Bad News Burnout is Making Me Better at My Job

Sometime in mid-March, right before California’s shelter-in-place order went into effect, I deleted most of the social media apps on my phone. My reason: I was burned out on all the bad news related to COVID-19, and even more burned out by everyone’s opinions, arguments, and reactions to it. 

I’m back on social media now, but I’m happy to report that this six-week digital detox didn’t derail my work or make me a complete hermit. I’m a paid subscriber to multiple publications, both national and local. My news apps, newsletters and keyword alerts keep me on top of the developments relevant to my clients, and I’m paying attention to updates from the CDC, WHO, and San Diego County. Email, text, Whatsapp, Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, and even good old-fashioned GChat keep me in frequent contact with all my family, friends, and professional contacts. 

However, it’s still weird for me to publicly admit that I, as a PR professional, had felt so overwhelmed by the headlines that I had to stay off my personal social media accounts. It feels a little like sacrilege. Isn’t it my job to be constantly connected, monitoring reactions and staying two steps ahead of the news cycle? 

Well, yes, but not in the way I’ve thought it was for much of my career. I’ve long considered unplugging from social media a luxury I couldn’t afford. However, my burnout-induced social media hiatus has flipped that thinking on its head. In fact, it’s teaching me some new things about authentic communication in an uncertain time. 

Why We Delete, But Just Can’t Quit Social Media

Everyone has been affected by the pandemic, some more profoundly than others. Many have very personal reasons for avoiding social media right now, and I know I’m not alone in wanting a digital detox. Multiple studies have shown that a social media sabbatical is good for us (but like everything, that’s not true across the board, and it all depends on how you use it). A majority of people surveyed, even teenagers, report wanting to take a break from social media. Around 40 percent have done what I did and deleted a social media app at some point, and celebrities like Ariana Grande are talking openly about their decision to go offline.

A growing number of Americans use a social media platform as their primary source of news. Therefore, it seems natural that a major motivator for a lot of people to go dark, at least for a brief period of time, is bad news burnout—and apparently doing so makes most of us feel better, especially if we’re taking a break from Facebook

Despite this widely expressed desire to delete, though, usage of most social media platforms has held steady, even though we know its algorithms skew what news we see and likely understand how bad it can be for our mental health. So, why do we keep coming back? One possible answer: Maintaining our relationships and friendships through one-on-one conversation takes time, as does checking individual newsletters and news apps. Social media makes it easy to feel connected and informed, however passively. 

Those who don’t delete apps or take a full-on break from social media are, in many cases, embracing the long-standing practice of “aggressive unfollowing” to tidy up their feeds. This makes it even more imperative for news organizations and other influencers to make the cut with useful, relevant stories and posts. 

Most of us can’t quit social media entirely, but the important fact remains that many of us are experiencing bad news burnout on a regular basis, and might be pulling back or being more judicious about what we want to see. 

That little nugget of truth got me thinking: how do you get your message out there in the middle of a pandemic when a lot of people are feeling like this? 

Sparking Interest for Someone Who’s Burned Out 

That nugget led to another thought: “this isn’t the first time people have felt disengaged or burned out by the news, and it won’t be the last either.” To quote Pumbaa, “I’m a sensitive soul, though I seem thick-skinned.” I haven’t always had a “Hakuna Matata” attitude about the state of the world over the last several years, and I’m willing to bet other people have felt the same. While this moment is unique, I know in this industry that I will need to counter an onslaught of bad news to reach a burned-out audience many times over the course of my career. 

So, what sparks interest for a burned-out audience during a pandemic, or any other uncertain time? One friend of mine, a communications director for a multinational company, put it best: “I think the BS detector threshold is lower now.” 

Based on my observations of which pitches have landed and which have fizzled, what news gets put in the “top 10 stories” round-ups and, more qualitatively, what I found myself clicking on when I wasn’t looking for work-related news, here are my ideas on what readers need right now. 

  • Good news, like the re-opening of parks and beaches
  • News immediately relevant to them (for example, where you need to wear a face covering in San Diego County)
  • Breaking news, like the governor extending a shelter-in-place order to a particular date
  • Features with anything that someone feels might help them survive mentally, physically, emotionally, financially and professionally—more people are opening up about their personal struggles in public forums right now, and they need to know they’re not alone 
  • Photos of your pets

I’m only half-joking about the pet photos. More importantly, identifying those first four needs helped me fine-tune what I was doing when pitching a client’s initiative, campaign or product, especially to journalists. 

What We Need to Provide for Journalists

I’m not the end-all, be-all authority on what journalists need. Journalists are. But thinking about what the burned-out reader wants from the news has reframed how I offer information and interviews to even-more-overwhelmed-than-usual journalists, who are also struggling with the adjustment to life in quarantine. 

Some insights for PR pros, based on what I’ve learned so far: 

  • You need to convey that you’re not being opportunistic. It may seem like it’s all anyone can talk about, but if it’s a stretch to tie whatever you’re pitching to COVID-19, don’t do it. You risk coming off as tone-deaf at best. 
  • Don’t ignore the fact that there’s a pandemic, either. The day after the 2016 election, I was set to perform in a stand-up comedy open mic. Right before we went on, the organizer asked us to not bring up the election at all in our routines. To which all of us responded, “are you serious?” We all told the jokes we had prepared, but definitely touched on the events of the night before. All this to say: acknowledging the elephant in the room, when done right, helps diffuse some of the tension.
  • Make your good news meaningful. It’s great to hear that a company made a charitable donation, but that usually only makes news if it’s a massive company and massive donation. Unless you can talk about how that good deed is filling a need that wasn’t being filled before, or will impact an entire community, it’s not going to hold a journalist’s interest for very long. 
  • Make it useful for their immediate audience. It’s not just “what Company X is doing in San Diego,” it’s “what Company X is doing for the people of San Diego.” Ideally, that something is free or low cost, and fills a need that wasn’t being filled before (see above). 
  • Plan ahead for breaking news. The longer it’s been since a breaking news development, the more stale commentary about it becomes. That’s a hard lesson I’ve learned over time. For example: we can’t predict the future, but if your boss or client has very specific thoughts about how social distancing will impact their business, prepare that statement ahead of time, and hit send as soon as new stimulus funding or shelter-in-place updates are announced. 
  • Stop asking how they’re doing. Showing empathy is good, but nobody is hunky-dory right now, so I’m done starting emails with “I hope you’re well.” Skip the small talk at the beginning and go straight into why your pitch is useful for them. Save personalization for the end. Always assume that they have three kids screaming in the background and their internet connection is spotty. 

By the way, this isn’t just for media relations. These same principles apply if you’re writing actual social media posts, too. If what you’re putting out there isn’t relevant, realistic, or empathetic, you’re going to get cut from people’s feeds. Plenty of communications managers have done this really well, and I admire them for it. 

A lot of the tips above are also simply good communications practice overall—their importance has just crystalized for me in a new way. More than ever, before I begin drafting a pitch or even an op-ed for review, I have to take a deep breath, envision both the reader and the journalist, and really distill what I need to say into a form that serves their needs. In my case, starting with the burned-out reader who may be taking a break from social media has opened my eyes to what people might really need right now, and allowed me to adjust accordingly. 

Admitting that I’m feeling burned out is hard, and admitting that there are areas for me to improve is even harder. But as many internet memes have said, we’re all in this together. Acknowledging that I’ve needed a break allows me to empathize with other readers and writers who probably need one too, and be a resource for them, not another source of burnout.

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