What does it mean to be an intern in today's PR world? Is it any different than when our parents started working? In some ways, yes, and in others ways, no. Our parents still had to get internships and work experience like we do, but they weren’t working for seven or eight months before finally getting hired somewhere.
Today’s internships are more competitive than ever, especially in big cities like DC, New York, Atlanta and Chicago. And good PR firms know that they can now hire an intern for a couple months (or much longer) and give them great work experience, but pay them $10 an hour or less. And some firms know they can get away with unpaid internships by offering school credit instead. From my experience, today’s intern will have do whatever it takes to put the most substantial experience on their resume and to ultimately get hired.
But let me be clear: the firm you intern for may never hire you. There may never be that window of opportunity you have been hoping for, and your intern experience will end up being just that—an experience. Many PR firms offer you a deal where you can intern for anywhere up to six months and have a “chance” of getting hired anytime in between. But what happens when you’ve done your time and still don’t have the salary to show for it? Or when family friends ask how your new life after college is going and you respond, “Yep, still an intern!”
You show up early, stay late and prove yourself to the firm; but sometimes it’s not enough. So use that uncertain time as an intern to your advantage – it’s okay to be selfish and figure out what you really want to be doing, even if you have to start at the bottom to get there.
What you’re passionate about
- Where to start - There is no better way to learn about what you want to do, or better yet, what you don’t want to do than by starting your career with an internship. Start at an agency and switch to working in-house. Work for a big firm and then transfer to a smaller. Be versatile! When those job offers do start pouring in, it will be easier for you to choose which one you actually want to commit to.
- The eye of the tiger - Internships are so competitive now, and in the PR world, it’s almost unheard of to start as anything but an intern. So use that time to learn the basics.
- Practice makes perfect, or close to it - Internships are a time where you can ask stupid questions and mess up— but you have to be able to learn from your mistakes VERY quickly. Pretend that everything you work on will be the final copy sent to the client.
- Play the field - Don’t just stick to your team. Ask to pick up new projects and accounts when someone needs help. You never know when there will be a position open on another team.
The pay isn’t parallel to the experience
- The new intern - Most interns today aren’t about getting coffee and filing papers. When I was an intern, I hardly did anything administrative. I even refused to accept an administrative job after my internships because I felt like I would only be going backwards in experience.
- No longer a cog - Today’s internships are more valuable than they’ve ever been. Your company actually relies on you to ensure that their company keeps driving success.
- You had me at hello - The experience you have on your resume will stand out more to future employers than how much you got paid.
- Rookie of the year - Although I spent more than half a year making less than all of my friends with salaried jobs, I was getting to work earlier, staying later, and had worthwhile experiences that many people were jealous of. I was doing more as an intern than my friends and classmates who took assistant jobs after graduation.
Use your experience for leverage
- Eeny, meeny, miny, moe - With social media profiles such as LinkedIn, people will see your experience and continue to recruit you to work for them. With all of the intern experience, you can leverage your legitimate, tangible work experience when choosing between multiple companies.
- Show me the money - It’s about showcasing what you can do and reaping the benefits if you can prove it.
- You can go the distance - The more you prove yourself to be indispensable, the harder a firm’s decision will be to keep you as an intern or hire you. Be honest with your superiors. Experience is great, but you also have to make a living.
- Don’t minimalize the intern - The most that I got out of being an intern was that I didn’t feel like an intern at all. I was able to speak to that experience in interviews, and many were impressed at the level of work I had under my belt.
Internships—we’ve all been there. While brutally frustrating at times, they are also the most worthwhile, rewarding experiences you will ever have. My internships created the path that has led me to where I am today, and from that, I assure you, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Laura Beth Ellis is a senior associate for Clyde Group, a strategic communications and public affairs firm in Washington, DC.