Public Relations Tactics

Gaining experience: The road map to internship (and entry-level) success

October 30, 2007

Copyright © 2007 PRSA. All rights reserved.

By Lorra M. Brown

The following article appears in the October issue of PR Tactics.

An internship is an integral component not only to gain practical PR or media experience, but also to show employers that you work well in a fast-paced business environment like a PR agency or in-house corporate communication department. Many firms or businesses will not even consider hiring a college graduate who has not completed at least one meaningful internship.

The to-do list of an average PR intern is likely to include monitoring media and client news, compiling clip reports, updating media lists, making a lot of copies, binding presentations, stuffing gift bags and running errands. While some of these things may seem tedious and meaningless to an intern, these essential elements of work have been the responsibility of all agency professionals at some point in their career.  An intern will never secure assignments that are more substantial if they do not tackle even the most seemingly menial tasks with skill and enthusiasm.

What follows are my tips for making the best of an internship experience. These lessons are drawn from witnessing some of the best and worst interns in public relations during many years at both boutique PR shops and some of the world’s largest firms.

1. Tackle all assignments with gusto. Whether asked to flip through magazines looking for story ideas, fill the copy machine toner or set up a conference room for a meeting, consider the task a chance to stand out and show that you are responsible and organized. You can showcase attention to detail (this may mean typo-free clip reports or carafes filled with selections of regular and decaf coffee) and problem-solving ability in many ways. Take initiative. If an intern does not know what that means in a business environment, they need to find out fast.

2. Stay busy! Do not accept that supervisors don’t have much work for you. Offer to help groups other than the team to which you are assigned (but be sure to get approval to do so beforehand). Suggest ways you can contribute to the organization even when business appears slow. Offer to reorganize a file system, archive old files or supplies, create editorial calendars, research new business prospects, compile case studies or update media lists. In public relations, there is always something to do.

3. Get a seat at the table at meetings or conference calls. Offer to create the agenda, take the meeting minutes, and write the call report to outline deliverables and discussion notes. Interns learn a lot just by listening and taking good notes. This also is a key opportunity to show managers your contribution to agency productivity by generating a document that helps staff deliver results based on the meeting discussions.

4. Find a mentor. Even an informal mentor can help an intern chart a course to success. The mentor should be someone who is respected by senior professionals in the organization. Try to emulate their work ethic.  Ask questions, and schedule a weekly check with them to garner feedback and help you troubleshoot challenges. Be sure to show your appreciation for his or her time with a note or accolades to a supervisor for the outstanding guidance provided.

5. Don’t dress like an intern. Sure, you cannot afford designer suits yet, but in my years in the agency and corporate world, the inappropriate clothing worn by interns has shocked me repeatedly. This is especially true for young women in the profession.  Avoid flip-flops, mini skirts, cleavage and tank tops. Dress conservatively. You want to be taken seriously as an adult and an intelligent professional. Wearing overly sexy or casual attire (even on casual Fridays or in casual offices) is a distraction. Inappropriate dress will hurt your quest for professional respect or a seat at an important client meeting.

6. Part of the fun of being an intern is meeting and socializing with other interns and junior staff. However, remember that you are always “on” in the business of public relations. Keep drinking to a minimum, even at informal, non-work gatherings. People talk, and you do not want to earn a reputation for being a party boy/girl, but for being a smart future full-time employee. Moreover, hangovers don’t mix well with the deadline-filled nature of PR work.

7. As part of conducting yourself in a professional manner, avoid gossip. Stay out of office politics. When supervisors or interns discuss other co-workers, stay mum. Once you get involved in negative talk, it is hard to avoid it in the future and can reflect poorly on you. In addition, you should be staying busy and not have time to waste on rumors, gossip or other counter-productive chitchat.

8. Have a sense of humor. Interns are sometimes asked to dress up like a chicken or donut (or worse!) for an event or stunt. Don’t refuse. Do your best to represent the product or client well. Interns with a negative attitude when doing something embarrassing or humbling will not be hired as full-time employees when positions open.

9. Learn to take criticism. Usually feedback is constructive and positive; however, some managers may present areas for improvement in a less than pleasant manner. Do your best not to take suggestions personally. Stay positive and be realistic regarding your weaknesses. Never get defensive. No one wants to hire a junior person who is argumentative or unable to improve his or her work style. By learning to consider criticism a learning mechanism, you will become a smarter professional.

10. Consider yourself an employee, not just an intern. Most companies do hire star interns when positions become available. Never think of the position as a part-time gig or résumé builder. This may also mean working late, weekends, during your spring break or missing some beach days in the summer. Your dedication and commitment will be recognized, if not with a future job, then with a stellar professional reference.

Employers assume that interns and all employees have common business sense. However, below are several basic dos and don’ts that interns fall short on many times:

• Never enter a meeting, even an informal drop by from your manager, without a notebook and pen.
• Avoid personal phone calls or chatting online.
• Don’t decorate your cube with college party pictures.
• Ask questions and for clarification if you are unsure of an assignment. Asking your manager to help you prioritize is wise too.
• Provide short check-in e-mails or updates to your manager regarding the status of projects.
• Don’t be afraid to tell your manager you’d like to be busy.  Ask for more work.
• Don’t leave for lunch or at the end of the day without checking with your boss or peers to see if they need help with anything before you go.
• Solicit feedback to help you improve.

Not all internship experiences are the same. Consider the type of environment that is best suited for you. Internships in the publicity department at big name companies like MTV or the “Today” show may not provide you with the same level of experience as working for a boutique firm. You may just fetch coffee at MTV, whereas you may get to pitch media and work events at a smaller shop. Wherever interests lie, the important thing to remember is that securing and fulfilling an internship to the best of your ability is a critical component to future career success. Regardless of where a student may land, taking responsibility for making the experience meaningful falls on the shoulders of the intern.

Students should start working to secure internships as early as possible in their college careers to enable them to complete a variety of internship experiences.  An internship is the best way to learn the business of public relations and to position oneself as a future leader of the profession.

Lorra M. Brown in an assistant professor of public relations and journalism at William Paterson University, in Wayne, N.J. She can be reached at: She is a former executive with Ogilvy Public Relations and Weber Shandwick Worldwide.



Kimi-Roux James says:

Thanks for sharing. Wonderful and insightful advice. I'll be sure to pass this on.

Oct. 30, 2007

Mary says:

Great article! No fluff-just the real deal!

Oct. 30, 2007

Jules says:

I enjoyed this article because FINALLY someone is giving priceless advice to help people like me get an opprotunity to be successful after graduation.

Oct. 31, 2007

Rachel LaFlam says:

Wonderful post! I agree whole-heartedly with each of these pieces of advice. I have an internship right now that is extremely PR and marketing related and I have learned each of these through that. Number 6 is very true. It's good to have fun and socialize with the other interns, but remember that you are constantly being watched and your job never quite ends!

Nov. 16, 2011

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