Career Development Series: Turning Your PR Internship Into a Full-Time Job

Welcome to the first of PRNewser’s four-part “Career Development Series.” Over the next four Wednesdays, we’ll be exploring some of the career development issues that PRs at different levels in their careers are faced with.

This week, we’re starting at the start: how to turn that internship into a full-time job. We talked with firm execs and a former intern who actually made the leap to learn the best ways to make this happen. What we found out is that interns have a responsibility to the firms they’re interning with, and PR agencies have a responsibility to their interns, a point that sometimes gets overlooked.

Click through for more.

Two years ago, Molly Biddiscombe was an intern with MSLGroup’s Summer Insiders program, the firm’s summer internship program. In fact, during my time with the firm (10 months) I’d actually worked with her on a project.

Today, Biddiscombe is an assistant account executive in the firm’s consumer marketing practice, working with clients like Puma, GM, and Charmin.

“I had little formal experience in PR before the internship,” says Biddiscombe. Now she assists with client work daily.

MSLGroup’s Summer Insiders program runs between six and eight weeks. Swati Goel Patel, HR director at MSL New York, says the program is 70 percent account work (research, media lists and monitoring, with some administrative work thrown in) and 30 percent work on a summer project. The project involves intern teams who have a real client with a real campaign that the teams have to construct. At the end of the summer, they present the work they’ve done and a winning presentation is determined.

“Many ideas are actually integrated into the campaign for the following year,” says Patel, who emphasized that the work is done with the client’s approval.

MSLGroup’s Summer Insiders program is one of many internship programs available throughout the PR industry. Throughout the year, college students and others looking to get a foot in the door in the PR industry take an internship in the hopes that it will lead to full-time employment and, even more, a public relations career. Making that happen requires effort from both the intern and the firm.

“Interns shouldn’t treat internships as internships,” Patel continues. “They should not only take their jobs and tasks seriously without complaining, they should also be networking with people throughout the organization, going to brainstorms, happy hours, and other events, and making sure their voice is heard.”

Moreover, they should be presenting themselves in the most professional way, showing up for work on time, in professional dress, and with enthusiasm.

Biddiscombe also recommends that interns step up to offer help, volunteer to attend conferences, and otherwise get involved. And, while asking questions is great for both learning and for clarity, be resourceful and take the initiative to find answers when it’s appropriate.

“Really position yourself as a full-time new employee at the company,” advises Sandra Fathi, president of Affect, “constantly seeking to provide more and more value to the organization by making allies outside of your immediate circle. You have three months on the inside to find out where those opportunities are and make a positive impression on the people who will make that decision.”

Fathi says Affect currently has three people on staff that started as interns. Each year, the firm hosts a competitive search through the New York Intern Project, which offers $5,000, a $2,500 housing stipend to live in New York, and the opportunity to work at the firm for the summer. Katey Kimpel, a senior at the University of Akron was this year’s winner.

“I’m not interested in using someone who wouldn’t be doing real work, participating and being part of an account team,” says Fathi. Even when the work includes organizing a lunch menu or getting supplies, it’s in the context of some sort of internal or external project.

“It shouldn’t be being a personal assistant or things that aren’t tied to the business,” she says.

Even if interns don’t ultimately end up working for her firm, Fathi will provide a recommendation. But it’s important for interns to say “early and often” that they’re interested in a job. That way, word can filter through the organization.

Besides the overall PR learning experience, an internship should provide possible candidates with the chance to get a sense of whether the firm is a place they would like to work.

“The goal is to allow candidates to test-drive the industry and test-drive us,” says Marian Salzman, CEO of Euro RSCG Worldwide PR. (You can learn more about Salzman here, BTW.)

Salzman helped design Euro RSCG’s intern program. These programs and the participants provide value not just in the way of billable work, but in inspiration and ideas.

“I think the best ideas historically come from young people,” Salzman says. “They’re not afraid. They skydive with ideas.” To that end, she says interns shouldn’t be afraid to “push the envelope” and they shouldn’t fear execs.

“Don’t be afraid of hierarchies,” says Salzman. “If you have great manners and a great personality, I don’t care if the person is the CEO,” she adds. Bottom line: Get noticed.

And speaking of bottom lines, we were pleased to find that all of the firms offered pay to interns, to help them with their bottom lines. (Intern pay is a big issue nowadays.) Unpaid internships happened mostly where the interns were working outside of the scope of an established program or where there were so many qualified candidates that the firm decided to take on additional unpaid interns.

“It’s important that, before accepting an internship, you understand the ideal path,” says Affect’s Fathi. “Some places really use interns as slave labor and have no intention of hiring them. If that’s not the best path into an organization, you may want to consider something else.”

Even when the internship is outside of the scope of a formal program, candidates should do their homework to find out what their experience would be like.

“Ask about the types of tasks and projects you’ll be working on, are you eligible to attend training seminars and brainstorms, and it’s not bad to ask if there’s a possibility to be converted to full-time,” says MSL’s Patel. “There are ways to manage expectations for yourself and the organization you’re joining to understand what you’re going to get out of it.”