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28 The Internship: Your Competitive Edge

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You're considering career options in the communications field, and you're eager to learn what a public relations agency or corporate public relations internship entails what's in it for you, what's expected of you?

Maybe you're a public relations major, maybe you're a liberal arts major. Maybe you know a lot about the public relations industry, maybe you don't. But you believe that a public relations career may be right for you. If this is the case, you're ready to reach for the first step in the professional career ladder: the public relations internship.

Why Internships?



An internship is invaluable because it is the only way to combine both theory & Practice.

Public relations classes and textbooks are not the same as actual work experience, and an

Internship can help determine if a field is right for you, before you have to make career decisions.

In recent years, it has become increasingly difficult for organizations to get talented, hardworking, capable and intelligent people. And because fewer students are enrolling in college & the shortage is becoming more acute. The "baby bust" is stiffening competition in professional services, such as law firms, accounting firms and public relations.

So, in a very real sense, the near term future brings with it the giant need to capture, develop and retain the best talent from a shrinking crop.

And if you step into the shoes of those of us charged with finding the best and brightest you can quickly understand the importance we place on providing mutually productive internship experiences.

Some Constants about Internships

You've probably learned that all internships vary by length of time, duties, academic credit given, and even levels of intellectual challenge. Two facts are constant, however:
  • The experience is uniquely valuable in separating you from the graduating crowd with a vital first paragraph on your resume.

  • Qualified young people are becoming harder to find. Corporations and agencies are placing greater responsibilities on interns, and monitoring their performance more closely.
The first point is obvious. An internship can be a "jump start" for a career by differentiating you from the rest of the college graduates when applying for a job. Not only does it give you a competitive advantage over your peers, but it also prepares you for the "real world" different personalities, deadlines, corporate structures, pressure, bosses, etc.

The second point is less obvious. Some figures will illustrate:
  • In 1988, there were six million fewer teenagers than ten years ago; it follows without challenge there will be six million fewer entry level job seekers in the '90s.

  • From a 1985 peak, the 25-34 year old age group has declined and will fall for the next two decades, from 23 percent to 17 percent of the total population.
Getting Your Internship

If you are interested in obtaining a public relations internship, check with the communications department or career development center at your school, they can often provide information on companies which offer internship opportunities. In addition, public relations agencies often work directly with internship directors at universities to recruit interns. You can also do your own research by consulting industry directories that list public relations agencies across the country. Feel free to call an agency to ascertain the appropriate internship contact there.

Elsewhere in this Career Directory, you'll find resources to supplement your career counselor's advice. Here are some comments from those who've been there seniors or graduates who've completed recent internships and one experienced academic's perspectives. Then, we'll briefly profile Ketchum Public Relations' internship program:

Antonette McKain Senior, Syracuse University; Intern, Burson Marsteller; Crouse Irving Memorial Hospital, Syracuse.

"The agency public relations function was an entirely different world from the hospital. I wanted to get a sense of the real world, not just the textbooks. There are no texts on client billing, or on why it's necessary to spend 12 hour days or longer to get a project done. If you're there, it makes sense. Burson was invaluable experience in learning the business consumer marketing programs, working on deadlines, helping conduct media interview training sessions for clients and working with tremendously busy, on the go people.

"Once you've been through it, it seems college is too protective. The hospital had equally dedicated people, but the work rhythm was more regular. There I wrote, and wrote; and hired and directed photographers at special events. What's best about both experiences is that it removes the 'can't get a job without experience, can't get experience without a job' before you have to truly step out on your own.

Keith Hughes, Account Supervisor, Ketchutn Public Relations; B.S., Hobart College; M.S., University of Georgia; intern, Creamer Dickson Basford, New York City.

"I wanted to accomplish two things to decide whether agency PR was what I really wanted and to go through a kind of extended job interview so I'd be better skilled at this in the future. At Creamer I had great client diversity publicity and community relations for Ocean Spray, Crest Toothpaste, A&P, a law firm and even ran a press conference. I also valued the critiques and coaching I got on my writing. But you have to take control. Ask them are they going to give you an organized program, with frequent performance checks? Or will you be used as just a 'gofer' as needed? That's a waste on both sides"

Allison Goldberg, Account Executive, Ketchutn Public Relations; B.S., magna cum laude, Boston University; intern, Fleishman Hillard Public Relations.

"It was unusually active, mostly sport public relations for Anheuser Busch. Heavy writing, pitching stories and working directly with clients I loved it. But the following year this happens in the agency business, their business had leveled off and they weren't ready to hire full time. But it was an excellent introduction. I'd advise a student to look not only to large firms, but to small public relations firms for intern work. Odds are the variety of work will be even greater"

Susan Pagano, Assistant Account Executive, Ketchutn Public Relations; B.S., Boston University; intern, Ketchum Public Relations.

"You're not in 'Kansas' anymore. Your intern supervisors have work to do. So it helps to be perceived as curious, but not intrusive, to get to know the key people quickly memorize names and titles, to be a self starter, to volunteer for work beyond what's on your desk. Just making the effort to help out makes a great impression."

Pamela Hill, senior, Syracuse University; intern, Ketchum Public Relations.

"I was amazed to sit in on brainstorming sessions in which bizarre ideas blossomed into media events. I was involved in everything from media calls tracking distribution of a diaper shaped press kit, to pitching stories to trade publication editors on very technical scientific findings, to an in depth analysis of the financial services marketplace. It might appear to be a recipe for a course on stress management, but I gained valuable insights and really enjoyed it."

Internships at Ketchum

An interesting article in the March 5, 1990 New York Times cited a Harvard University study concluding that college students "do their best in courses that include frequent checkpoints, like quizzes, tests and oral exams...and at least some studying in small groups than in long solitary hours at a library."

Much of Ketchum's internship program echoes these principles. A few years ago, Ketchum launched a new, more formalized internship program that includes carefully structured weekly and mid term evaluations, informal study group meetings, a final "exam" project, and periodic "Breakfast Club" meetings with senior officers.

Interns are assigned to work with specific account executives on weekly assignments based on ongoing priorities, such as: media list development, writing press releases, brochures, or pitch letters, budget management and coordination of targeted mailings. They'll be asked for weekly written reports evaluating the work and what they've learned.

This disciplined approach should enhance the learning process. At Ketchum, we see at least two additional benefits to a more structured intern program:
  • As stated earlier, we expect the demand for good public relations professionals to increase in the '90s, even as the supply of potentially qualified young people entering the marketplace decreases. With this in mind, it will become even more necessary to identify the best qualified people early in their careers.

  • By assigning clear cut supervision and development of interns to specific account executives, we'll also identify those AEs with management potential.
These are the perspectives of one major public relations agency on what you can expect from an internship. Time frames and environments vary, of course. Major corporations offer challenging internships which may expose you to the day to day activities of senior communications officers who very often work directly for the company's chief executives. Nonprofit internships offer varied assignments with rewarding societal benefits.

The College Community's Viewpoint

The college and university community has an outstanding record of internship support. They apply high standards, to assure it's time well spent for both student and employer. There is also a good possibility that you can receive college credit for your internship. Boston University College of Communication Professor and internship director Gerald Powers notes that, "We have about 100 students interning at any one time during the summer, or as part of the senior year curriculum. They must have a 3.0 grade average or better to qualify. The employers we work with are wonderfully supportive.

My only criticism is that in some instances the students have a justifiable gripe about too little supervision. In those instances, I suggest to them and their employers that they draw up a 'memo of understanding' of mutual expectations right at the start and agree to checkpoints during the term. That keeps all concerned focused. Without this or other mechanisms, it's all too easy in a fast paced, frantic public relations environment to simply ignore the intern."

But the overwhelming number of internship investments work. Says Professor Powers, "A former student of mine, who interned at Polaroid Corporation and who's now a senior communications officer at a Rhode Island bank, said that from his own experience and from what he's observed since, 'if you sent me a straight A student without internship experience, and an A B C student with an exceptional internship, we'd most likely select the latter.'"

No Guarantees...Either Way

That's a pretty strong signal. But keep in mind that having an internship does not guarantee a successful career. Also understand that being rejected for an internship does not stain your record in any way. The internship selection process is extremely competitive. Ketchum alone examines close to 300 excellent resumes a year, directed to our nine offices nationally, from 30 top ranked colleges and universities. We can accept, on average, only 20 for each eight week summer term.

In summing up the whole career prospect picture, however, it must be pointed out that choosing routes other than internships to obtain working experience can also be very effective  and have been for many of today's successful practitioners. Becoming an active member in such organizations as the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) or Women in Communications can also be of great professional benefit.

Within this Career Directory's pages there is a wealth of advice for all who are committed to a communications career. But the word on internships can be put very succinctly: Go for it.
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