Students, Do You Want or Need an Internship?

When students tell me they need an internship, I can’t help but question their motivation. A voice in my head asks, “Are you checking a box on a list of things someone told you to do, or do you truly want to have a hands-on experience that will add value to your expensive education and potentially set your career in motion?”

I have a bias for the latter, as an employer, as an instructor, as a mentor. I recommend students have at least one internship in their early years so, when they take one for credit in their junior or senior year, they are more self-assured and ready to do their best work. That final internship could turn into a job and at the very least should be a graduate’s best employment reference.

Here are a few more tips for making the most of an internship, and for that matter, they may influence other decisions you make about your college education.

Early Bird Gets the Worm.

Start early and build your hunger for the industry. Expose yourself to public relations firms no later than your sophomore year, and soon you’ll be relating to your curriculum and why it matters like never before. Even if your first role is an administrative function, you’ll see first hand the inner workings of the business. Starting at the front desk and supporting a team will give you a bird’s-eye view of how the industry works, and it should create opportunities for you to discover which aspects you are drawn to and where you should focus your skill development.

Find a Mentor.

Mentorship involves a willing partner and a culture that supports on-the-job learning. You need both. If you are included in strategy discussions, you’re probably in the right place. If you are performing tasks but are unaware of the strategy behind them, start asking questions.

Wow them with your writing.

You have no idea—no idea—the extent to which writing skills will determine your professional success. If you aren’t a good writer now, figure out how to change that. Otherwise, you may never cross the threshold of a PR firm. If you do manage to get yourself hired in spite of your writing, it won’t be long before you plateau.

Good writing is how you tell a story, hook a reporter and draft a release. It’s nearly everything; relationships being the other biggie. Be ready to craft a story your boss can serve up to reporters—even better if you can draft a letter from a CEO to her employees explaining the big news that’s about to light up the interwebs. Yes, you also need to know how to communicate effectively in 140 characters, but don’t be fooled into thinking that the field of public relations has been reduced to social media. It hasn’t, and I don’t think it will be when you graduate.

Be Nancy Drew, Be the Hardy Boys, Damn it, Be Curious!

Assembling a pitch list takes more than clicking through a database of contacts on Cision, Meltwater or Vocus. Yes, PR firms pay good money for media databases, but the info is not always reliable, and it is never complete. This has become increasingly the case with the explosion of social media channels. In addition, staff turnover in the media is at an all-time high, which has unleashed a torrent of skilled freelancers to follow. Bulldog Reporter is one of our favorite tools for staying on top of industry moves.

Finding the right reporter to pitch is essential. You may find two at the same outlet covering your topic. Dig in and determine why one would be more appropriate than the other. To find out what makes a reporter tick, unleash your inner detective. Know when you should skim vs. read, know how to cross reference information and always customize your pitch to each reporter. Follow these steps and management will be impressed.

Be a Rock Star of Support

You want to be noticed, but only for the right reasons. Somewhere in between the surly slacker and the obnoxious over-achiever is the intern or employee every manager wants on their team. Show initiative. Be the go-to, go-getter. Pay attention to verbal and nonverbal feedback and adjust your approach if need be.

Stick Around a Little Longer.

Your internship is probably for one semester, but you may be able to stay longer, contribute more and become even more awesome. Find a way to stay through the summer. Longer chunks of time mean more substantive projects and stronger ties to the team. An offer from your employer to stay longer is a sure sign of your value, and hiring managers will be impressed.

This week Abbey Pennington asked to extend her internship with Red Fan, prompting me to revisit her motivation for joining our team in February and to assess Red Fan’s role as a mentoring organization. I discovered that Abbey is ready for more—more writing, more researching and more, you got it, “strategery.” (Thanks, George.) Abbey is also eager to be part of new-business-development efforts, which practically gives this agency owner goose bumps. So, we’re going to blend some account services with some administrative functions to create a new for-credit internship for Abbey—because she wants it, and because she’s earned it. We’re glad you’re here, Abbey.

More on Abbey’s experiences at Red Fan, in her words.

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