Most people measure the workday in hours, but for a new crop of employees — interns in charge of their companies' Twitter feeds — the day is measured in tweets. "I try to get in at least 10 posts a day," says Alexa Robinson, 22, who started work as Pizza Hut's first official "twintern" in June. Robinson spends much of the day on the free microblogging service Twitter sending out messages about special promotions, responding to customer complaints, and trolling Twitter for mentions of Pizza Hut.
Because her posts are not monitored by superiors, she has license to tweet freely in real time. Some of her tweets sound like straight sales pitches: "Have you tried our new Tuscani Pasta Pairs? 2 of our delicious pastas and breadsticks starting at $13.99!?" But others are more personal, like this one: "what are you listening to? My ears are craving some tunes to shake off this case of the Mondays after the holiday!"
Robinson beat out hundreds of competitors to secure the paid summer internship at the restaurant headquarters in Dallas. She calls herself "no stranger to social media," with previous internship experience and a degree in mass communication and advertising from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Plus, she says, pizza is one of her favorite foods. As evidenced by her first tweet — "Luv my new job!" — Robinson is enthusiastic.
Interns generally get stuck doing what no one else in the office wants to do — making photocopies, doing research, or running to fill coffee orders. Their toiling is often invaluable but largely invisible to anyone besides their immediate bosses. Little credit, lots of oversight: That's life at the bottom of the totem pole. Unless you're a twintern, that is. Twitter posts are displayed on a public profile page and delivered to anyone who has chosen to "follow" that feed. Large companies can have thousands of followers who see each tweet pop up on their computer screens as soon as it's submitted. As more people join Twitter, its marketing potential is becoming more obvious to businesses. Pizza Hut is not the only company that has tasked an intern with diving in. The trade-off: With the assignment comes a branded megaphone and the power to produce a public relations disaster.
How much trouble can 140 characters really stir up? A lot, it turns out. In London, a twittering intern for home-furnishings retailer Habitat got in big trouble last month after he sent out misleading tweets that included commonly searched words related to the protests in Iran. He added keywords — called "hashtags" in Twitterspeak — such as Iran and Mousavi to messages so that people who searched for information about the protests would see his employer's ads instead. His bosses were not pleased. "This was absolutely not authorised by Habitat," a representative said in a statement. "We were shocked when we discovered what happened and are very sorry for the offence that was caused." Habitat has since deleted the tweets and vowed to "do better for the Twitter community."
Twitter's name may make it sound frivolous, but each tweet can carry the same weight as an official company press release and attract even more attention. So why would any company entrust its brand to a newbie? There's a general perception that young people are the masters of all things social media, says Gini Dietrich, who runs a Chicago public relations firm. That's not a surprising assumption. According to the Center for Work-Life Policy, 64 percent of Gen Y regularly uses social networking sites, compared with 20 percent of baby boomers. The problem though, Dietrich says, is that "they've been using social media in a personal not a business application." Understanding what Facebook and Twitter are is different from understanding what they should be for your specific brand, she explains. "By letting an intern determine this, you're putting your brand and reputation in the hands of someone who has no experience."
Some companies have gotten the message. Jet Blue's official tweeter is its manager of corporate communications. McDonald's leaves its official tweeting to higher-ups as well. Starbucks' Twitter feed isn't manned by an executive but a former barista, who has presumably developed a good sense of what its customers are seeking.
Despite a lack of in-house experience — she worked for only one day in a Pizza Hut restaurant — Robinson seems to be doing a fine job thus far. She has increased Pizza Hut's Twitter followers from 3,000 to more than 13,000 and successfully executed a sales promotion over the Fourth of July weekend. And despite having only been on the job for a month, she seems well-informed about the company offerings. In response to a customer inquiry, she tweeted on Tuesday: "Currently the Stuffed Pizza Rolls are only available with pepperoni. I'll keep you posted if anything changes."
But she might have added this caveat: if anything changes this summer. The twinternship ends come September, at which point the posting duties will presumably change hands once again.