Twittering Interns: How do you build awareness on social media and protect your brand?

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According to the current issue of Fortune, a number of high profile companies have hired interns whose job is to be brand ambassadors on Twitter.

Part of that makes sense. Although I’ve seen demographic data that shows that the largest percentage of people using Twitter are in their 3os and 40s, but clearly college kids “get” social media easier than the rest of us.

But it’s a bit concerning, I’d think, to put control of your brand in the hands of someone who understands the technology but might not understand the brand’s heritage.

According to the Fortune article, “Summer Twittering,” HP’s CTO will let two interns live in his house next summer — for the third year. HP says this lets it understand its younger consumers.” Um, ever hear of focus groups, HP? This sounds more like the premise for an MTV reality program, “The Nerds Next Door.”

The three other companies cited in the Fortune article — Butterfinger, Pizza Hut and Papa Johns — are consumer brands much more than HP is. And their “funterns” (Butterfiner), “twintern” (Pizza Hut) and, um, intern (apparently Papa Johns doesn’t give its internship program a cutsey, possibly demeaning term) actually can post some success.

  • The Pizza Hut twintern “started tweeting about pizza rolls in June and quadrupled the company’s followers to more than 14,000,” Fortune reported.
  • Meanwhile, interns at Papa Johns (“Pinterns”?) blogged, tweeted, and shot video all summer. The company now has more than 300,000 Facebook fans.”

Yet, what happens when those PaJinterns go back to school in the fall? Who will maintain the brand’s presence in social media from Sept. trhough June?

More than that, I wonder since the interns at Papa Johns (“PaJinterns”?) spent real money shooting video, what kind of quality controls Papa Johns put in place to protect the brand’s image.

Look, using interns on social media can make sense, but social media is a channel thought which to engage with customers. But a brand is a major asset for a company. Instead, I think, companies should train their brand management teams on social media so that they can make sure the social media activities present a consistent, accurate brand experience.

That consistency is one of the reasons ESPN, which has been involved with social networking for “a long time” (could mean more than 12 months) issued new guidelines for its staff regarding what they can or can’t do on social media.

According to the New York Times, ESPN Limits Social Networking,” these guidelines say “that on-air talent, reporters and writers are prohibited from having sports-related blogs or Web sites and that they will need a supervisor’s approval to discuss sports on any social networking sites. They will also be restricted from discussing internal policies or detailing how stories are “reported, written, edited or produced.”

Why implement these guidelines? According to the Times article, “The first and only priority is to serve ESPN-sanctioned efforts, including sports news, information and content.”

Presumably, on-air talent, reporters and writers are familiar with the ESPN brand — and even they’re not allowed to use social media without a supervisor’s permission.

So the question remains: who should companies put in charge of their social media presence? How can they ensure they balance that with protecting the brand attributes?

Companies will have to figure that out.

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