Gini Dietrich

Should Interns Run Your Social Media Program?

By: Gini Dietrich | July 13, 2009 | 

Last week, Caitlin McDevitt from Slate and The Big Money called, wanting to know if I have an opinion on the Pizza Hut twintern.

Do I have an opinion?!?

You can read the article here, along with my opinion. There also was a blog written by BFG Communications about the topic. It seems we all have opinions about it.

I’m a public relations professional. I know what it’s like to create an event in order to generate publicity. That, clearly, is what Pizza Hut is doing…and it’s working. The twintern seems to be doing a great job. Unless something happens that is drastically different from what she’s doing now, she can have her choice of jobs when she graduates.  Good for her!

But this begs a bigger business decision: Why would you let an intern have control of your brand, in any form?

I’m a fan of interns. We have a competitive intern program, and we hire the best of the best as full-time employees. In fact, 50 percent of our staff started as interns. So don’t get me wrong when I say…interns should not be running your social media program!

This is your brand. This is your reputation. This is your public perception. In most cases, you’ve spent years and thousands, if not millions, of dollars creating your image. WHY would you put it in the hands of someone who has zero years of business experience? Because they’ve been using social networking their entire lives? Yes, but how many of those years have they been using it for a business application? That’s right. Zero.

Just like you wouldn’t let an intern pitch the media, go to a meeting with the bank, present a new business proposal, or lead the organization, you should not let an intern run your social media program.

As a Chinese proverb goes, It takes years to take an egg and grow a chicken and an instant to make chicken dung.

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!

  • You are absolutely right Gini, most young people today are very good at wasting time online, but they have NO practical business experience or understanding of marketing strategy. An an intern is great to show you how to use the toys, but your company or firm need to be in control of the strategy.

  • I agree. This is just the value that most companies place on social media, that you can get any intern to do it, when they should be concentrating on it with as much emphasis as any other sort of PR/marketing campaigns.

    It’s akin to sorting mail in their eyes.

  • While I fully agree one should have full grasp of a company’s culture and voice, I believe a company should NOT rule out an individual to community manage a brand’s reputation just because he or she is an “intern.” Actually, in some situations, the intern might be more “in the know” just because of Generational differences and due to the fact some particular age group (mine especially) grew up online and fully grasp the idea of appropriate communication online. Sure, they may not have the “5 years experience in representing a company online” but who does? This is all pretty new as far as businesses jumping to Facebook and Twitter. I’m not saying let just anyone get their hands on it, make sure they have the right voice and understand the “big picture,” but again, don’t rule them out because of the title, some might surprise you or even teach YOU a thing or two.

  • Brooke,

    It doesn’t have to be someone with 5 years of experience, but you get what you pay for. If you want exceptional results you need to find someone with unique abilities. I guess that could be an intern, but its unlikely.

  • You’re exactly right. Gini stated above they are very particular with their interns they hire which is great, maybe find someone with social media experience already (perhaps representing their university or community online?) Of course it’s always going to be a learning experience and a whole lot of strategic planning and thought. However, I strongly believe no one is an “expert” in social media. It is constantly changing and surprising everyone. It’s a game, and I guess some teams just have to weigh the chance of playing their “rookie.”

  • I see your point, but the greater problem is that Social Media needs to be focused on ROI. This isn’t just a game to get unique visitors to the website. I find it highly unlikely that an intern, even an experienced one, will be knowledgeable in crafting a strategy that not only brings traffic but also increased profitability.

  • Agreed, However, ROI’s are unique to each company. Do they want strictly profits from products or services? Maybe they do just want some unique visits to the site to generate some buzz. Maybe it’s just about Customer Service and improving the brand. One thing is certain though, if one can participate and engage in appropriate and relevant conversation, an online community manager (intern or not) is definitely on the right track.

  • As a student, I would NOT want to be tasked with something that big! I know what my limitations are, and what I don’t know – creating a social media program, implementing it and overseeing it aren’t things that should be expected of a student. I mean, it’s great that the Pizza Hut Twintern’s getting all this experience, but what happens if it doesn’t work/backfires? Or was the whole Pizza Hut Twintern just one big stunt to generate buzz?

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  • Interns are able to provide a very unique voice on an account. Sometimes having no pr experience can make for interesting tweets that seasoned vets just can’t think of. However, this should be limited to an additional aspect of a multi-approached social media program. While interns may be tweeting, there should be others on the account managing facebook fan pages and promoting the corporate blog and sharing tools on other sharing sites.

    I would venture to guess that Pizza Hut has laid down specific guidelines for the intern and has gone over what is NOT acceptable to tweet. So when asking if the intern runs the social media program? I would definitely say no, but this is a place where the intern may actually have more insight than the supervisors.

  • Matt Cloud @mattcloud

    I think it’s both silly and arrogant to believe that a qualified intern couldn’t successfully focus on the ROI or provide a unique or fresh approach to social media. It’s a medium that’s in its infancy geared toward younger consumers. Who better to utilize the language and structure of social media that the demo that the vast majority of interns are part of?

    As long as the intern is focused and competent, the only hindrance to a successful social medium platform run by an intern would be the boomer or late Gen X overlords hoping to remain relevant and keep job security in this recession.

  • I love the feedback on here and the debates you’re having with one another!

    Let me pose another question:

    What happens when the twintern goes back to school and the voice of your brand changes?

  • You hire them remotely. 🙂 Just kidding… sort of. If the social media guidelines within the company are set up appropriately from the get-go, the voice should never have to change; it should always be unified, no matter who is behind the keyboard.

  • Kelly

    Status should not be the determining factor in who handles your identity in the social media world. As an intern, I think this is one area that I am fully capable of managing. I am the only one at my organization willing to take on a task like this, and am slightly offended by the idea that an intern’s status would prohibit them from managing such an exciting part of a company. I will say longevity should be considered. I have been in my position for over a year and am on a year-by-year contract as long as I am in school, so the fact that I am not a “temporary” employee helps the situation. If you need someone to handle the day-to-day logistics of your company’s social media presence, title shouldn’t necessarily be the main consideration; longevity, communication skills, and knowledge are more important. Final note – you should always set boundaries and have a group of people who supply content and ideas, even if just one person is handling the actual medium itself.

  • Dave

    It is unbelievable that people out there believe an intern is not qualified to represent a company…how old are the people that created some of these sites? With proper training in company culture and good HR hiring skills, there is no reason a company could not put this trust in an intern. Are you naysayers claiming that experience brings with it an absolute lack of blunders? I would worry more about putting an experienced and boring individual that make a brand look stale and boring.

  • I agree with Kelly and Dave. I just graduated from college in May, and began work as an unpaid Twintern shortly after. I am fully capable, and although I have little experience, I’m learning a lot, and doing good work in the process. I have a mentor who checks in on my progress, and guides me. My mentor gives me the tools and information about the message we want to convey so that I can put my own creative spin on that, and send it out to followers. While my past experience with Twitter and social media was purely social/for networking purposes, it gave me the background to then apply that knowledge and experience to a professional setting. Since beginning this Twinternship, traffic to the company’s website has increased by 20%. That’s huge, especially considering that I am an “inexperienced intern”.

    And who’s to say that someone with years of branding experience wouldn’t make mistakes with this new technology, too? This is anybody’s game, and in this job market, it opens a window for inexperienced job-seekers, like myself, to gain some experience and prove themselves. Although Gen-Y has somehow gotten itself a terrible reputation for being lazy and spoiled, there are still young people who are willing to work hard and earn their ways.

  • I love the comments we’re getting from those of you who are interns right now! Thank you for adding a dimension of discussion not in the original post. I’m pleased to hear there are interns who are making it work!

  • I could not agree more with you. I think this topic brings forward a misperception about the role of young people in a company.

    A few months back I had lunch with a communications guru who I really admire, Jeff Weir, formally of National Semiconductor. I asked him what he felt was the key to creating a communications organization that continually evolved smart practices. He simply answered, “Diversity.” Bringing a lot of different perspectives together is powerful. Relying on just a few is dangerous.

  • Oh, I don’t know. I think it depends on the intern. I have been fortunate to have had some amazing interns. I let them handle client work. I let them blog, I let them create videos. The more I let them do, the more they surprised me with the excellent caliber of their work. But I paid them well and treated them like family.

    Also remember not every intern is straight out of college. Plenty of interns have years of experience and college degrees and sometimes masters degrees to bring to the table. I myself was an experienced intern when I was changing jobs many years back. So, hell yeah, I’d let them run my social media program, if I felt they were qualified 🙂

    On the other hand, I know PR professionals with 35 years of experience who don’t know a thing about Facebook, blogs, or Twitter. Or marketing for that matter.

    Can’t draw generalizations. Everyone is an individual and has their own set of unique talents and you have to use your best judgment.

  • I agree with Mary – it depends on the intern. I am a current intern at the Chicago chapter of a large nonprofit and have seen that there are interns who understand a great deal about social media and there are those who are just beginning to learn about it. Regardless of whether an intern has a profound understanding of how social media strategy works and experience, I think it would overly risky to allow him or her complete discretion over organizational social media strategy.

    Interns might have a great knowledge of social media tactics, but we are still developing experience in overall strategies. Experienced employees should have the final say in how such strategy is carried out and should closely watch what’s happening online. I’ve had social media ideas shot down and adopted, but I feel good about all of them because my employer explained to me why she thought they would be appropriate for our purposes – and learning opportunities are why we accept unpaid internships. 🙂

  • Kelly

    Gini – back to your question on what happens when an intern goes back to school and the voice changes – Brooke hit the nail on the head. The voice should not change because it should be the voice of the company, not the intern. However, in a realistic world, we know the core messages may not change, but tone may change, phrase use may change, etc. with each person who posts. Many students in my area are struggling to find any position, so the opportunity to stay on handling the social media is something that many will jump at, even if unpaid. Experience is key in nailing that first job out of school and building that relationship with an organization could open doors internally or at the very least show loyalty and commitment to the organization where they are currently residing.

  • Mary – love your message about giving interns freedom. Though you are right on target about many experienced interns now-days, some with masters degrees, I believe majority of them (Gen. Y) enjoy this freedom and trust put before them. I know personally and from fellow Gen. Y colleagues this drives us to give our employer even more. Whether that be time, effort or creativity. Thanks for the insight!

  • Gini- very insightful article, thanks for sharing. I think it’s fine to have an intern running your social media campaigns but like everything else that an intern works on, direction and supervision is key. In my opinion, the overall branding message always comes from the top and micro marketing should be monitored on a daily basis.

  • Today, I was at a distinguished speakers event featuring James Hoggan, President of Hoggan & Associates – one of the top PR firms in Vancouver, B.C. and I posed this exact question to him. He agrees that students should not be in charge of social media campaigns, and that it was pretty hard to find a young person who had conservative thinking, etc. to fulfill the role.

    After the speech, another PR professional – Don McLauchlan – approached me and told me about how JetBlue’s social media team pounced on an incident. A guy just got off his plane and found that his luggage didn’t make it with the plane, so he tweeted about it. Within a minute and a half, JetBlue’s twitter team picked it up and told him to go to the JetBlue office on the third floor of the airport (this is after they determined which airport he was at). Once he arrived at JetBlue’s offices, he received a personal apology from the office manager there as well as a $100 credit to use towards any future flight.

    Don’s point to me was that if am intern was in charge of overseeing Twitter, they would not have had the power to make decisions like “Let’s get the office manager there to apologize to him and give him a $100 credit.” Decisions like that MUST come from above, or from empowered employees who have been properly trained. Empowering employees is one thing… Letting interns make decisions like that… A whole other world.

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