Gini Dietrich

Social Media Interns: The Pros and Cons

By: Gini Dietrich | November 10, 2009 | 

Today’s blog topic came from my friend Jeff Lipschultz.

There’s been a lot of talk (and action) lately centered around “Social Media Interns.” Can you share with us the parameters for having an effective program? Some work for free. Some work remotely. Qualifications? Training required? Return-on-investment (of time/dollars).

It won’t come as a surprise to some of you that I don’t think interns should be doing your social media (sorry JC Maldonado!). It’s not that they can’t Facebook and tweet for you. It’s that they don’t have business experience to set the strategy for which tools you use, how you use them, and how you engage your customers.

Can they set you on the networks? Absolutely! Can they help you reserve your names on Name Check? For sure! Can they teach you how to use the tools. Yes!

At Arment Dietrich, we don’t hire interns until they’ve graduated from college. We learned, early on, that we were training college students the basics of communication, sending them back to school, and letting them go work for another company. If we hire them after they’ve graduated from college, we have a better chance of teaching them the basics and then hiring them full-time.

Same goes for your company.  Interns do not have business experience. Just like you wouldn’t let them pitch a new business prospect, present to the board, or (in our business) call reporters, why would you have them engage and connect with your customers, your employees, your stakeholders, and your prospects?

And Jeff? If an intern works for free…you get what you pay for.

I wrote about this topic earlier this year, as well as was interviewed about it by The Big Money. You can see the blog post here, along with A LOT of comments from interns who were doing social media work for the summer.

What do you think?

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with us on this topic. And the previous post has a lot of interesting comments. My takeaway is: the mechanics of Social Media management is only a portion of the bigger initiative (which includes the branding and strategy). Interns can’t manage all of it themselves, but can address smaller aspects of the whole.

    I have seen effective internship programs (for students still in school); however, you have to be willing to only capture a small percentage when they graduate. Knowing this going in, the projects the interns worked on where designed to last only through the intership period (or be handed off to another).

    Thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts.

  • Patti Knight

    I completely agree with this post – interns work for free to gain business experience in their chosen field. A company can tell by the end of an internship if the intern is a good fit for their needs. It would be a risk to give them more responsbility than they are capable of handling.

  • Once college kid comes to mind that would make an awesome, “knock it out of the park” intern. But where are you when she goes back to school in the fall or graduates? Branding consistency dictates “no interns.”

  • Oops! That should be “one intern.”

  • Err, “one college kid.” I guess I better drop the commenting until after my Starbucks run….

  • jp

    You speak to a business owners concerns. They’d be smart to listen up.

    That goes to more than this post alone.

    The topics you cover here, and straightforward approach you take to communicating your messages… could be compiled into a How To primer… with insights available only from someone with a uncanny ability to tap into and simplify lessons from years of experience.

  • I am not a business owner, but wouldn’t another prospective on this topic be, leveraging the assets that you have. If you are in a start-up mode and don’t have a lot of extra cash flow to hire someone full-time to market for you via social media does it makes sense to use an intern that will work for free. Most start-up companies have not really worked out their brand voice and other issues that Gini mentions, could your intern help you define this. I have mentioned before that I am helping a friend with his start-up shoe company, Kuru Footwear. We are a small company and Bret the owner doesn’t have time to experiment and try the different social media tools, but as we try different things we are constantly talking about and working to define our brands voice, how we are going to use leverage the tools available, and how we will engage with our customers. Even though I am paid, I am kinda filling to role that I envision an intern could fill.


  • At this early stage of the social networking game for most companies, an intern can have a huge impact on a company’s communications. I hope the companies that are experimenting with using interns for this role appreciate fully the impact of such a decision.

    If cost-savings is what is driving such a decision, the company should be monitoring closely what precedent the intern is establishing. I know Gini’s position on using interns, and I have to agree that they should not be affecting strategy for a company’s communications outreach.

    Find another place to save expenses. A strategy needs to be developed ahead of implementing a social networking communications plan. An intern can be part of the social networking implementation. Beyond this role, it is a roll of the dice. For something as important as brand, that is very ill-advised.

  • Liz

    How can you have a “social media intern” if you don’t have a social media director/manager/associate/etc? It seems like people are getting so wrapped up in this Young People Are So Social Media Savvy thing (which you’ve, of course, covered in great depth before) that they ignore basic business principles. I can’t think of any other scenario where someone would consider hiring an intern to do things that senior staffers don’t understand how to do.

    When a company realizes they don’t have anyone on staff with design skills, they hire/contract a designer, not a “design intern.” When a company has no accounting department, they look for an accountant, not an “accounting intern.” Yet… “social media interns” are everywhere in companies with no actual social media staff. It makes no sense!

  • If social media is the medium that a brand/company uses to engage its customers – I would expect people with experience in communication and/or that specific business to do the engaging. Not an intern.

    Having said that, I also do not believe in the existence of social media “experts” or “gurus” given the early stage of the market. We’re still in the early adopter phase…

  • There is nothing more important, powerful and leverageable than having a clear strategy. When a “brand” doesn’t its “voice” yet; the last thing any business (and especially a small one) can afford to do is put actions in the hands of people that can’t figure out strategy on the fly.

    That said, if the strategy is clear (and I know just how difficult this is) then otherwise incapable people become capable. A clear strategy does a lot of the thinking for people, and with that in place interns could be useful to get a lot of the leg work done, allowing the key implementors to stay focused on the higher value parts of the activity.

  • Liz, your point is RIGHT ON! There are plenty of opportunities for interns. Plenty of challenges to let them flourish in a business environment. And to Christian’s and to Doug’s points, social media is a TOOL. You cannot have interns doing work on anything if you don’t have a business strategy. If you are clear on how social media tools will help you achieve your business goals then, yes, an intern can help you use them effectively.

  • Great post – I see a lot of companies looking for social media interns and you hit it right about the need to look beyond someone who knows Facebook. I feel you need someone to be your “social host”, the concierge, the first impression for engaging with your company. They need to engage, not just respond, and that takes a certain business savvy and understanding. Some interns might be great for this, but if they are not, you have left a bad first impression out there.

  • This post is golden. I am currently a volunteer/intern and I enjoy serving as a reference and do my best to be a resource for how new social media tools work. But I agree that entrusting the establishment of the organizational brand to someone who is not being paid and who is still learning the organization’s communication strategy is an unjustified risk.

    I’ve always thought that situational analysis is better than generalizing and stereotyping, so I’d suggest employers to keep a close eye on their interns’ capabilities. If you get one who is great – extraordinary business acumen, ability to interact with stakeholders and has a firm grasp of organizational strategy and purpose – they might be well-suited to making suggestions about strategy implementation in addition to execution.

  • Jonathan Sherman

    I agree fully. Habitat UK is a perfect example of the damage an intern can do. One thing to keep in mind is while interns do not have business experience, providing them an opportunity to learn and prove themselves is essential. As an intern I’ve worked for an amazing company that had me do nothing more than make photocopies. Then again I’ve interned for other companies that challenged me, taught me, and made me prove my capabilities before handing over responsibility.

    While not handing over the keys to the castle is important, challenging interns and bringing them into your world to understand what it takes to do the job is key.

  • JC Maldonado


    Thanks again for including me in your wonderful blog. I understand and to some point agree your point of view on the situation. As an intern I strive to do my best for my employer and contribute my skills to their projects. I do not consider myself anything of an expert, in reality I think anyone who is involved in social media is an “intern.” There is not one person who knows it all and we are all constantly learning new methods, practices, and gaining experience through trial and error. There is no set book or protocol for successful social media and I think it really is the sum of many factors that makes a great social media campaign or program. With the right guidelines, vision, goals, and measurement almost any company can achieve a successful social media outcome without ever changing their voice.

    I know that it is true for me and I think I echo the feelings of interns everywhere when I say we want respect, we want equality, and we want to be a valued member of your team. I know that when I contribute to a program I am there to be a voice, not a doormat.

    A local Milwaukee creative services agency, Spreenkler, has found immense success by finding talented interns and developing them into fabulous contributors to their projects. This summer the work done by their team of “spreenkterns” was pitched to Zappos at the end of the summer. I think that finding great interns is a two way street and if companies want the best talent they have to look for it.

    Well, there are my thoughts on the issue, thanks again Gini for thinking of little ol’ me tearing up on my keyboard. Oh, I guess I will have to wait till May to send in my resume to you….

  • StringBean

    First of all, let me just say that interns and volunteers are the bread and butter of many organizations because many non profits are struggling for added help. I am very saddened to see how many negative blogs, comments, and articles that devalue future professionals. I feel that as a community of communicators it is more important than ever to use our coveted communication skills and communicate what it is we need from interns and expect of them. Free labor is one thing, but when you have an intern that is very intelligent and driven it is more than facebook, twitter, and social media at stake. But to make a statement such as “If an intern works for free…you get what you pay for.”, only goes to show how much of a gap there is between interns and company owners.

    Instead of looking at interns in terms of “social media savvy”, look at them in terms of future business leaders. I know it can be hard for some of those who are well established in the industry to be mentors, because of selfish pride, fear of gen-y, or just personal bias, but as someone in that role you must be a mentor to interns! Step away from the mentality that you are owed something from interns and focus more on what you can provide for them.

    As an intern myself, I am very lucky to work for a company and a business owner that wants to nurture me and my abilities and also help me to improve in areas I lack. I’m learning from her and she’s learning from me. That’s how it should be and when I’m a professional in this industry. I will do the same.

    Social media is the wave of the future, business owners in the coming years will have the “business experience” to use these sites effectively. Also, I recommend that everyone not forget the first step to a strategic PR plan… RESEARCH. Many blogs are missing this and it makes me lose faith in those who are the current leaders of our industry I mean does anyone even know what is being taught in communication classes now a days when it comes down to social media and using it… NO.

    I encourage everyone to continue to have faith in the future business owners of the country and to never look at your interns in the mind set of “If an intern works for free…you get what you pay for.” But instead look to them in this mind set,” If an intern works for free… he or she must really care about their future and the future of my business.

    (While writing this it has been brought to my attention that I should start a blog. Please look for it very soon)