Perhaps a student intern could help with your social media

As an academic adviser, one of my more cherished roles is connecting my students in communication, public relations and digital content development with industry, or their chosen fields. This takes various forms, but the most salient of them to mention here is the wonder to behold that is the academic internship. 

I know many of you are wondering how to better leverage social media to support your brand, cultivate community and, ultimately, close sales. If you have a college or university in your town, the answer might have been nearby all along, and it just might be free. 

For example, I have 25 students right here at Berry College who just completed our course titled, “Social Media Strategy and Management.” They worked with national and international clients of whom you have heard, and they learned from an Atlanta-based executive with Edelman, a leading global communications firm. These students already were digital natives, growing up with Insta, TikTok and Facebook. After taking this course, they now can think and work with social in strategic ways. They needed the course, in other words, because as Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt) said in the movie “Seven,” “Just because the f—er’s got a library card doesn’t make him Yoda!”

The sophomores and juniors among them have been looking for internships, which are promoted and incented for our communication majors. Over the summers, in many cases for academic credit rather than for pay, they work between 20 and 40 hours per week in some communication, public relations, content development and/or marketing capacity. They work in exchange for three or six course credit hours, the currency of our realm in academia. 

And my college isn’t peculiar in promoting these; colleges and universities in your town do almost exactly the same thing in almost exactly the same ways. 

Your starter kit

Here’s all you need: A professor on faculty with the college the student attends to serve as an academic adviser. This “instructor of record” provides the syllabus, a reading list and some oversight. (Every course requires a syllabus, even one that is functionally an internship.) And the institution pays the faculty, not you. 

Second, you need a site supervisor on your side, someone charged with directing the internship and its work. The number of work hours determines how many course credits the student receives, but you don’t have to worry about any of that. 

That’s basically it. Starting up an internship can begin with one phone call or email to the chair or internship director of the academic department. As a chair, I get these emails all the time. Larger institutions, like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill or the University of Georgia, have internship directors eager to hear from you. 

When I get internship calls, I circulate and publish the information. Students follow up and are soon placed in internships all over the country. 

Once you have a track record with an institution, it becomes pro forma to get interns on a regular basis. I have students interning locally at area hospitals, nonprofits, the Rome Braves baseball team, a digital marketing company in town and a couple of film festivals. These internship programs are truly win-wins, giving our students invaluable industry experience and providing you with expertise you couldn’t otherwise add without spending big bucks on a full-time, specialized employee.

In addition to advising students on how and where to get these internship opportunities, I also serve as the academic adviser (or instructor of record) for internships each and every summer. This means that I already have a syllabus and reading list locked and loaded. Neither the student nor the employer, therefore, is a burden on me. (But let’s be clear, I am not doing this for the money; the “pay,” if we wish to call it that, doesn’t cover even one month’s cable bill. We do it because we know how valuable it is for our students.)

A few caveats

Now as even the least cynical among us know, nothing is ever truly free. There are a few caveats. The most important of these is that the quality of students, like the quality of anything else, varies. It varies widely. 

If I don’t know the internship provider (employer), I simply pass along the call for applications and allow market forces and luck of the draw do the rest. However, if the employer is a company with which I’ve worked in the past, with which I have a dialogue, I make sure I recommend only our best. I act, then, as a sort of de facto headhunter or agent (again, for no monetary compensation or pay). 

Thus, it pays to have a working relationship with the academic department. Take the internship director or department chairperson out to lunch. Ask and answer questions. Communicate your expectations. Be flexible. Setting up a program, or placing even one intern, shouldn’t be treated as merely a transaction. 

Another caveat is churn. Department chairs and internship program directors rotate in and they rotate out. Faculty come and go. Like anything worthwhile, an internship program requires attention and care. But not a lot, and not all that often. 

Finally, recognize that academic institutions move at a pace you likely will regard as glacial. That initiating phone call is easy. Waiting for all of the bureaucracy of academic work to growl and grind can be enervating, even for those of us on the college side. Especially for those of us on the academic side. But, once the pipeline is set up, expect a machinelike predictability and routinization. You can set up your program for one semester or quarter a year, a full academic year or just summers. Our students need them all year long. In fact, my best students are those who intern while they are in school, coming to class and then reporting for job duties somewhere in town. And you can start small, perhaps with one intern for just a summer. Low stakes all around.

Have Wi-Fi, will travel

Since Covid-19, industry has awakened to the possibilities of remote work. This means that even my Berry students could be the answer for you, though I most sincerely am not using this space to push or sell our internship program or our students. 

Thus, most social media management can be done from a coffee shop anywhere. My own daughter manages social for three companies in three different places, and she schedules the posts so that these clients’ content publishes at optimum times, even while my daughter is splashing around at the beach. She’s only 24, but she is so savvy about what works on social, when and for how long. And she understands that the different platforms reward different kinds of content. 

One last selling point for these internships: If you identify a college student who rocks, someone who takes your brand to a whole new level of social media engagement, mind share and traction, you can simply convert the internship to an entry-level position, provided the student is as high on your company as you are on the student. Look at it as a sort of dating before popping the question. This was precisely my daughter’s experience, interning at a local nonprofit, then transitioning right into full-time work after graduation.

So, that’s it. One six-minute read and you have a path to better capitalizing on all that social offers. I’ll follow up in a future column with a few questions to think about when embarking on a social media strategy, questions that could offer you a blueprint for that first internship experience. 

Brian Carroll

Brian Carroll covered the international home furnishings industry for 15 years as a reporter, editor and photographer. He chairs the Department of Communication at Berry College in Northwest Georgia, where he has been a professor since 2003.

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