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Top teens exposed online

In digital world, do young stars need Twitter sitters?

TV talkshow appearances, magazine interviews and press junkets are so 2008 when it comes to marketing young performers. Increasingly, brand builders find more power in using digital media to give fans direct (albeit virtual) access to their favorite celebrities online.

“The traditional model is PR-to-media-to-consumer. Now we have the ability to go straight to the consumer,” says Laura Ackermann, senior publicist for L.A. praisery Much and House, which represents such youth talent as Yara Shahidi (“Imagine That”) and Mitchel Musso (“Hannah Montana”).

According to Walt Disney Records’ media honcho Matt Fitz-Henry, “It’s important to create content and distribution networks that allow fans to interact with our artists wherever they spend time online,” which entails making webisodes, iPod applications and special online widgets. But it’s the (relatively) unscripted persona many young stars present to the world via social networks and services that foster a connection with their fans.

Twitter seems to be the favorite of Young Hollywood, making it easier to interact with fans by sending short messages from their cell phones. Their 140-characters-or-fewer missives can be programmed to pop up immediately on their websites, blogs and Facebook and MySpace pages, where they are often seen and “retweeted” by fan sites or teen magazines.

Getting the word out this way certainly has its advantages. When Nick Jonas fell ill while on tour, the Jonas Brothers tweeted that the show was canceled. Moments after a blogger gossiped that Demi Lovato was dating Joe Jonas, Lovato squashed the rumor by tweeting an adamant denial. In another case, fans felt they were backstage with Taylor Swift when she tweeted three minutes before going on camera, “SNL is about to happen. Wow. I’m excited. And happy. And nervous. And excited. Watch?” (turning a savvy plug for her appearance into a candid-sounding update).

Maintaining an active new-media presence is vital to an established performer like Miley Cyrus. “For someone who is so unapproachable to the everyday kid, how do we create this unique, lifelong bond?” asks Jason Gluck, president of Mileyworld.com. For Cyrus, the solution has been a Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act-compliant social networking site that gives its 2 million unique visitors exclusive content. “We give the fans something extra in a safe environment because, in the end, one of the negatives is sharing too much information with young kids,” Gluck says.

No one knows that better than Cyrus, who has unwittingly become the poster child for how new media can be useful as well as abused: Suggestive photos popping up on MySpace and Twitter, a YouTube video that was perceived to be making fun of other Disney Channel stars, and personal information on Twitter and blogs that became fodder for gossip mavens likely contributed to Cyrus being voted “Worst Celeb Influence” by AOL’s tween site JSYK.com. “She’s the most successful, has the most successful fan club, has the biggest MySpace online community,” Gluck says.

But because of that access, he adds: “She is put at risk. That’s just the cost of being the biggest star in the world.”

Indeed, when it comes to those who do their own updating, publicists often coach their underage clients about how to protect themselves online. “If they’re going to be on Twitter, I tell them to think twice before they hit ‘send,'” says the Obrink Agency partner Scott Wine. “I don’t want them to be sterile and have no personality, but they need to learn to keep certain things to their close-knit circle of family and friends.” (When embarrassing information or photos do get online, it spreads fast and can be virtually impossible to control, as “High School Musical” star Vanessa Hudgens learned last year.)

The immediacy and availability of information about these high-profile minors concerns many. “I definitely think it’s superdangerous. That’s exactly why Miley left Twitter,” says Jared Eng, the blogger behind teen site JustJaredJr.com. “Also, Twitter can create a flash mob (where local fans show up to catch a glimpse of a favorite star), and that can be dangerous if your following is of that magnitude.”

Since kids are often savvy about new media and thus the ones pioneering the use of emerging technologies, “(The trick) is just trying to guide as much as you can, but part of embracing social media is giving up control,” Ackermann says. “It’s a new struggle yet a wonderful thing.”

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