marketing Live. His paper “Twitch for higher education and marketing,” based on his HEWeb 2019 session, was published in the spring 2021 peer-reviewed Journal of Education Advancement & Marketing. Cassel is currently the Senior Social Strategist and Content Producer at Middlebury College.

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