The Internship Experience: Harsh Reality of Virtual Internships

As part of PRSA’s unveiling of industry guidelines for the ethical use of interns, we asked five recent public relations interns to blog about their experiences — good or bad — and offer ideas on how the profession can better prepare interns for the rigors of full-time employment. This is the third and final post in the series.

What helps you land the best job possible in this highly competitive market? There is no doubt that padding your resume with various internship experiences can help you get a leg up, but what experiences really help you when it comes to talking up experience in the interview?

As a recent graduate, former intern and a new professional I have been able to reflect on these questions, and I know all too well what works and what doesn’t. I also know that with the increasing pressure placed on students to be involved in school and extracurricular activities, it can be difficult to take time out of a paying job and devote it to an internship. That is part of the reason why virtual internship are on the rise.

I started a virtual internship during my last semester of school, while trying to complete a full course load and work a 40-hour-a-week retail job. The idea of being able to benefit from the experience of an internship, while still having flexibility to do the work on my own, was to too intriguing to pass up.

My experience was hectic to say the least. I had my initial concerns about the internship, realizing that I wouldn’t be working with a supervisor on a one-to-one basis. But after having my interview, I was satisfied that I receive the same level of coaching that I experienced in previous internships.

After the first week, I was being treated like an employee on a trial period, not an intern. I was even expected to put in 40-hour workweeks, when it was only a 60-hour total internship. It seemed that I was given tasks to do that I never had any experience doing and when I came back with questions I was told to figure it out on my own. When I did make mistakes, as we all do when were learning, I was told to do it again and not come back until it was right. By the time the internship ended, all I gained was a headache and a useless slot on my resume.

So as the appeal of virtual internships rises, there has to be an advocate for the issues that can potentially exist. A perfect supervisor/intern relationship is one where the intern works closely with the supervisor and learns from the real world experience that they have to offer, and the supervisor gets to have the intern take some of the weight of day-to-day tasks off his or her shoulders.

For those in the field who do work in a non-traditional workplace, you can offer a very unique experience to the students who are open to trying this new type of internship. Adding a virtual internship to your company can be a great thing for you and the intern. However, you do need to be willing to put in the work to make sure that there is that one-on-one connection and that every project is a unique learning experience. Don’t just decide to take on an intern because you can’t afford to hire another employee.

Remember that interns are not just an additional hand for a few months, but they will also be are professionals representing our field in the future. Do we really want to give interns experiences that won’t benefit the field as a whole?

James W. Ernst, is the communications director for the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester, a recent graduate of St. John Fisher College and founder of the PR Blog, Do it in Public 2.0. Follow him on Twitter.

About the author

James Ernst


  • I guess it comes as no surprise that internships, like so much of our profession and culture, have gone virtual. However, the true value of an internship is partially contained in the face-to-face, ‘stand next to me and see how this is done’ experience. Instructing an intern to research an issue or build a contact list via an email isn’t the same as interacting on the project as it moves forward.

    Interning is as much about observations as it is output. In my opinion, a laptop and a couch in a student apartment doesn’t meet the minimum standard for experience based learning, other than to teach the lesson that just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should be done.

  • Your statement: “Don’t take on an intern just because you can’t afford another employee.” should be cast in bronze and placed in the every PR firm that is not paying their interns!

    So sorry your internship was disappointing. I can’t see how a virtual internship would be that useful to anyone. Kind of defeats the point.

    I think the legal and ethical treatment of interns in the workplace by PR firms and practitioners is a serious issue that really needs addressing by our industry beyond the lip service of industry guidelines too many firms choose to ignore. Maybe what we really need are reports, investigations and sanctions until these firms decide to clean up their act.

  • Mr. Ernst makes a very important point about interns representing our field in the future. Let’s send out the most professional, prepared young workers we can cultivate!
    But please correct the typo in the last sentence of the third paragraph. Should be “too” intriguing . . .

  • Great comments

    Blake – I completely agree. There is no chance for students to learn unless they have some sort of interaction with a supervisor. So many professionals aren’t really educated on what it is to be a intern supervisor and they really don’t want to take the time to learn what it takes to be successful. So many intern projects are as you said meaningless tasks that make the professionals job easier, the why is never explained. Interns just end up with a useless spot on their resume that may look pretty but has no substance.

    Mary – I think your comment is great. We need to make sure PR practitioners understand what it is to have interns. They aren’t unpaid employees, but students craving to learn the art of what we do. Also, they have to understand that being “paid” doesn’t mean just getting money, you can get paid with experience too. If we choose to not give a paycheck to our employees, we have to make sure they leave with enough experience to help land them a career. I make sure all of my interns leave with a portfolio that they can really talk about. They all take on a project that they can see from start to finish and get real results.

    Sam – You took the words right out of my mouth. If we all try to keep in mind that who interns with us today will be our colleagues tomorrow, we might begin to self-regulate the intern programs that exist out there.

    Thanks for all of the comments.

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