5 Social Media Lessons I Learned in Prison

social media prison lessonsToday, I’m beyond delighted to welcome a new guest blogger to the RedheadWriting blog — meet Julia Rosien! Grab your handcuffs and see what’s in store. I have information waiting at the end of the post that tells you how to connect with this radical femme all over Teh Interwebz. Welcome to Cell Block J.

Twelve years ago, I accepted a job at a women’s medium/maximum security prison as a horticulture teacher. If you knew me then, you’d know the closest I’d come to prison was a game of monopoly. In fact, I could have been the spokesperson for the “So Incredibly Naive it’s Painful” campaign.

My job entailed working with women who killed their husbands, their children, who broke their mother’s jaw for their next high. People who live in prisons don’t waste time skirting issues to get to what really matters – they dive in and share abundantly. Working in a prison taught me the value of communication, creativity and the hard bottom line we all answer to – whether we admit it or not.

Teachers in a prison and social media community managers aren’t all that different. It took time for me to learn the cadence of how my students communicated, to understand the nuances and rhythm beneath their subtle words and gestures. Businesses that excel in social media, invest in finding and training community managers who focus on the task at hand while listening closely to an insane amount of signals rocket firing at them. Good community managers keep their cool. They carry on even when they stumble. And they hand deliver the ROI of community in engagement to their bosses and coworkers in the form of brand loyalty and sales.

Community manager, know thyself

My paid job in the prison was to teach. But to do that well, I did a lot of unpaid work. I served as a therapist, mentor, tour guide, beautician and sometimes pastor. With each role I filled, I gained more trust and respect so we could get the job done – together. If you’re a community manager on social media, your job is simple. Get inside the hearts and minds of your consumers and share their world. Simple, right?

Start to think of community management like tilling a garden. If you’ve done it right, the garden grows and the company – and – community thrives. Long before the flowers bloom, there’s a lot hard, back-breaking work. Reaching out to new and potential clients, seeding conversations in healthy, respectful ways and keep the weeds (and trolls) away from your fertile soil takes strategic thinking and smart execution.

Do you have what it takes to be a successful community manager – or teach in a prison?

1.    Wear your happy face

Working in a prison meant forfeiting privacy. The government knew what, who and how much I owed, my husband’s salary, the age of the jalopy I drove to work. Once I pulled into the parking lot, everything I did and said was on record. Despite the Big Brother ambiance, being happy was part of the unwritten job description. As a teacher, it was my job to role model a healthy, well-adjusted contributor to society – to mentor and elevate. Negative mentors aren’t very effective, if you ask me.

In social media, your interactions with people elevate the company you work for – which is hard to do if you’re Ms. Crabby Pants. Every conversation has the power to make or break future sales, to protect or destroy the jobs of your fellow employees.

2.    Set boundaries

The women I worked with shared their stories with me while we gardened. They retold the awful, terrible and sometimes beautiful parts of their lives. I listened, questioned and sometimes shared pieces of myself with them. While my students knew I had kids, they didn’t know their school or where we lived. Those boundaries allowed us to get to know each other safely.

As a community manager, you’re here to give the company you work for a human, compassionate voice. You’re not here to make best friends and share that you were late to work because of a gyno visit.

3.    Be nice to underdogs

The smartest, strongest women in the prison were also the kindest and most compassionate. They were valiant guardians of newcomers and outsiders, the weak and the lost. And they were vocal about it. I was targeted by a nasty gang leader one day and the response one of my students snapped back ended the attack before I had a chance to process what was happening. I walked away unscathed and very much aware that I had survived thanks the grace of a woman who had shot her husband in the face with a rifle.

In social media, haters can be scary. Their attacks can derail all your hard work and leave your community reeling in shock. But if you’ve done your job well, your community will defend you and keep you safe from attack. They’ll have your back because they know you have theirs. It’s called loyalty and it comes from earned trust.

4.    Listen to your gut

I wasn’t privy to the recipe but apparently it’s possible to make alcohol with bread and ketchup in a plastic bag hung down a heating vent. I’m sure the end product would kill you. The woman who told me about her 450 proof moonshine watched me like a panther on the hunt – for weeks – after she shared her secret. Did I approve? Would I snitch? I discussed it with my supervisor (without naming her) and in the end, no one wanted her name. If she really was brewing it (not convinced she was) the telling might have been a test of my loyalty. The powers that  be in the prison valued loyalty more than contraband.

As a community manager, the lines aren’t always black and white and operating without safety rails is part of the game. We’re all still learning this stuff. Practice getting inside problems and exploring different ways around them before acting on them. Talk to others and get their insights – collaborating is always good. Listen to your gut and learn to trust it.

If you try the ketchup and bread thing, keep the results to yourself…

5.    Keep calm and carry on

Prison has a language all its own. As a teacher, my words often had the power cool down a discussion instead of igniting an inferno. Standing just a little bit apart from heated arguments allowed me to be a calm, cool referee. No one respects a referee who throws around emotions like hand grenades.

Staying calm when you see an impending explosion on the horizon is hard work. Stay focused and keep your emotions in check and you’ll always come out with less mess to clean up. Diving deep into the emotional cesspool of a flame war does nothing good for the company you work for, your job security or future employment possibilities in social media.

Bonus Point => Offer solutions

Complaints punctuate almost every conversation in a prison. When anger is your bed partner, the list of things to complain about goes on forever. I wasn’t a guard, so I had no power, but I was still an outsider with the potential to effect change. I took time to listen – a lot of time and got very, very good at active listening. Being able to coax a laugh from anger and frustration is a life skill I will always be thankful for.

Sadly, complaints can be common for social media community managers too. It’s impossible to please every single customer who comes through your door. Set yourself up for success and learn how to actively listen and then act.

  • Apologize – Acknowledging someone’s frustration is the first step to toward a solution.
  • Say thanks – You’ve just been given the opportunity to save a relationship. Be gracious about that gift.
  • Take it off line – Arrange to call the customer and have a heart to heart. Listen, apologize and say thank you again. Amd then work together to find a solution.

julia rosien prison on redheadwriting Julia Rosien is the founder and Chief Idea Officer of SocialNorth, a social media strategist firm as well as founder and owner of GoGirlfriend, a travel-based website for women. Julia serves on various boards of directors. She is currently the 2013 Chairman for Withit.org, a non-profit organization for women in the home and furnishings industries and Chief Marketing Officer of a startup tech network for women – Women Powering Technology.

Co-founder of Canada’s first 140 Conference and its master of ceremonies as well as a presenter at TEDxWomen Waterloo, Impact99, Tweetstock.ca, Women in Biz Conference to name just a few, Julia is much-requested speaker in a variety of industries. Not surprisingly, she’s been named one of the most influential women in social media and was a nominee for the Roger’s 2011 Women of the Year celebration.

Find her on Twitter and follow the GoGirlfriend travel adventures on Facebook.


Prison and community management...now that's a very interesting and intriguing link..

I think one of the most valuable habits a brand or a community manager should cultivate, especially in times of crisis when allegations are flying thick and fast and tempers are running sky high, is patience and an ability to evaluate the situation dispassionately. Since the Internet never forgets, and since words can have far reaching consequences it's always good to think once, twice and maybe thrice before wading into the melee.

That bread and ketchup thing is legit. It's called Pruno or prison wine, according to Wikipedia. The bread provides the yeast for fermenting the ketchup. Wiki says that depending on how long the fermentation is carried out, the end results can be resemble weak beer or strong wine. (2% to 14% alcohol content).

On a side note, I need to stop thinking about alcohol


Julia, excellent article and great points. What an amazing setting to have worked in! I love reading articles like this. Thank you for sharing you experience and showing it applies to what you are doing now.

I am left to wonder if it really is possible to make alcohol with bread and ketchup. ;)

Trish Sammer
Trish Sammer

Very nice! I relate to this -- I used to teach creative writing workshops at a school for "at risk" kids in Philadelphia. Getting them to trust me was HUGE. Also, I always had to walk that line of sharing myself with them, but still keeping an appropriate distance. Ultimately, I always walked away wondering if I had learned more than I'd taught!


Poignant. Very well-written. Thanks.


Thank you. This is, perhaps, one of the most valuable things I've read in days. I am a part of an artist's community in a small art market here in So Cal and it can occasionally become a bit swampy. Thank you for posting this, for the reminder to align myself in the positive and model the kind of behavior I would like my entire community to exhibit. 


Julia, I just LOVE these types of posts and your prison stories paint such a picture that the lessons are kind of burned in my brain now.  Thanks for sharing your experience and hard-won wisdom.