THE AGENCY BUSINESS: A strong internship program can foster agency development

Melanie Shortman finds that a growing number of agencies are discovering that involving interns in account work can have significant benefits for everyone, including the client.

Melanie Shortman finds that a growing number of agencies are discovering that involving interns in account work can have significant benefits for everyone, including the client.

At Burlington, VT-based boutique agency Kelliher Samets Volk (KSV), the PR department's three interns are not the stereotypical gophers. They do not open mail, fetch coffee, or sit outside of an SAE's office waiting to glean a bit of knowledge and get a foot in the door, or better yet, kiss up in order to land at the top of the r?sum? stack after graduation. Instead, KSV interns serve as a focus group for clients that may need to target a media-savvy generation Y, while simultaneously working to improve writing, pitching, and branding skills in a personalized, real-life setting. For instance, participating in a brainstorm for ski-resort client Sugarbush, interns suggested effective ways such as buzz marketing to target people their own age, emphasizing that those in the coveted 18-24 age group are tired of being hit over the head with corporate brand messaging. At Porter Novelli in Austin, AAE Melissa Smolensky works with a team of interns based in major US cities who conduct buzz marketing for wireless technology client Bluetooth in their respective cities, participating in weekly conference calls and submitting marketing reports every two weeks. Associate director of PR Claudia Renchy Morton, who oversees KSV's internship program, says that interns, usually college students, and firms can both benefit from a well-developed and executed internship program. "People don't understand just how much they have to offer," says Renchy Morton of interns. That perception is changing rapidly, however. In fact, interns and programs have evolved significantly since the late 1990s, according to Donna Renella, director of HR at Marina Maher Communications, who previously worked at Hill & Knowlton. "[In the late 1990s] , you could only get sophomores and juniors because seniors were working for dot-coms. Now, some interns have already graduated, and are looking to supplement their r?sum?s with experience," she says. "The mentality of the college student has changed a lot. In this economy, they're concerned about their futures." Good internship programs are aware of the student's needs to develop real-world skills, and as more colleges and universities implement PR programs and majors, PR agency internships are in demand. In turn, students often participate in more than one program over the course of their college careers. Mike Guzzo, a communications major at Drexel University and an intern at Philadelphia-based PR firm Alta Communications, tried two different internships before finding one he thought would be a good learning environment. "In my first, I was given a lot of responsibility and not much supervision, and in the second it was completely the opposite," he says. "Now, I'm supervised, but they let me write a lot of my own things. I get constant feedback." Besides getting the right amount of supervision and stimulating material, keys to a solid program that benefits both agency and student are curious, enthusiastic applicants and productive use of their interests. Paul Bergevin, MD of business development at tech shop Citigate Cunningham, says that interns provide fresh perspectives and young experiences to an agency. "[The interns] might be into music, video games, the arts, or international politics. All of these things enter into their professional lives, and it's that kind of knowledge and passion that can inform the work of an agency," he says. Like the interns at KSV, many college students employed by agencies are performing work equivalent to that of a full-time staffer under the watchful eye of a mentor or supervisor who is typically a member of the internship committee. "Remember, they're a responsibility, not just free labor," Renella says. Still, "interns are never given open contact with the client. We're always monitoring and developing those relationships," says Heather Dougherty, account executive and internship co-coordinator at Alta. In the end, however, the intern may not be the only one developing useful workplace skills. Abby Gold, SVP of HR for Weber Shandwick's North American offices, oversees an internship program that engages between eight and 12 interns in each office. She says that she's noticed that working with interns has been helpful in developing the leadership skills of more junior practitioners who work closely with them. "It's an important part of staff development," she says. ----- Working with interns
  • Set aside extra time for projects you work on with interns. This allows for appropriate explanation of the task, as well as its significance, and gives the intern a chance to ask questions.
  • Be sure to properly compensate the intern for work done. When interns are not paid, they should receive credit in the form of a written agreement with the college, according to the Fair Labor Standards Act. If the internship is unpaid, he or she should not spend a large amount of time performing clerical work.
  • Keep in touch with interns after they've left. They could be good candidates for future openings, and in some cases have worked for clients. At Citigate Cunningham, ex-interns joined companies that resulted in increased client work.

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