Three Reasons not to Hire a Social Media Intern (And Five Tips if you Hire One Anyway)

Credit: Stuart Pilbrow

Credit: Stuart Pilbrow

It’s the beginning of July, and, judging by the number of ads I’m seeing, it’s time to talk about social media interns. For the purpose of this piece, an intern is defined as “a student or recent graduate who works for a [fixed] period of time at a job in order to get experience.” Hiring interns can be beneficial to both companies and student employees, but, in order to maximize the benefits of the arrangement, the tasks and responsibilities given to them must be appropriate. Too often we hear about interns being hired to learn new skills only to find their days actually being filled with cleaning, fetching coffee or other menial tasks that don’t add value to their resumes. However, when it comes to social media, employers still often take things to the opposite extreme, giving interns free rein to create and/or post on a company’s social media accounts, despite many articles and blog posts warning them not to.

To review what has been said in similar posts elsewhere, hiring a social media intern is a bad idea for three reasons:

1. Interns lack experience: Would you be willing to give a student, who may have never worked in an office before let alone in your industry, the responsibility of being the sole voice representing your company on live radio or TV? I thought not. And yet, this is essentially what social media interns are doing in the digital arena. As I discussed in my last post, having a personal Facebook account does not equal social media experience when it comes to the workplace. Many interns prove themselves to be invaluable assets to the companies that hire them. In an ideal world, an intern’s talents would be nurtured, and the intern be made a full-time employee after graduation where they can prove themselves before being allowed to post on the company’s social channels.

2. Interns are temporary: Internships average about 10 weeks. Who will take over the job when they leave? Another intern? This can lead to a lack of continuity of brand voice and posting strategy, as well as make it difficult to track progress. Creating and maintaining a social media presence is a long-term investment, which will suffer if this work is continually changing hands, or worse, being left undone when there are no interns around to do it.

3. Some interns lack maturity, and it’s not always clear who does during the interview process. This is obviously an over-generalization as there are many great interns who are more mature than people twice their age. However, given that little rookie mistakes on social media can quickly blow up into big problems, I would argue this is not the arena to tempt fate.

I must admit I feel conflicted writing this post because I owe a lot to Students Offering Support (SOS), an amazing non-profit who hired me as a volunteer Social Media Manager, enabling me to begin my career change from TV to social media in earnest. While it is beyond the scope of this piece to go into detail, it is important to note that a volunteer position is different from an internship in significant ways. However, there are many things SOS did to make having a volunteer Social Media Manager a success that employers who want to hire social media interns, despite the warnings, should do. Here are the top five:

(Creative Commons: Credit Unknown)

(Creative Commons: Credit Unknown)

1. Make the internship as long as possible. The longer it is, the better trained the intern will be, which means less work for employers over the course of the year. It also helps the intern more fully develop their skills and see the results of their posting strategies over time.

2. Infrastructure and training. Make sure you have a social media policy and make it available for the intern to review. Also consider creating a digital training manual, which outlines your expectations around posting and provides links to brand assets and templates.

3. Oversight and Feedback. This is a big one! The more you keep an eye on your intern’s posts before they go out, the better. Tools like Hootsuite will allow you to assign permission levels and approve posts before they go out. Also, if they make mistakes, give them feedback so they can improve. It is preferable to keep direct customer contact in the hands of a full-time employee. If you feel an intern must do this important task, review how to respond to customer questions as they arise in order to ensure they are answered properly. And, be sure to have an escalation funnel and crisis management plan in place, in case the worst happens. If you can’t provide proper oversight and feedback, then a social media intern is not the right choice for your business.

4. Hire someone with professional social media experience. I was working towards a continuing education certificate in Social Media Marketing at George Brown College when I was hired by SOS. I also had years of experience in the workforce prior to that. One of the limitations of internships, that my volunteer position did not have, is age or type of current schooling required to qualify. If these limitations apply to you, look to hire someone who is in the last two years of their degree and has either taken courses that include social media strategies as part of the course material, or who has managed a social media account for a student group or club. Be sure to ask for links in order to review their work.

Unpaid internships are exploitative5. Make sure your intern feels like they are a valuable part of the team. I can’t stress this enough. If you want someone to represent your company, you need to make sure they feel like they are an appreciated member of the team. Since the work at non-profits is often done through a collaboration of salaried employees and volunteers, this is often more easily accomplished. However, there are several things for-profit employers can do as well, including paying the interns or at least ensuring they will get academic credit, properly introducing them to other team members, and when appropriate, inviting them to company lunches, parties and corporate events.

The bottom line? Internships should be about building skills and being there to pitch in and lend a hand. In other words, when the right person is hired into an appropriately structured environment, a social media intern can be an asset. However, they cannot and must not be a replacement for having a social media person or team on staff.