Friday, June 4, 2010

Is hiring student interns for social media work really the right strategy?

Ever since I started teaching my social media for PR class, I've had all kinds of firms and nonprofit organizations contact me to ask specifically for interns who had taken my class. On the bright side, these inquiries seem to indicate that social media skills are in high demand and that the class is making students more marketable. That's the great news. The not so great news is that over the course of the past two semesters I have seen a dramatic increase in the number of employers seeking to hire student interns to put in charge of setting up their organization's social media presence on the web. I know this doesn't sound so bad on the surface either. After all it shows that companies are starting to take social media seriously and that they are willing to participate in the social media sphere. What I am questioning is their social media strategy (or lack thereof?).

Employers' assumptions about digital natives
At St. Edward's University, we require all of our communication students to complete an internship before graduation. Each semester, the communication faculty take turns in supervising these internship experiences. This past academic year, I had the opportunity to supervise both the fall and spring semester student internships which allowed me to learn a great deal about the types of jobs our students get hired to perform. Although I haven't collected any official numbers yet, I'd say that about 50-60 percent of our spring interns were recruited to set up some form of social media presence for their employers. Since we only offer one social media class (with a maximum enrollment of 20), the vast majority of these students had never taken a class on social media strategy. That didn't prevent their employers from putting them in charge of their social media effort though. The running assumption seems to be that students know about social media because they are, well, students. And they are young. And young people inherently know about social media...

The problem is that knowing how to set up a Twitter account or Facebook page does not equal social media savviness. Unfortunately, my conversations with student interns and their internship supervisors have convinced me that most people think they're interchangeable. Smaller firms and nonprofits especially, tend to recruit students to handle their organization's move to a web 2.0 world - mostly because they can't (or don't want to) afford a full-time staff member to do the job. To me, their desire to participate in the social web seems fueled by a short-term approach devoid of any strategic thinking. Case in point: my students reported having set up blogs, Facebook fan pages, Twitter accounts, and YouTube channels for their employers but couldn't tell me who would keep updating these pages once they left. And that's where I see the major problem. It's cheap for a company to hire an intern to run its social media accounts (and sometimes even free), but having temporary staff members blog, tweet and post status updates simply isn't sustainable, nor is is a good idea.

Are social media internships reversing the traditional employer-intern mentorship role?
First off, I am concerned about students not getting much out of such internships. In the past, internships were modeled on the idea of a mentorship (I know mine were). Students would be introduced to the ins and outs of a particular job by one or more professionals committed to teaching them the ropes. What I see happening more and more though, is students being brought in as the alleged social media expert supposed to teach the employer. In essence, the mentorship roles have been reversed. While I have had some very bright students who no doubt would make great tech teachers, the power relationship between an intern and his or her supervisor is such that an undergraduate intern will most likely not question his or her employer's social media strategy decisions.

For instance, I doubt most interns would object to an employer's direct request to seed an online community with fake accounts. From a social media perspective it is about us unauthentic a strategy as it gets, but for organizations wanting to jump on the social media bandwagon it may seem the right thing to do at the time. Interns may not know any better (because they may not yet have received any social media training themselves), or may feel pressured to comply with their employer's request. Either way, if the students haven't received any prior training, there's no one there to guide them and no one to help employers determine the right social media strategy.

The problem with the short-term social media approach
Another, and potentially much bigger problem I see, is the issue of sustainability. Most of my interns' employers seemed more focused on the idea of setting up shop on the social web than on the question of how to sustain the various presences once they had been created. As any of my social media students will tell you, engaging online audiences is tedious, time consuming work. If done correctly, it's a full time job. I can't help but wonder what will happen to all the blogs, fan pages and Twitter accounts once the interns leave. Yes, these employers could simply hire another intern to keep the cycle going, but how can we expect a complete outsider (who will spend roughly 15 weeks on the job) to learn enough about the organization to represent it accurately to the public? By the time the intern would be familiar enough with the organization to engage in a genuine conversation about its mission or operations, it would be time to bring the next intern on board. Not to mention the problem of constantly changing voices which may cause another authenticity issue.

The default approach to social media: the marketing/broadcasting model
Having listened to plenty of student presentations on their internship work, I couldn't help but notice one big commonality in their own and their employer's approach to social media: the tendency to view social media as broadcasting tool. I remember one of my students complaining during his presentation that he had been unsuccessful in establishing a Twitter following for his employer. His slide included a screenshot of the Twitter account he had set up for the organization. Not a single tweet included an @reply directed at a particular Twitter user. Instead, every tweet consisted of a marketing message broadcast via the Twitter platform. His example was by no means the exception to the rule. I'm not entirely sure whether this tendency to default to the broadcasting model stems from the students' greater familiarity with that model, or whether it was mandated by their employers. At any rate, the failure to view social media as a conversation platform, to me, only exacerbates the problems I have outlined in this post.