Wednesday, April 14

Developing Internships: A Win-Win Playbook

Think "win-win" as the endowment of an abundance mentality. Why? Because your security comes from principles." — Stephen Covey

The continued conversations about whether or not to pay interns generally falls somewhere in between amusing and disturbing. In one case, a regional director of public relations and communications at a Fortune 1000 proclaimed they had no budget for interns.

It might make sense, given the company has suffered significant losses for three consecutive years. But then you have to wonder whether a student might do better somewhere else. As it is, accepting an unpaid internship is easily likened to giving (not receiving) corporate charity. And, if the thought process is that the company "needs" interns, one has to wonder how it can afford to put so much effort into looking for ways to work around government guidelines. Time is probably better spent elsewhere.

After all, first and foremost, paying interns is a matter of principles. And while I would be the last person to judge an independent contract between students and would-be employers, I can offer a few solutions that would add value to an internship program, thereby maximizing the value of the intern while maximizing the value of the intern experience.

Five Tips To Developing An Internship Program That Works

1. Develop a program plan. While it doesn't have to be written, planned internships define a series of step expectations during the course of a finite program. This reminds the mentor to assess and review the intern at one, two, and three months while providing the intern with tangible goals. Better performance equals a richer, more well-rounded experience.

As possible, these steps could focus on core skills (first month) such as research and writing/editing, enhanced skills (second month) such as creative projects and client products, and advanced skills (third month) such as heading up a project or participating in strategic planning. The intern only advances when they demonstrate some mastery over the previous step. The best interns also try to match their interests (public relations, creative, social media, etc.) with the firm.

2. Set assignments at their pace. Some firms assign interns client work that the mentor doesn't want to do, often without client knowledge, and others attempt to use them as personal assistants and coffee fetchers. Neither maximizes performance.

• Community service and self-promotion. Since both types of projects tend to take a back seat to client work, they are ideal communication projects for interns. Community service projects generally have a faster learning curve than some commercial accounts. And self-promotion projects have longer lead times while providing the intern an opportunity to learn more about the firm. At the same time, they offer no risk to clients. (The first assignment can even be writing an intern hire release.)

These base assignments can be augmented with editing the work of other communicators, which will prime the intern to work on select accounts in the second month. Research projects are also worthwhile because they introduce interns to industries served by the firm.

• Select client assignments. Within 30 days, even part-time interns begin to demonstrate an aptitude and interest for specific accounts. With full client disclosure (some clients are receptive to interns working on their accounts in tandem with their account executives), the intern can be assigned client work suited to their skill sets and interests.

While all students vary, they tend to perform best working on simpler accounts (consumer products, special events, etc.) than complex accounts (financial, medical, etc.). It makes the best sense to start with one account and gradually increase the mix to help them round out their portfolios.

• Challenging assignments. By the third month, interns that perform well can be given a more complex assignment that they spearhead from start to finish with oversight (like a press kit), work as part of a strategic communication team, or an assignment from a complex account. While oversight remains, the point is to give them a project that they feel belongs to them beyond any other tasks they've accepted along the way.

3. Provide self-starter training. Training interns isn't rocket science. Most well-established companies ranging from quick service restaurants to major utilities all follow the same approach. (Many firms make the mistake of jumping to the third step, which increases the training time and sometimes frustration.)

• Show them what to do. Either provide an example or let them stand over your shoulder, depending on the assignment.
• Supervise the assignment. Talk them through the process as they do it, standing over their shoulder as appropriate.
• Let them do it and review. Give them the assignment, allow them to complete it, and then review the work.
• Give them the responsibility. At some point, the review process can be reduced to a quick review of the work.

4. Expose them to meetings. Whether interns work on specific accounts or not, allowing them to join and sit in on client and vendor meetings provides benefits for everyone. Most of all, it provides the intern an opportunity to listen to how the mentor communicates with clients and vendors.

Beyond communication, interns are sometimes eager to offer academic solutions after the meetings. Sometimes they fit; sometimes they do not. Regardless, it opens a dialogue for mutual education, adding value on projects even if the intern never directly works on them. Clients, in particular, are generally receptive to having interns sit in, allowing them to contribute to the education of the intern. Some interns also demonstrate they are capable of working with vendors on behalf of the firm.

5. Help them set priorities and provide incentives. Some interns excel at setting priorities and others do not. In addition to communication-related assignments, ongoing work (such blog posts or weekly interdepartmental memos), clerical, or other task-oriented work is fine to assign, with the understanding most of it is meant to be completed in tandem with skill-building programs.

While incentives vary, internships that succeed have very definite end goals. It might be to have the intern work into a full-time position, extending their internship as an independent contractor, or an open letter of recommendation. Whatever it is, make it clear during the interview process. For future account executives, you might even offer a commission on new business.

Yeah, but what's in it for the mentor?

Some professionals keep asking "what about the value professionals deliver interns?" While there is no harm in asking, this is really unproductive thinking. The modern internship works best when it's a win-win experience.

Students are not interns just to "learn" as they did or do in school. If it is really their first job experience in the field, then they are there to contribute and their contributions have value. Some of that value is returned in the form of insight and experience. Some of it is returned in a nominal hourly amount. (Incidentally, paying interns empowers mentors to fire them too.)

The average hourly rate for public relations firms and advertising agencies ranges between $150 to $600 per hour. Excluding management, PayScale places the average hourly pay for in-house public relations professionals at $14 to $20 per hour (1-4 years) and $18 to $30 per hour (5-9 years). Ad agency professionals average $14 to $26 per hour, which is less dependent on years of experience and more dependent on performance.

Interestingly enough, many professional occupations pay interns and for residencies. But in creative and communication-related fields, more interns have not only asked to accept unpaid internships but some do so while paying for required academic credit.

Some Different Thoughts:

• Hey Intern, Get Me A Coffee And Stop Whingeing
• Will Prohibiting Unpaid Internships Kill the Fashion Industry?
• Unpaid Internships In The Crosshairs

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