personal identity

Social Media Intern: A Risk?

As social media gains momentum, both non- and for-profits are encouraged to give their web presence more attention and employ an Online Community Manager in their offices, thereby freeing up other employees whose job descriptions do not include "Update Blog," "Monitor LinkedIn Group Activity," and "Tweet." Image by Matt Hamm Image credit by Matt Hamm

In this economy, however, hiring for a new position is a financially daunting concept for non-profits. The name of the game is simplicity, streamlining, and enabling the most efficient, cost-effective business model.

Solution? Putting interns and volunteers to the work of managing an organization's online presence.

Ahh, internships. I remember my first summer internship as an undergraduate, with a very successful Chicago-based theater company. I was given stacks of brochures, testimonials, subscription forms, and shown "the right way" to put them all together. For three months I assembled press kits and marketing folders, cleaned up the files and archives, and ran menial errands. Had I been somehow incompetent, irresponsible, or destructive, there was little damage I could have done with my limited responsibilities.

But an intern charged with maintaining the online community of an organization, or managing social media--that intern has a LOT of power. For organizations lacking a strong online presence, there are great guidelines for making the most of a social media intern. If you do a quick search for the position online, job descriptions, in addition to managing Facebook pages and blogs, include "providing copy for our website," "developing the online marketing of a new documentary," and often seek an individual who is "self-motivated," and "works with little direction."

One concern about entrusting this responsibility to an intern is explored here by Heather Gardner-Madras. While Gardner-Madras questions whether "social media [will] become so important that current experimental forays will come to haunt their organizations...[will they] regret not making a serious investment in this part of their communications now or will they be glad that they were smart enough to take advantage of the skills and smarts of low budget resources while getting under way?"

In my mind, this is secondary to what I believe is a more immediate concern: who are we letting behind the wheel when we allow an intern with a short-term investment manage the direction of our organization's social media development? A non-profit's mission and goals are often shared by its long-term employees. The carefully-selected hires who toil over databases and grant-writing efforts, one hopes, are working for a mission in which they believe on a personal level. But an intern, eagerly snapped up by an organization looking for enthusiastic, cheap labor (and there's nothing wrong with that) may seek experience over idealism, want to find new, funky ways to use the tools of the web, and build a resume, rather than save the world or promote the arts. Is this student acting with your organization's best interest in mind?

I don't think it's a stretch to assume that a theater's intern is less likely to identify himself by his internship than the theater's Artistic Director--the intern's personal identity is stronger than his or her professional identity. The longer that intern holds the position, or the more s/he is paid for it, the greater his or her committment to the organization rather than simply the work.

So, this intern, who is less concerned about professional identity, is entrusted to represent your organization across the internet, and is associated with the operations of the organization. When s/he posts a blog, or updates a group, s/he is attributed with ownership, and the connections between your organization and that intern's online presence (personal blog, flickr account, Facebook page, etc.) are forged. S/he fields the discussions and questions that come through these social channels, and is the point of contact for your online audience. If that intern doesn't feel the same connection to your organization, are you missing out on the power of social media by not being represented by someone as deeply committed as you?

What if your organization is devoted to preventing animal cruelty, and your intern has a public photo album of a weekend hunting trip? Or your organization targets a more conservative, moneyed audience, and your intern has borderline-explicit photos and comments posted to his or her Facebook page? Certainly, these may be extreme examples, but what happens in this case? Are these grounds for giving ultimatums (block your profile while employed here)? What if that intern is not getting paid? If there is not a direct and obvious link between the intern's personal online identity and the work done on behalf of the organization, does it matter what the intern does online on his or her own time?

I don't know if there's an answer to the risks involved in intern-sourcing social media, and I certainly can't say that this is necessarily going to be the case with every intern. I am, after all, an intern myself.