How can internships be improved to better prepare students and get results for firms?

Be up front about what is expected of interns and have a program in place that is consistent from year to year.


Lauren Gray, Junior account executive, Hunter Public Relations

Gemma Puglisi, Assistant professor, School of Communications, American University

Jody Seal, Manager, strategic communications, Energen

Andy Steen, SVP, internal communications, Bite

Beth Ward, SVP and partner, regional talent recruiter, Fleishman-Hillard

Lauren Gray, junior account executive, Hunter Public Relations
During my time in college, I had six PR- or communications-related internships throughout semesters and summer vacations - including both virtual and in-person roles. While internships can be the most valuable learning experience a student can have, there are ways the process can be improved for the company and the intern.

Some interns go in with the mindset they want to be in a specific practice or think they already know enough about one subject. It's vital to be open to every client, task, and thing that comes at you.

A well-rounded experience is the most priceless asset for your future career. Interns should also ask questions about topics they want more information on. As Steve Jobs said, "Be curious."

On the flip side, employers should be more trusting of interns and be willing to take the time to teach necessary skills. If something is wrong, take the time to sit down with the intern, as you would another employee, and go over the errors and solutions. Interns should be treated as regular employees are, not just a dump for busy work. Employers should also give more difficult tasks to interns. We will not learn if we are given the same type of work; we need challenges, too. While there's always room for improvement, listening is usually a good first step. Being open is the second. Take the time to get to know your co-workers. Ask for more or harder assignments and always seek to learn continuously. The same goes for employers. You never know what senior employees can learn from student interns. The learning curve goes both ways.

Gemma Puglisi, assistant professor, School of Communication, American University
Let's face it. Our field has become more competitive - and there's no question that all businesses need great PR to survive. As teachers, our role is to provide students with the best education, preparation, and mentoring to succeed.

Fortunately, our field has a plethora of internships for students to get real-world experience. At AU, a survey of the class of 2012 found that 88% of graduates who responded completed one or more intern- ships during their time at the university.

Companies and firms have thousands of eager students wanting an internship, but how do they find the perfect fit?

Here are tips and suggestions for both:

  • Some schools, including ours, offer an internship class while students are in their positions. The class is a great opportunity for these young men and women to hone their skills and showcase what they experienced so they all can learn from what each individual is going through.
  • Many national organizations may have smaller offices in other countries. Open lines of communication and invite them to a class to educate students about what they look for with interns. If that dialogue is straightforward, the student will know exactly what the business or firm is looking for and what they need to do, and if they are prepared or not.
  • Invite back a former student who nab- bed a job at a firm as an intern. Also invite the person who hired them. That exchange will educate students on why the former student stood apart from others.

  • Companies and businesses want great interns. But they also have to realize that students want to be challenged and respected in those positions. If students have a great work experience, that will benefit the companies who continue the partnership with the schools. Productivity is important for both parties.

Jody Seal, manager, strategic communications, Energen
When I think back to our most successful interns, there are a few common traits.

They came to the job with an open mind, ready to learn. They came willing to take on some thought-provoking assignments while also being agreeable to do some basic fact checking. They took the time to learn about our industry and tried to understand and adapt to our company's culture and style. They didn't need us to teach them how to write a news article for our intranet and they didn't need us to demonstrate how to use our camera equipment.

Today's students need to know how to write. They need to know how to write for their audience and for their medium.

The best advice I can give them is go write and then go write some more. And read. Find a national newspaper, even an online version, and read it regularly. They need to understand what makes something newsworthy. They need to be interested in current events. They need to have some basic business knowledge so they understand the role of PR and management. It certainly doesn't hurt that they're a bit creative, too.

Educators can help by painting a realistic picture of what to expect. PR is more than writing a news release, pitching a story, or organizing a grand opening. Sure, tactics can be the fun part of our jobs, but understanding how those tactics fit into the overall communications process is essential.

Successful interns bring a fresh perspective. They help us recharge and can be a reminder of what brought us to PR ourselves.

Andy Steen, SVP, internal communications, Bite
The goal of internships is to cultivate the next generation of talent that can ad-dress real-world challenges, both now and in the future.

Bite understands the reality of the new client landscape and how we can help them win in the marketplace. To do this, we need young people with fresh ideas, which is why we actively recruit students from universities for both summer internships and full-time employment opportunities

Our "Biterns" will be exposed to insight, analytics, methodology, experience, and creativity to drive hardcore business results. At the onset of their internship they will be trained on our five services [strategy and insight, PR, marketing communications, creative and content, and digital and technology]. They will work directly with our account teams and contribute to client projects from established Fortune 500/ FTSE 100 companies to niche early stage startups across the globe.

Lastly, they will contribute to the global culture by creating a performance for the global Bite audience and by bringing their youthful perspective to business challenges.

At the end of their internship, they will have real-world chops to help the industry move forward and find a job in this hyper-competitive market. Our intern program has proven successful in the past. One of our current account coordinators transitioned from her role as an intern and recently celebrated one year at the firm.

Due to the cultivation of training, wide range of client work, and collegial support, her internship experience provided her with the tools to make her a great fit.

Beth Ward, SVP and partner, regional talent recruiter, Fleishman-Hillard
Fleishman-Hillard operates one of the most successful internship programs in PR and communications - and I speak from experience as my career with Fleishman started as an intern.

On day one, my assignments included new business outreach, organizing details for a presidential debate, and media pitching for a national fire safety campaign.

That was 20 years ago. Limitless opportunities at the firm provided the foundation and the path to my current position as SVP and partner with the organization. As a global consultancy, we understand it is essential that we find and prepare our interns to be active contributors.

We begin recruiting from nationally recognized journalism schools where students have already interned or worked for small agencies, nonprofits, and regional news media. We bring them into the agency following the same rigorous hiring process required for full-time employees.

Once on board, we assign interns to agency mentors who work with them to be sure they have worthwhile and varied assignments. Mentors check in with interns regularly. A formalized midterm and final evaluation provide the interns professional development advice and offer them the opportunity to provide feedback regarding their experience. We work to meet interns' expectations, just as they work to meet ours. It is a shared and mutually rewarding experience.

Because of the practical nature of assignments and multiple clients we serve, we have found the internship process at Fleishman prepares students to often graduate to assistant account executives. Some of our best hires are graduates of our internship program. The preparation they receive opens doors for them and the experience often encourages them to return later in their careers.

The Takeaway 
  • Be up front about what is expected of interns and have a program in place that is consistent from year to year. That way in-terns will know what they will be doing, and your employees know what to expect from them
  • Don't shield interns from real work and responsibilities. They can fetch lunch and make copies anywhere. They've chosen to intern in PR and comms for a reason, so expose them to real work, such as writing and analytics
  • Keep the lines of communication open. Interns are there to learn the ropes, but they also have insights of their own, especially on the youth market that many brands are looking to target

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