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.

6 comments: said...

It would seem to me that there are, at least, three issues here that need to be examined.

Part of one, as you have rightly pointed out, is the issue of sustainability. Sustainability is also liked to a sense of history which would be difficult to achieve with any great depth in the 15 weeks of the internship. Organizational history is an area that has been increasingly important from a scholarly perspective and the intern should be well-aware of this going in...hopefully, the curriculum is addressing this? Or no?

Second, there is the issue of ethics. Has anyone in the organization really considered the ethics of using the fake accounts? Ethics is an area that has been conspicuously absent, both in business in academia.

Finally, the whole dance between business and academia is problematic, as we push higher ed into becoming just another business. Who are we training for what? This question is critical, especially as we move away from those fields NOT in STEM universe (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Medicine ... which are often seen as the Holy Tetralogy).

Good read and good luck!

corinnew said...

I thought I should clarify that I don't mind students interning with PR firms or other organizations that have a good grasp of social media and want interns to help out with their social media outreach. In that case the employer is providing the necessary guidance. What I see as problematic are organizations lacking an adequate understanding of social media and hiring interns to run their social media effort under the sole assumption that all digital natives are social media experts. I really don't think that some employers know enough about social media to view seeding communities with fake accounts as an unauthentic, unethical practice. If they google tips for growing an online community they may even see it listed as a good tactic. I know I've seen websites endorse that practice. That's why I would much prefer students interning with companies that are well versed in social media and wouldn't even consider such practices.

I support the idea of training students for the real world, but only if the internship really provides that training. Problem is that some of these social media internships aren't training the students - they are expecting the students to train the employer.

Megan Garza said...

Wow, my thoughts exactly. You've really captured the big issues around student social marketing work - issues that I've seen frequently as well hearing from students and employers. So often in the situations you've described much the decision-making is left to the intern and so the cart is put before the horse - jumping into engagement with no plan or policy. Seems the internship classes are providing some great food for thought :)


MH Factor said...

For a student to get an internship, most of the time, they have to show that they have at least academic experience in the field for which they are being hired. The case is not the same for those doing the hiring. The problem herein lies that just about anyone can post a need for an intern.
One option would be that for an intern to receive academic credit for an internship, the hiring company must have first completed an application to the university, by which they include an outline of job requirements as well as an outline of the learning objectives they anticipate the student will obtain from them. If a software company is hiring a social media intern, but doesn’t already have any of those accounts in place and their supervisor is the Director of Finance, a red flag should go up. The process needs to be streamlined so that everyone involved benefits from the mutual relationship. But who should approve the applications? Would this be a nightmare? Is the nightmare of the application process worth the lack of learning environment a student must endure if there are not provisions in place?
If a company balks about the application process, then they probably aren’t worthy of an intern anyway. Part of an internship is that the student must keep a list of the activities they perform and report those activities back to the internship faculty adviser to whom they are assigned. It should be noted that the company should have to provide some of the same information back as well. They need to answer the question, "What the heck are YOU teaching the intern?"
The other train of thought is that in the real world, these kids are going to have to figure a lot out for themselves. Part of learning is working for people that know less than you do, even if you know only a little. Every experience is worth something, just how much is the question.

corinnew said...

@Megan So you've heard similar stories from students & employers? Interesting! We may need to compare notes sometime.

@Monica We are currently revising the internship guidelines and I do like your suggestions, especially the idea of ensuring employers have some kind of expertise in the area they want the intern to work in. I don't think this has been a big problem in the past, but nowadays with so many organizations feeling the urge to get started with social media and other emerging technologies, we may need new internship guidelines.

I am a firm believer in independent learning, but I still think an employer needs to provide some type of mentoring relationship to the intern. If they're clueless about social media and are planning on "outsourcing" all the work to the intern, I just don't see much value in the internship.

The more I think about this, the more I think that maybe we may need to revisit the difference between internship and volunteer work. Some of the internships I described in my post sound more like volunteer work to me. Don't get me wrong, I support volunteer work, but I think it serves a different purpose than an internship taken for credit.

Anonymous said...

The ability to use a social media tool and the ability to use it strategically (within a focused strategic communication effort) are definitely two separate issues.

Would I hire someone who grew up speaking to edit our company speeches? No, we would rather hire someone who was trained in the art of oral communication, editing, and language. The same is true for social media, and all other media.