The Agency Business: Making internships beneficial for both students and agencies

Internship programs can be much more than a means to get young, inexpensive talent.

Internship programs can be much more than a means to get young, inexpensive talent.

Designed properly, they can offer a significant return on investment for PR agencies.

Designed effectively, PR internships have the potential to be more than just a way to recruit an extra set of arms and legs to handle the boring tasks no one else wants to do.

Interns, in fact, can play a vital role in marketing and enhancing the image of an agency. As part of Ketchum's program, for example, interns often will be sent to numerous industry events during their 10-week stays at the agency's New York headquarters, including activities sponsored by the Council of Public Relations Firms and the Public Relations Society of America.

When they attend these events, they spread a "good word and buzz" about Ketchum among interns at other agencies, says Carol Cincotta, SVP and director of HR at Ketchum. "They're talking about Ketchum, so it only boosts our reputation in the industry and on campuses."

Ketchum is confident about what its interns will say about the firm because it believes it treats them with respect. "Our program is the premier program in the field," says Scott Proper, SVP and associate director at Ketchum. "I don't think there is anyone out there with as developed a program."

Interns in Ketchum's summer 2005 program attest to the agency's dedication to ensuring that they get to perform substantive PR work. "Programs like the one here at Ketchum give the term "internship" a positive connotation, rather than the mundane job that it's been characterized as for years," says Ange Thompson, a journalism student at Howard University in Washington, who is working as a brand marketing practice intern.

Nick Friend, who is studying marketing, consulting, and political science at Emory University in Atlanta, says he was pleasantly surprised by the level of responsibility given to him at Ketchum.

Before he traveled to New York this summer, Friend says, he was looking to pursue a career in advertising and other marketing media. But now he is seriously contemplating a job in PR when he graduates next year. "I definitely think that I could consider this for a lifelong career," he says.

Ketchum gets about 800 r?sum?s each year for only 12 to 14 summer internship positions, each of which pays a weekly stipend. The agency has about a 25% rehire rate of its interns. "You can walk the halls any day and find former interns in pretty senior positions," Proper says.

While most large and midsize firms have internship programs, Widmeyer Communications shies away from bringing college students on board. Instead, it has what it calls a fellowship program for recent college graduates.

"We've found that if they haven't reached that milestone in their life of graduating from college and really being ready for a full-time job, it doesn't work out very well," says Jason Smith, SVP and group director at Widmeyer.

The fellows will get involved in traditional PR activities, such as media outreach and the writing of media advisories, as well as participate in brainstorming sessions. "It's a low-cost, low-stakes way of letting them see from the inside how this works," Smith said.

Widmeyer typically selects two or three fellows for each of its program periods - fall, winter, and summer - to work in either its DC or New York office. A fellowship is considered a full-time temporary position in which the participant gets a paycheck and health benefits. At the end of each cycle, Widmeyer sits down with each fellow and determines whether a permanent full-time position is the logical next move.

Vanguard Communications has had an active college internship program since the company was founded 18 years ago. As a PR agency that works closely with nonprofit organizations, Vanguard views the program as a "great way to provide more services on things that we wish we could do and the client can't pay for," Vanguard president Maria Rodriguez explains.

An intern, for example, will help Vanguard this summer with media relations surrounding the Farm Aid concert, one of the agency's most prominent accounts.

"It's easy for us to attract interns, since we focus exclusively on social issues," Rodriguez says. The agency pays for an intern's transportation costs. If the intern does a good job, Vanguard will offer a bonus at the end of the period, but the intern doesn't know about the bonus going into the position, she says.

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Breaking the intern stereotype

  • Recruit candidates from diverse backgrounds, with varied interests

  • Keep interns from only working with the photocopier and coffeemaker

  • Expose interns to real-world PR issues and client matters

  • Assign upper-level managers to serve as mentors

  • Provide stipends or salaries

  • Maintain an intern tracking database when the program ends

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