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Social Media Interns: A Liability or an Asset?

Have you ever sent a tweet and soon realized it was questionable then quickly hit the delete button? So have lots of others, and depending on your web 2.0 popularity, deletion doesn’t mean all is forgiven— just ask former representative Anthony Weiner. For many of us, this mistake is easily resolvable, but for government agencies and politicians, the results of a misfire may take years to put behind them.

Government is quickly taking advantage of social media, and a particular focus is on the microblogging site Twitter, as well as Facebook. They can be useful tools for quick communication, as many police departments have recently demonstrated, and they are also useful to keep in touch with the citizens’ for which the government works. While many see the value in participating in social media, they don’t necessarily see the value in investing in it. Their solution is the social media intern.

For a department with a tight budget, the right unpaid social media intern can be of value. Many undergraduates already have an understanding of social media, and can quickly learn how to represent an organization. Personally, I have experience as a social media intern, and it was very beneficial for both myself and the nonprofit I represented. The nonprofit, with limited resources, was able to free up time for its paid staff to handle operations, and I had the opportunity to network with some great people and gain valuable experience.

However, it takes judgment and responsibility to represent the face of an organization, and trusting an intern with this is a risk in itself. It can be a challenge to find a qualified undergraduate who sees the value in working without pay, and the number of applicants is limited. Interns also may not have a grasp on the organization, with many telecommuting and not learning its culture. There are numerous examples of professionals making mistakes with social media, including a Google+ software engineer, Steve Yegge, who ranted about Google not understanding social media platforms and mistakenly shared it with the world. With experienced professionals making profound errors, the intern with limited experience isn’t immune to the occasional mishap. Also, with turnover every few months, the gamble for the right intern is recurring.

Participating in social media and the interns that often come with it can be of great value to an agency or department looking to increase its presence, but it also holds an inherent risk. This risk isn’t worth taking without a mature young adult to manage the accounts, though many take it regardless. I stand in the camp that encourages the use of social media as well as interns, but a detailed plan by a contracted expert goes a long way in making sure your interns don’t go astray. That step should always be taken for an organization with limited social media experience looking to increase its web presence. Would you trust an intern to represent you and your organization, or is the risk worth leaving it to the professionals?

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Profile Photo Dannielle Blumenthal

Interns are a tremendous and relatively underused resource but social media requires experience to administer without supervision. To the public a tweet can matter more than a press release.

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Profile Photo Patrick Fiorenza

Nice post, Corey – I was once a social media intern at a non-profit too. I developed their entire strategy for social media and had a wonderful experience. It really depends on the organization. Many organizations have authorized and pre-approved posts, so those would be fine, but full authority to post is a little dangerous. People also want consistency in voice and branding across social networks, with new interns coming in and out, it’s hard to really develop a strong voice with that kind of turnover. I think a good manager will provide the right experience to a social media intern, and they don’t necessarily need to have them right behind the wheel. With that being said, I do think most people now understand discretion on the web, so since times are tight and funding a dedicated staff is tough- a manager will really have to supervise an intern and have a clear strategy. So in short, it can be done, but need to use caution. Interesting question to pose, and I think it really comes down to the management and culture at the organization

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Profile Photo Corey McCarren

Thanks a lot! That’s really interesting that some organizations have pre-approved posts. I would imagine that leads to a lot of recycled material, though.

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Profile Photo Ori Hoffer

Using a tool like HootSuite which will let you set different access levels for accounts will let interns/new employees/etc. craft a post but not actually send it out can definitely help. Even if it adds a step to the process, at least you reduce the risk of something going out that is inappropriate, an endorsement (even if unintentional), or just plain from the wrong account (see Red Cross + Dogfish beer).

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Profile Photo Julie Chase

unpaid intern? Where do they live? How do they live without a paycheck? Student loans? Why would a young person, unless of course they are “trust fund” kid do this? I’m curious.

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Profile Photo Corey McCarren

If the intern can’t live at home during the internship they’ll often take out more loans to live for a few months. It’s really hard to find a decent job right out of school currently if you have no prior experience, and its a lot easier to find an office willing to give you experience if they aren’t paying to do it. Also, students can get college credit for internships so if they do one during the semester its about the same cost as spending the semester at school and they get great experience.

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Profile Photo Steve Ressler

I think if the strategy is set by leaders with experience of what agency wants to accomplish, interns and new hires can do some of the day to day tactical execution. I see the problems occurring when there is not enough training and clarity up front about the strategy, the message, the goals, and potential mines to avoid.

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Profile Photo Joe Flood

Do you trust an intern to be the voice of your organization? Seems like that role should be filled by someone more familiar with the issues and culture of the agency.

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Profile Photo Kenyatta Hawkins

@ Julie Chase

I’m currently an unpaid intern. I live on my own, but I work full time and go to school (which is overwhelming). The reason I’m personally doing this is simple: networking and experience in the public sector. I’ve tried the front door approach and applied to numerous jobs at USAJobs, but I have had no luck. So I’m trying a back door approach. Within two months of interning, I received an interview with the state (just by ‘who I know’). Once you’re in, you’re in. It’s getting in which is the hard part.

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Profile Photo Brett White

Pat Fiorenza says “a manager will really have to supervise an intern and have a clear strategy. So in short, it can be done, but need to use caution.”

This is really what it boils down to. We’re a small organization, but, I do give FB access to an intern for our Arts-related Facebook page. She is supervised by her Manager and was given clear instruction on what to post/say as well as some of the political backstory by me on some of the more delicate issues she should probably avoid. It’s been overwhelmingly positive so far.

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Profile Photo Steve Radick

If you’re going to let an intern manage your social media presence, I hope you’re comfortable with having that same intern talk to the reporter when they call and/or stand up at a podium to deliver your organization’s message. I’ve talked with a number of interns who are very smart and capable individuals, but the fact of the matter is they’re not going to have that full understanding of the organization’s mission, politics and goals. I wish organizations would stop thinking that establishing and maintaining a social media presence has 0 to do with how old someone is. If you’re letting an intern develop and maintain your social media presence, I hope they’re also helping develop your communications and public affairs strategies.

What happens with an activist organization makes a coordinated attack on your agency’s Facebook page? Is the intern going to be well-versed in crisis communications? What about when there’s a tragic accident of some sort that requires immediate action? Do you trust that intern posting material to the Twitter account when that will be the first place the media looks?

“Social media interns” is the wrong term – they’re public affairs interns, or communications interns or marketing interns, etc. I would venture that if all they are are “social media interns,” you’re short-changing both your organization and the intern. If you want an intern to help out with your social media efforts, that’s great, but understand that what they’re doing has impacts on your communications, marketing, customer service, public affairs, crisis communications, etc. efforts too.

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