Master Class: How should internships be structured to ensure best results for all parties?

An intern program is a fundamental part of an agency's culture. At OutCast, nearly 25% of staffers started their careers as interns. The internship is an integrated, hands-on experience stressing smart communications skills.

PANEL

Heather Eastman

HR manager, The OutCast Agency intern@theoutcastagency.com

Amber Fadok

PR and marketing major, Penn State University amf5249@psu.edu

Terry Hemeyer

Executive counsel, Pierpont Communications; Senior lecturer, University of Texas, Austin TerryInfo@piercom.com

May Petry

VP of corporate communications, Yahoo mpetry@yahoo-inc.com

Jennifer Temple

EVP and GM, Hill & Knowlton, San Francisco jennifer.temple@hillandknowlton.com


An intern program is a fundamental part of an agency's culture. At OutCast, nearly 25% of staffers started their careers as interns. The internship is an integrated, hands-on experience stressing smart communications skills.

Such a program will stand apart if there is a distinct structure to ensure interns receive a well-rounded experience and that each account team gets the support they need. Some keys to achieving that include:

  • Dedicated accounts. Give each intern specific accounts and clearly defined responsibilities, as well as time to take on new projects.
  • Agency-wide involvement. Projects and feedback that come from teammates at every level lead to deeper insights about what it takes to be a PR pro.
  • Six-month, 40-hour-a-week program. Make the internship full time to allow interns to integrate fully with teams and campaigns.
  • Exposure to work beyond accounts. Present training that goes beyond account work for a holistic view of skills. In addition, offer interns opportunities to be involved in agency-wide initiatives, such as events or philanthropy, for improved engagement.
  • Regular progress checks. Collect and share feedback at regular intervals so interns can grow and develop throughout the program.
  • Hiring to staff. Create incentives to shine by offering the potential to become a staff member and create long-term, dynamic roles at the agency.

At the end of six months, this structure will bestow each participant with an indelible sense of being part of an agency and the team. While it may be tempting not to integrate interns into the full scope of the firm, you do yourself a disservice in the long run. After all, successful interns eventually become practitioners somewhere. Why not at your agency?

Heather Eastman, HR manager, The OutCast Agency

 

Internships are becoming the lifeblood of the highly competitive PR job market for recent college graduates. Employers are emphasizing such an experience in screening potential job candidates, so a positive PR internship is vital for students in applying theoretical concepts to a real-world setting.

Taking ownership of work is the most vital facet of any internship. Setting deadlines for specific tasks empowers interns to perform well, execute tasks in their own style, and bring value to a company. Tasks should provide opportunities to actually write using various forms of media, such as news releases, media advisories, and blog posts. Assigning a project to the PR intern, such as developing a campaign strategy for a client, helps the employer see that individual's long-term potential.

Varying the experiences gives the intern a better understanding of their role within the agency, offers insight into the management dynamics, and helps determine their career path. Allowing the student to sit in on client consultations or having them shadow others in various departments enhances the accountability of a student's performance because it helps them grasp the impact each department has on the firm's overall function.

Creating "what do you think" opportunities for your interns provides your firm an outside perspective on a specific project, client, or topic. Outside opinion can potentially counteract any groupthink mentality that might develop within the organization. In addition to providing the company a fresh perspective on their business or client, "what do you think" opportunities help the intern develop the key ability to think critically.

Amber Fadok, PR and marketing major, Penn State University

 

There's a reason why today's top PR academic programs require internships: effective internship programs are integral to the success and job placement of PR graduates. Students' successful internship tenures can also benefit employers seeking to identify and recruit qualified employees.

During my career, I've experienced both sides of a successful internship course - as a corporate communications head overseeing an internship program, as well as an academic placing students within organizations.

A successful internship program must be comprehensive and rooted in a strong foundation emphasizing education. To be closely tuned into their students' progress and feedback, as well as employers' evaluations, program coordinators have a few things to focus on.

They should prepare students for the internship interview process by hosting programs and résumé workshops throughout the year, equipping them with tips on interviewing and portfolio best practices.

It helps to develop an agreement between the organization and the school detailing the goals, type of work, and achievements to be accomplished. Discourage the assignment of administrative tasks and ensure the majority of work focuses on PR initiatives.

Conducting periodic "quality checks" among all parties to measure progress and ensure accountability is also very important.

Once the internship is complete, program coordinators should follow up with the employer to determine how the student progressed and whether the organization was satisfied with their overall performance. Allow students to critique their experiences as well.

Successful internship programs can provide critical solutions to everyone involved. As students hone their PR skills and deliver quality work, employers gain the opportunity to evaluate potential entry-level candidates through a comprehensive process that can be much more effective than a traditional interview or writing test.

Terry Hemeyer, executive counsel, Pierpont Communications; senior lecturer, University of Texas, Austin

 

Interns are not cheap or free labor. We owe them a meaningful, supportive work environment. We should offer guidance to create impactful internships, a responsibility that needs to be shared by interns.

As summer, a traditionally high intern season, nears, there are four tenets to consider:

Interns should be assigned a host manager who will serve as the go-to person for the intern and supervise goal-setting and assignment of meaningful work. Ideal managers include mid-level team members who have the time and appropriate skills to focus on supervising an intern and could also benefit from the experience of managing people.

Besides specific project assignment, the most successful internships include some level of "utility player" work, where the intern will experience a span of communications disciplines, internal and external. This is a great way for interns to get a 360-degree experience.

In order to grow professionally, interns should receive constructive and appreciative feedback regularly. And supervisors should make an effort to get to know them beyond the traditional work environment.

Interns should be encouraged to present at the mid- and end point of their programs. This spurs creativity while building several crucial skills, including presentation development and public speaking. Topics of presentations could be based on goals set at the start of the program or on specific projects.

Internships need to be approached with the same level of commitment, rigor, and growth opportunities as a full-time role. If all parties find the experience positive, today's intern could be tomorrow's newest employee.

May Petry, VP of corporate communications, Yahoo

 

Today's PR internships are modern manifestations of trade apprenticeships. An aspiring young person would agree to a dedicated stint of service in exchange for invaluable technical knowledge, a trusted professional reference, and the beginnings of a résumé.

With new professionals being presented more career choices today, modern internships need to be apprenticeships with a twist - carefully designed alliances to help the new professional choose the right vocation.

For an internship to be as informative and beneficial as possible, today's intern candidates should consider these questions:

  • What specific results does the company want in exchange for my service?
  • What priority do I place on hands-on technical training, professional references, and résumé-building?
  • What resources will the company offer?
  • Does the company provide a mentor who will help me evaluate this career path and ensure this training prepares me for a job?

Hill & Knowlton designs its intern alliance as a careful mix of structured teaching and on-the-job learning. We recommend a ratio of 70% supervised client work, 20% structured project work, and 10% general agency activities. A special project allows an intern to apply practical learnings and complete an internship with a piece of work to show for it.

To ensure strong internships, companies should consider the following:

  • Ensure a dedicated supervisor to serve as a coach, support the delivery of quality work, and facilitate meetings with in-house experts.
  • Pair the intern with one or two junior colleagues as additional mentors.
  • Offer opportunities to students nearing graduation or recent graduates, as this best positions the organization to offer a full-time role if it's a good match.

These internship alliances serve our industry well, while encouraging new professionals to make PR the craft they choose to practice.

Jennifer Temple, EVP and GM, Hill & Knowlton, San Francisco The Takeaway

 

  • Design the program so interns get a mix of real-world tasks and responsibilities instead of irrelevant workplace duties
  • Before the internship begins, diligently set and communicate objectives, and measure and evaluate along the way
  • Assign junior to mid-level staff as mentors. A trusted mentor benefits the intern, but it also teaches mentors and staff to be leaders in an organization

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