When I started in the PR business, interns fetched coffee and picked up dry cleaning for agency VPs. Serf labor. Then, after the Lewinsky scandal of the nineties, the very word became a punch line. But things have changed, right?
Not so fast. Last week, a fresh intern “scandal” broke after a BBC television “exposé” painted an unflattering portrait of a UK fashion agency for its use of 20 unpaid interns. That’s out of a staff of 70.
The truth is, the way an agency treats interns says a lot about the firm. Do yours sit in a cube all day updating media lists? At Crenshaw, ours do some of that, but they also staff events, spearhead research projects and have real input on daily account work. Last summer, a stellar intern revamped the analysis we use for one client’s quarterly report, making it more streamlined and more readable. (We tried to persuade him to forget the college thing and come to work for us immediately, but back he went.)
So, how to make a PR firm internship a win-win experience? Here are some of our best practices.
Advertise. Many internships are filled by simple networking. But, if you’re advertising, I have a timesaving tip. I always put two questions in our ads. A proper response tells me that the ad has been read all the way through. It also indicates that the applicant can do basic research. The questions from my last ad were “What LCD manufacturer is associated with Quattron technology?” and “Name a spokesperson for this technology.” (We are AOR for Sharp Electronics.) It saves us the trouble of looking at 50 replies from applicants who spotted the word “intern” and assumed it meant a finance or advertising internship.
Appoint a mentor. Interns give junior staffers a wonderful opportunity to hone both people skills and time management techniques. Mentors provide an agency orientation and are the first stop when interns have questions. You want to maximize the time invested by everyone, as well as promote your firm as a great workplace. A happy intern is a future Account Coordinator with a short learning curve!
Balance the workload. A Starbucks run every once in a while is fine, as is updating that ed cal list. Just make sure interns learn the basics of good press release writing and targeted pitching.
Consider job shadowing If you can set aside a day to allow your intern to shadow a more senior account executive, it can pay off for everyone. Or, invite the intern to sit in on your next client or new business meeting. If you warn them in advance, most clients will understand and appreciate what you’re doing.
Compensation. If you’re not offering payment, make sure that fact is clear upfront. But consider covering basic transportation costs, and if he/she goes above and beyond, offer some compensation or at least pay for meals.
Responsibilities. Above all, don’t use an intern where a regular employee would be a better choice. How to tell if you’re crossing a line: do your interns have direct responsibility for client deadlines? If so, better hire an entry-level person…then go buy your intern a cup of coffee!
The Public Relations Society of America offers these guidelines for ethical treatment of interns.
Liz Savery is Managing Director of Crenshaw Communications.« Is Any PR Good PR? | What Good Public Relations Cannot Do »