Perhaps no one better embodies the pitfalls of taking your brand into social media without a strategy better than Charlie Sheen. Last week the celebrity made headlines by joining Twitter and broadcasting his own professional (and personal) meltdown in this public forum, much to the delight of internet denizens and entertainment media. After attracting this considerable attention, Mr. Sheen must have realized he might need more resources and time to create a sustainable Twitter presence, so he did what many brands before him have tried: he asked for an intern to help out with social media.
What Mr. Sheen hasn’t learned through his own use of social media is true for many other organizations who want to promote their brand and protect their reputation using social media: you’ve got to have a communications strategy. And no, “going viral” is not a strategy, it’s only a goal (which can sometimes backfire). To that end Charlie Sheen captured the attention of the online world, but without a strategic approach his haphazard embrace of social media seemingly hurt, rather than helped his reputation. In contrast with individuals who have developed their personal brands, Sheen lacks personal experience to cultivate the tremendous interest in his brand in the best direction, which seems justify his search for a third-party who can give his Twitter account a positive spin. Yet instead of looking for an intern, he should take a page from the many established brands who’ve successfully managed their social media presence, either though hiring online marketing and PR agencies or developing internal resources to plan their communications strategy.
Of course many brands didn’t always feel this way; when I started this blog in 2009 I wrote about my own experience using Twitter as a tool to find internship opportunities. At the same time agencies turned to my generation of recent grads and millennials to help them understand social media, so many were receptive to the idea of an interns helping out with a niche website like Twitter or Facebook. Especially because many businesses still considered social media a new fad (and not an important emerging platform) many were willing to let interns manage accounts for their brands; after all many simply assumed it was only kids using new media.
What seemed true in 2009 should not be assumed in 2011; social media have emerged as core platforms not only for promoting brands but for building businesses. With 600 million members on Facebook, and an established user base on Twitter that averages over 30 years in age, no brand would risk putting their reputation in the hands of an inexperienced graduate, much less an intern. Instead organizations who want to build their brand through social media should hire professionals who’ve developed their strategic approach through experience, especially those who have tactical experience using blogs and social media to promote another organization. Brands should look for professionals who’ve learned about social media through broad online experience, not necessarily specific skill-sets related to individual platforms like Twitter, because it demonstrates their ability to adapt and learn as new platforms emerge.
For prospective interns and job candidates, Twitter continues to stand out as a great tool to network and find job opportunities like my own Twitter internship. It’s also an excellent platform to share ideas and build your online reputation as a knowledgeable professional, particularly for social media marketers like myself, in a forum that’s highly visible in search results for those screening applicants. Likewise for job recruiters, social media offers a unique opportunity to screen potential employees and get a fuller picture of the people outside of their resume.
While it’s yet to be seen what the outcome of Mr. Sheen’s search for an intern may be, it seems likely that the same lack of direction that stifled his own social media efforts will sabotage any intern’s efforts. At the end of the day a brand is only as strong as it’s own commitment to their unique offering, and that comes only through the knowledge and experience all members of an organization share. To be sure, Charlie Sheen has earned America’s collective attention fixed on his social media presence, so what he is able to achieve depends not only on what he says but also who he chooses to manage his brand’s voice online.
Update:Ever since I published the original post on my Twitter internship, people have asked me about what most appropriate role for an marketing/communications intern might be. First I should note that internships are valued most for helping gain experience in the field, but that legally Interns are usually prohibited from making contributions to the main business practices of a company. Social media may have been considered an emerging platform in the past, but Facebook and Twitter are now core parts of a brand and many organizations now use their blog as a primary outlet for communications. So while today’s interns may want to demonstrate their own understanding of social media, no organization fulfills their educational (or legal) obligations by assigning an intern to perform services they should expect of their PR/marketing/communications professionals.
Of course this isn’t to say interns can’t make valuable contributions using their own insights into new media, only that they shouldn’t be acting as social media spokespersons for their organization. Instead there are many additional roles an intern can serve for PR and marketing, including social media monitoring, auditing, and even media clippings with an online twist. In a sales capacity, I’ve also seen interns do great research work finding sales prospects using social media, and turning these leads over to an appropriate sales representative for the company. Internships are a great way to gain experience using new media professionally, but they shouldn’t be representing the public face of their company externally.