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The secrets to a successful internship - for the employer and the intern

Taking on new, inexperienced people in PR is always a risk, but if you offer the right support, this risk is well worth taking. And for those looking for their first break, finding the right internship is a godsend. We speak to employers and interns about their first-hand experiences and discuss why it is important that interns are paid fairly.

How interns work for us

Rick Guttridge, managing director of agency Smoking Gun PR, says that internships can be of great use to both parties, but must be approached correctly: “We use a mixture of both short interns (work experience) and year-long Internships as part of university degrees. With the latter, this has led to three permanent roles post graduation which clearly demonstrates the benefits for both sides.

“Finding the right candidates and having clarity on what’s expected from them is key. All our potential interns are asked to take a written test to check out their skills and commitment to gaining a place, with phone interviews also in place.

“We used to just assess CVs and cover letters, but occasionally we found we would get people who would turn up for a morning and then never see them again. It’s amazing how many people’s grandparents have suddenly become ill! And you get some who just lie about having done tasks when they clearly haven’t. We have told some not to come back but thankfully they are the minority.

“The minimum we expect is for people to turn up on time, with a can-do attitude and those who do are a godsend, especially at busy times. 

“Overall internships offer the dual benefit of helping industry entrants secure invaluable experience on their CV whilst boosting our team’s capacity when stretched. The focus on the next generation, which is also mirrored through university mentoring and lecturing, is part of our long-term recruitment strategy: as it aids in being seen as an employer of choice for bright graduates.”

In the two videos included in this feature, you can see and hear Smoking Gun interns at work.

Interns are a crucial part of her agency’s recruitment strategy says Louise Vaughan, group managing director at agency Acceleris and Limelight PR, and she explains why it is important they are paid for their work: “The Acceleris Academy was established to support students and graduates with valuable PR experience, helping to bridge the gap into full-time employment, and since acquiring Limelight we have now adopted this across the full business. It’s important to involve all interns in meaningful campaign work to see a benefit from both sides. This includes a range of on and offline tasks from copywriting to social media management.

“It’s an unfortunate fact that despite the work of bodies like the CIPR unpaid placements are still rife within our industry. This is something we ourselves have campaigned against, being one of the first agencies to sign up to Leeds Beckett University’s policy tackling this.

“The proof of our commitment is in the pudding and I’m pleased to say all of our current account executives have come through the Academy programme. Last year, we delivered 12 paid internships and work experience placements, in addition to 560 training hours to full-time team members, at a cost of £40k in staff time and external costs.”

Paid internships give young people an opportunity to shine says Rachel Gladwin, director (North and Midlands) at integrated agency Beattie Group’s Leeds office: “We’ve long seen the benefits of internships and work experience – our chief executive, Laurna Woods, started out on work experience back in the 1990s and that’s how my career began, too.

“Our paid internships give young people an opportunity to shine. We judge people on the talent they can bring to the business alone. As for experience, we supply that.

“Our internship and work experience programme Rising Stars gives us first pick of talent coming into the industry. We foster strong links with leading universities and as a result get driven young people with the learning mentality we believe to be crucial throughout a career in communications.

“Taking in interns lets us get to know a young person before we decide whether to hire them. We gain insight into their abilities, and they gain experience. When we see something we like in an intern, we reward it. In fact, many of our senior team started with us in very junior roles. Beattie alumni can be found in industry leading roles.

“We want our people to reach their true potential. Having young people with fresh thinking around the business encourages experimentation, innovation and creativity. We need young talent to keep evolving.”

Employers must treat interns as valued employees, just like any permanent employee says Ked Mather, senior account director at agency MWWPR: “Internship programmes at PR agencies can offer entry-level candidates a really hands-on experience which goes beyond making the tea! However, it requires effort from the employer to treat interns as valued employees, just like any permanent employee. For example, paying for external training and providing interns with the chance to attend networking events allows them to develop a specific skill set. This goes beyond performing administrative duties, such as taking notes during meetings or brainstorms. Regarding the latter, why not get another employee to take notes and enable an intern to concentrate purely on the creative process and participate? By doing this, you can make more of an intern and benefit from the ideas they have, whilst providing them with the autonomy for a more complete PR experience.

“Ultimately, if interns are not supported by employers, it means that the industry will not have well-trained future employees. Companies should not look at this as a burden, but a contribution to the development of the PR industry. Recruiting interns should also move beyond simply partnering with red-brick universities, but looking at a multitude of channels to find diverse talent. As a way of achieving this, we also work with the Taylor Bennett Foundation to recruit interns who we will be able to learn from give the different backgrounds and life experiences they have.”

Giving an intern a ‘buddy’ helps the process says Sandy Middleton, senior HR manager at integrated agency Racepoint Global: “Interns are a vital part of life at Racepoint Global. After a comprehensive induction into the agency our interns take on responsibility for core foundational activities that teach them PR basics and support their team members to deliver a first class service to our clients.

“They are assigned a buddy who acts as a coach, keeps an eye on, and helps prioritise, their workload, and answers questions they have along the way. Where there’s a vacancy for a full-time entry-level position, we’ll look first to current (and previous) interns to fill the role. Over the last three years, we’re proud to have hired 10 of our interns as permanent staff, with one of our interns being shortlisted for the PRCA ‘Intern of the Year’ award in 2017.”

My experience as an intern

Two interns from Smoking Gun describe their experiences

The best way to learn is to get involved says Gabrielle Dun, Intern at MWWPR: “Interning at MWWPR has been great way to get my foot in the door and learn about what goes on within a PR agency. Taking a leap into a new industry can be daunting with little experience and the best way to learn and build on current skills is to get involved as much as possible.

“I’ve been trusted with meeting clients and representing the agency at networking events. I was also very involved in The Sunday Times Best Places to Live campaign which we conducted recently. This allowed me to hone my writing skills and build my confidence to pitch to journalists over the phone. It was really rewarding seeing the abundance of media coverage come in from nationals and regionals and knowing I played a part was really satisfying.

“I think interning can help you gain invaluable experience in a sector you want to work within and hopefully there’s an opportunity at the end to stay and progress further, if not it’s still a brilliant piece of experience to add to your CV.”

Philippa Usher-Somers, 23, junior account executive at Beattie Group’s Manchester office, explains how she started out as an intern: “I left Bristol University with a BA (Hons) in French and Russian last year, but didn’t want to be a teacher or translator – I wanted to do something creative in business.

“I’d always quite liked the idea of being in PR so I emailed companies for work experience and Beattie got back to me. While I was in for two weeks, it held an internship assessment session and I landed a six-month placement.

“Beattie doesn’t sugar-coat the job for interns. If you’re here, you contribute. I was given a lot more responsibility than I was expecting. I got involved in all aspects of our accounts, not just admin or dogsbody work. I dealt with the media and clients, joined in brainstorming sessions … what needed doing, I did.

“I knew nothing about PR when I started so it was a steep learning curve, but being immersed in the business helped me understand it. My internship ended in February and Beattie believed I’d contributed well and offered me a job. I’d really enjoyed the experience and plan to stay on this career path.”

An internships has played to the strengths of Danny Breen, intern at Racepoint Global: “My internship at Racepoint Global has been an enjoyable experience. The well-known clients I have been able to work with such as New Balance Football, Massachusetts General Hospital and Mozilla, as well as the responsibility I have been given from day one, has been fantastic. When studying Media with Media Communications at Nottingham Trent University, I was always intrigued by the world of PR and what it would be like to work within the industry. Luckily enough, Racepoint Global has given me the opportunity to find out and I couldn’t be more grateful.

“I think my initial stereotypical insight to internships was soon reassessed. A few of my peers from university have spoken of their internship experiences and the term ‘tea maker’ was a reoccurring theme. However, here it has been the total opposite.

“Playing towards my strengths and my knowledge of football, I have completed a lot of work for New Balance Football. Tasks have included writing press releases, creating social media proposals, producing media reports and doing daily news scans. I have also been fortunate enough to meet representatives from Match of the Day Magazine and Four-Four-Two, helping me to start building my own portfolio of contacts. I have also been working on other clients across all sectors, to show me the diverse nature of the PR industry, including John Deere, Massachusetts General Hospital and Progress.

“Overall, my internship has been a challenging but exciting opportunity. Being able to work on clients within football (something I love) as well as working on clients out of my comfort zone has taught me a lot and these experiences are something I hope to learn from in the future.”

Why interns must be paid fairly

Francis Ingham, director general of PRCA, says: “Why pay interns fairly? Simple. It is, of course, the moral thing to do. But it’s also the sensible thing to do -in employers’ own best interests. Year after year, bosses tell us that talent is their number one challenge. They tell us also of their commercial imperative to have a workforce that reflects the increasingly diverse markets to which they sell. They tell us of the need to be more and more creative. Well, these issues are linked fundamentally.

“Internships are a fantastic means of accessing and -frankly- informally assessing talent. Not paying interns a fair wage inevitably reduces the number of people who can seize that opportunity of showing off the skills and the abilities that they have. It makes it all the more likely that we appoint people in our own image. That we restrict the knowledge and appeal of our workforce. That we become no more creative tomorrow than we are today.

“So here’s my plea to the industry. Pay your interns well. Don’t make internships a club for your friends’ children. And by doing the right thing, you’ll be doing yourself a favour. Self-interest and morality combined. A perfect combination!”

Gay Bell, CEO and founder of Platform Communications, says: “Paid internships bring many benefits to an organisation such as a diversity and widening the net to a broader socio-economic group. For the employee, paid internships tend to be better experiences because when an employer is paying for someone’s time, they naturally respect it more. Paying interns also sends out a positive message to current staff and potential candidates. It clearly shows that you value people and believe that a job well done should be rewarded.

“But if we are going to pay interns then the interns need to take the roles seriously and make the most of the opportunity. Be on time, dress well, get involved – ask lots of questions and make sure you are making a solid contribution – remember you don’t get paid for nothing, you need to earn your salary. And if you do you’ll open up a world of opportunities for future employment. In an industry where recruitment is one of the toughest challenges agencies face, turning interns into full time team members is what success looks like.

“Whilst the PRCA and other trade bodies have done a good job of creating a momentum towards paid internships, it is the responsibility of all agency owners to stop the practice to unpaid interns and work placements today for the good of our industry’s future and tomorrow’s talent.”

For internships to work it is important that both employer and intern are prepared to invest – the employer needs to offer proper support, training, opportunities and, importantly, a salary, whilst interns need to show enthusiasm, commitment and a can-do attitude. For both sides, the more you put in, the more you get out.

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