In a few short weeks, the spring semester will end and PR students will trade lecture halls for offices as they begin internships at PR agencies and on corporate communications teams.
For many, it will be their first exposure to professional life, aside from the university programs that operate their own student-run PR firms. As well as offering a taste of what the profession is really like, internships are increasingly a mandatory portion of undergraduate programs.
In its 2017 report on undergraduate education, the Commission on Public Relations Education found that 90% of educators said internships were part of their undergraduate requirements. Half said internships were mandatory.
The commission also asked PR leaders and hiring managers what they expect from new employees. Internships or work experience was the second-most-desired characteristic after writing performance.
In fact, practical experience is considered so important that the commission recommended an internship as one of the six core course requirements in an undergraduate PR program.
With summer break approaching, PRWeek spoke with three agency leaders, two educators, and one in-house comms pro to find out what they’re expecting from this year’s intern class.
Michael Olguin, CEO, Havas Formula
‘All account coordinators across the company start as interns’
A selling point for internships is that they are a convenient way for agencies to test potential permanent hires. It’s one reason why Havas Formula hires only interns who are done with school.
"All of our interns are college graduates," says Michael Olguin, CEO of Havas Formula. "The reason we do that is a student intern will, in many cases, not be able to come in one day because they have a final or paper to write or something else that’s of pressing importance. Second, if you really do like them, they’re not hireable until get out of school, so you’re restricted in your ability to make them a full-time hire."
In fact, an applicant cannot get an entry-level gig at Havas Formula unless he or she has interned at the agency. "All account coordinators across the company start as interns," he explains.
If the interns are successful, but there’s no opening, Havas Formula will recommend them to other agencies. Yet often, the interns find that PR just isn’t for them. "Maybe 50% who think they want to work in PR in the end choose not to," Olguin says.
The agency currently has 20 interns. Typically, it brings on about 50 a year, each of whom works a four-month run. A previous internship helps, but it’s not mandatory, he says, nor are PR majors, as the firm hires interns who are sociable people with good GPAs and strong writing ability who can manage their time well.
"We love students who are heavily involved in their university, whether it’s in the Greek system or they’re student athletes or in student government or heavily involved in the ambassador program," Olguin explains. "Anything that revolves around showing they can manage multiple things at once and have a high GPA."
Lynn Appelbaum, professor, City College of New York
Startups: ‘The gray area’
One debate that’s swirled around the internship process has been paid vs. unpaid, and the case for paid programs is winning the argument. Unpaid internships are becoming increasingly rare, according to Lynn Appelbaum, who has managed City College of New York’s intern program since the 1990s.
"The fact is most agencies, when they hire over the summer for a 40-hour structured program, will pay, in my experience," she says. "More and more, agencies understand the importance of paying students."
Major PR firms will often pay minimum wage even for unstructured internships offered during the academic year, Appelbaum says.
"The place where it kind of gets fuzzy are not agencies but startups and entrepreneurial businesses looking to bring on students to help them build out their digital and social media capabilities," she adds. "That is a gray area that I monitor to be sure they are legitimate learning experiences and to ensure students are not being exploited."
Rosa Nunez, SVP and senior director of diversity and inclusion, BCW
‘A great feeder into our business’
Like at many firms, an internship at BCW is often a pipeline to an entry-level position, says Rosa Nunez, SVP and leader of diversity and inclusion at Burson Cohn & Wolfe. "We see it as a great feeder into our business," she says.
This was especially true last year, Nunez says, when all of the graduates from the Harold Burson Summer Internship Program were offered jobs. Eighty percent accepted.
She adds that BCW’s 10-week paid internship, which places students in the firm’s nine U.S. offices, is attracting talented prospects.
"What we’ve seen is the students who come and want to work at BCW are extremely knowledgeable about the industry," Nunez says. "They are driven and are keeping up with trends and want to be successful in this industry. So they work really hard. I feel the caliber of students is amazing."
Michele Lanza, head of global talent attraction and retention strategies, Ketchum
Eliminating bias in the application process
Many agencies are looking for writing skills in their interns, but Ketchum is taking a different approach to recruiting, in which it wants to emphasize creativity and social skills and create a more level playing field.
Students apply to become a Ketchum fellow via an online game called Launchpad. When they sign up, they’re asked to create a user ID with no identifying characteristics, such as their school, hometown or gender. The anonymity is meant to eliminate bias and allow talented students to be considered, regardless of their backgrounds or experience.
The students compete against each other in a 10-day series of fictitious client challenges, then comment and ask questions based on each other’s creative submissions. Performance is based on how other players rate their ideas.
Depending on how many interns the agency needs, it interviews candidates who make it to the top of the leaderboard.
"It enables us to see their creativity, their depth of understanding in terms of influencer marketing, and helps us to evaluate what they’re thinking about," said Michele Lanza, SVP of global talent attraction and retention strategies at the agency. "It helps us see the candidates from a more-well-rounded perspective than just their writing."
Michael Meath, professor, Syracuse University
‘Test-driving’ the industry
Michael Meath, interim chair and professor of PR at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, is seeing new trends in what agencies are expecting from interns.
They’re certainly looking for traditional PR skills, he says, but they also expect students to display critical thinking and be competent technically in areas such as data analytics. "They’re looking for an intern who can cross over from working in the pure comms area to maybe helping make sense of the data," he says.
Meath also finds that agencies, corporations and nonprofits are increasingly generous in offering meaningful interning experiences to his students. PR students at Syracuse are expected to have completed multiple internships by the time they graduate.
"We encourage our students to have as many as four or five internships by the time they graduate," Meath says. "I met with a student the other day who just finished her seventh, so we place a lot of value in the ability of students to test-drive employers and their skill sets and agency vs. corporate life. We want them to test drive the industry."
Tricia Mifsud, VP of communications, Roku
Roku hires many interns annually, including 75 this year, but the communications team generally gets one or two, according to Tricia Mifsud, VP of communications. Well-known technology companies such as Roku are popular destinations for interns.
"We’re getting tons and tons of applications," she says. "Honestly, that makes it hard to decide to pick. Just narrowing it down to a top 10 is difficult."
While Roku’s products are cutting edge, Mifsud adds that the intern candidates who want to work in its communications department are well-versed in both traditional and digital comms skills.
"There’s a tremendous interest in comms based on what I’m seeing," she says. "The quality of candidates is very high. They are very smart and plugged in. They are aware of brands and influencers, and I think they are at a much more advanced level than interns were coming in 10 to 20 years ago."