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Sarah Thiam
Sarah Thiam

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Community management in a crisis

It's February 2020 and the coronavirus (CV) pandemic is a WHO-declared global emergency and my home Singapore recently entered DORScon Orange which is a national threat level, declaring medium to high public impact of the virus.


In order of number of confirmed cases, China tops the list (64K), followed by Japan (252) and Singapore (58). As I write this, I truly convey my heartfelt concern for Asia’s duress and those affected during this period.

In terms of Cases : Population : Land Mass, there's a 8x higher chance of contracting the virus in Singapore as compared to China. And this has led to the cancellation of many community activities, exhausting communication of all last-minute changes and stressfully fast turnarounds to move things online.

In my own press for time, I searched online for a quick fix on how others manage community in a crisis like this. But found close to zero information.

So I’m writing this article, to contribute to references for community managers affected by COVID-19 in 2020 or future crisis. Imo, there are 2 phases in this: PHASE ONE is to address the sudden crisis and unravel any plans you’ve made for time-sensitive activities, PHASE TWO is to make alternative plans for those activities, for example how to turn in-person activities online. This article addresses PHASE ONE.

Hope this helps reduce cognitive load if you're a community manager like me, and help create better understanding and empathy if you're far from this but have teammates going through it.

First and foremost, I want to stress that we need to talk about BOTH psychological AND physical safety because the former takes an invisible toll and is much less tended to, despite being equally important.

So, what happens to community management in a pandemic?

I’ve distilled my experience into a few realities and lessons below. For context, I was faced with a huge 2000-person conference booked in by my company and 7 peripheral community events planned around it.

  • Reality #1: there isn't much guidance on how DevRel/community should operate in a pandemic. Given that DevRel is not simply events, the way you respond to it will need to differ from what your Events Team or PR team is doing. For example, I realised that I couldn't send out a broad email with a singular well-crafted message like other mass conferences could. In community, relationships supersede operations. I had to individually reach out to each community to address their comfort level of continuing activities because it’s a partnership and I can’t decide without a consensus.
  • Reality #2: External communities may not prioritize the same way that you do. This might be extremely uncomfortable to say because it implies that someone here is not mindful enough of others’ safety and that the other is paranoid (pick your end of the spectrum). In reality, I had a fair mix of communities proactively planning to shift it online and others who preferred to see-how and cancel a few days only if absolutely necessary.
  • Reality #3: (this one is tougher) Your internal team may also not prioritize the same way that you do. Again, there is no right or wrong. In my reality, my global team’s priorities were influenced by other activities happening in other parts of the world, business priorities and the threat level presented within their local environment and more. Asia’s COVID-19 crisis wasn’t the only kind of crisis happening around the world and I learnt to better extend my empathy.

OK, what's the right response for community organizers?

Now I’ll share my lessons learnt that are actionable steps you can refer to, to reduce cognitive load if something sudden like this happens to you as well.
Again, there is no right or wrong, it's just what worked for me / what i felt was right.

  • Lesson #1: Touch base with fellow community organizers. My lesson learnt was not to come in full strength with a decision made in my head on what next steps needed to be taken. Communities are partners and need space to give input. My suggestion is to drop a personal message in a safe space (e.g. not a mass email thread which can be socially pressurizing) asking if they are comfortable and keep it open-ended to what they want to do about the meetup. If they ask for your suggestions, come ready with a few options.
  • Lesson #2: Sometimes a crisis takes a while to become full blown. In the escalation period before that, it can be a confusing time to decide when is the right time to ring the alarm. My suggestion is to plan early with your community on a backup plan + set a date that you will make the call by. This relieves a TON of stress. It kinda lets you take control of when to panic lol. Up to here, the next steps form a pretty open-ended conversation with you communities. However, I advise that you always prioritize being human over being good at your job and emphasize SAFETY FIRST. I know I said not to be pushy above, but I'd say find a firm way to stand by this prioritization. Even with communities that want to continue with their events, suggest ways to minimize risk of spread e.g. no communal food and putting travel declaration forms in place.
  • Lesson #3: Use a few factors to decide with your community on when is the right time to ring the alarm. You don’t have to wait for the government of W.H.O. to decide if something is unsafe. If you feel unsafe or anxious, some of your community probably already feels that way and since psychological safety is really important, you need to find an appropriate time to ring the alarm. Consider A) on-ground sentiment and the community’s aggregate response B) aligning with your company’s direction on it C) national and global official emergency levels D) poll your participants which is the most direct and useful.
  • Lesson #4: Communicate actively with your audience / community to give peace of mind. The psychological stress of them sitting there wondering if the event they signed up for is going to be safe or not, what will happen etc is VERY REAL. Be super clear to them and don’t hesitate to over-communicate especially if the situation is changing day-by-day. Add a note on the meetup board, send email notifications or leave a note on your social if most are tuned in there.

As I write about this in real time, I’m now at the point where communications have been made to cancel most in-person activities. PHASE TWO is next where next steps are to figure out how to re-purpose plans into safer channels e.g. online meetups, on-demand videos, social and more. Will share that in Coronavirus lessons part 2 soon, successful or not.

Wish me luck!


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