Thought Leadership

The Hallmarks of a Great Internship Program

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Rob Culp, Fellow PRSA, is the professional director of the graduate PR and advertising program at DePaul University in Chicago. Prior to joining DePaul, he served in leadership roles for two agencies, Ketchum and Sard Verbinnen and Company. Previously, he held senior communications positions at Sears, Sara Lee Corporation, Pitney Bowes and Eli Lilly. He is also the author of Culpwrit, the PR career blog. Given his extensive experience in the agency, corporate and academic sectors, PRsay asked Culp for his thoughts on effective internship programs today.

Ron CulpWhat are some common misconceptions about internship programs for college students?

Many students view their chances of landing an internship in the same terms as winning the lottery. Last year, the internship office at DePaul posted considerably more internship opportunities from agencies, corporations and nonprofits than we were able to fill. So, like the lottery, you have to play to win.  Don’t give up if you’ve been focusing on large agencies or major corporations.

While some large agencies report receiving hundreds of résumés, smaller agencies receive far fewer applications, so your chances improve dramatically.

Another misconception: An internship will lead to a full-time job. That, indeed, happens, but students should be prepared for at least two stints as an intern before they are seriously considered for an entry-level position.

What are some options for organizations that don’t have the budget for a paid program?

I loathe unpaid internships for college graduates, even at nonprofits. If an intern performs work that lessens the workload of salaried employees, then they should be compensated. Nonprofits might want to tap their boards and supporters to underwrite internships. Unpaid internships that provide valuable hands-on experiences should be confined to undergraduates.

In your estimation, what are the hallmarks of a great internship program — for both the organization and the student?

The best internship programs embed interns in the teams performing client work. Allowing interns to listen and observe client interaction and project implementation allows them to better understand the importance of their sometimes mundane assignments.

Unfortunately, during the pandemic, the virtual nature of too many internships became impersonal and transactional. Smart agencies and organizations offer ongoing training opportunities where interns can hone their knowledge and skills. A positive internship experience turns an intern into a powerful brand ambassador, even if it doesn’t result in a full-time position.

John Elsasser is PRSA’s publications director. He joined PRSA in 1994.

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