Monday, March 13, 2006

Advice to an Aspiring PR Intern

A proud father recently asked me for advice about his son's forthcoming college internship in PR. The advice I gave him might help you as well - whether you want to be an intern, or whether you "manage" an intern.

An internship beats a conventional summer job - one summer I interned, and got a lot more out of it (except money) than I did working on a loading dock (which paid better, but all it did was teach me some real-world facts about being a non-union worker in a union shop). Actually, I had two summer internships - the first persuaded me to change my career path (away from something else and into PR - a long story ), the second was doing PR for a small manufacturing company. That latter was very informative and useful.

Functions of an Intern:

Event management is, of course, important, and can often involve interns - some PR agencies specialize in this, others just handle them on an as-needed basis. In my experience, interns at those shops are the folks who carry the extension cords and make sure the coffee pot is plugged in. Rightly so, they're not given much to do that requires real skill (events like that are high-risk/high-reward events for clients and agencies, and few savvy agencies would trust anything of real importance to Jr. AEs, let alone interns - that's not an insult, just prudence). I used to do a lot of events management, and I started in the mid 70s by being the extension cord/coffee pot guy (for the Governor of S.C.) - I also wrote his speeches and press releases, but when it came events (press conferences), I prudently wasn't trusted with anything of substance.

Agency Size:

Small shops like mine often do not use interns; but when they do, the interns generally get more useful experience than they do in a big shop. In a big shop, they may never leave the mail room (some big shops are, in fact, very decent with their interns and actually get them doing real work, though most of them are inclined to treat interns the way Southern Planters treated folks with permanent suntans back before Lincoln freed the slaves, if you get my drift).

How would you prioritize your company targets for an internship?

Excellent question. As an intern, I would NOT go to an agency unless that was the only opportunity available. I would go to a "client-side" employer - probably (and preferably) a smallish non-profit. Non-profits tend to have tighter staffs, and they are also generally (not always) more "caring" - so the interns are likely to be given real work, and maybe even mentored a bit. Back when I was on the non-profit side (as PR Director for a county hospital, etc.) I did use interns, and I gave them real stuff to do and explained to them why. However, when I went to the for-profit side, I didn't have the time for that kind of mentoring - if I needed work done, I hired somebody then expected that somebody to be able to perform without instruction and with minimal guidance - not a good situation for an intern, as those without experience are likely to fail in a situation like that.

Philosophically, I don't think there are many folks gifted enough (gifted with insights into human motivations - this isn't about skills, but about orientation and attitude) to move into client service before they've spent a good deal of time (some of it in senior roles) on the client side. How can you meet needs you don't really understand? Before I launched my first agency 21 years ago, I'd worked on the client side for about 13 years - in that time, I'd had half a dozen or so agencies working for/with me, and I knew what I (as a PR director) expected out of those agencies. I was able to use that experience to begin on the agency side with a strong customer-service orientation and a real understanding of what clients wanted. So if I was to advise your son, it would be to start on the client side (both as an intern and in a career position after graduation), learn what clients want and need - then, either stay on the client side or migrate into the agency side, armed with the knowledge that will open the door to agency success.

Of course, there may not be any non-profit client-side internships available - it's more important for your son to get "some" experience than the "right" experience. However, I would advise any PR student to aim first for client-side employment, and not consider an agency until s/he had at least 10 years of really solid client-side experience, with some of it at the "Director of PR" level (especially helpful if they retained an agency and managed that account from the client-side).

Good luck!