One way to engage in PRSA, advance the profession and guide future professionals is to offer internship programs at your place of business. Internships provide a real-life educational opportunity to students who are interested in public relations, enhance community relations with your local colleges and universities, and deliver meaningful contributions to your office.
While employed in the hospitality industry, I was able to provide more than 450 internships to students from three major universities. I still hear from many of them as they make significant career decisions. It’s been a mutually rewarding experience, both personally and professionally.
The first key to a successful internship program is management buy-in. Your boss needs to appreciate and enthusiastically embrace the benefits of the program. Without adequate support from management, the program will suffer and likely appear as a distraction to your work.
Next, you must decide in advance what you can offer students and who will manage their experience. Without mapping out tasks and contributions and how to evaluate interns’ success, the program will languish. Students repeatedly told me, incidentally, that the internship programs at Sheraton Hotels in Waikiki provided them with a solid public relations foundation and an opportunity to build a portfolio for future employment.
To maximize that potential, I interviewed prospective interns with my checklist of expectations in hand. The checklist included various criteria: general writing and editing experience (Microsoft Word and Excel); junior or senior university status; active membership in the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA); ability to complete a minimum of 150 hours for internship credit; sufficient maturity for appropriate social behavior in office and client situations; positive, proactive attitude; ability to handle constructive feedback, multitasking and deadline priorities; and understanding of appropriate telephone etiquette, office attire and appearance. While these expectations seem simple, they were a good guide to selecting the best of the best to be an integral part of my team.
I reviewed my philosophy on internship programs with students, and established mutual expectations — what I sought from them, what I hoped to provide by the end of the semester and what they hoped to gain from the internship. Primarily, I allowed the students to shadow me during meetings at the hotels, as well as in the local community, as we worked on industry and community relations programs. The goal was to teach by demonstrating the daily functions and challenges of a public relations professional working with four world-class hotels in Waikiki. Students viewed the depth and breadth of my internship program as major benefits. And, I supported those benefits with structure.
Each internship required a minimum of 150 hours of work with duties that included drafting news releases and media advisories; researching and writing newsletter articles; assisting in finalizing distribution lists; pitching story ideas to the media; attending brainstorming sessions and weekly staff meetings; taking notes at client meetings; and compiling monthly media reports. My objective in working with interns was to demonstrate every aspect of the job and to illustrate how fascinating a public relations position in the hospitality industry could be. Another unspoken benefit was that internships allowed me to build additional staff without impacting my budget.
While providing a detailed structure is an important element of a successful internship program, evaluation is the next most important component. While you generally receive evaluation forms from the school to fill out at a mid-point and the end of the semester, I found evaluations needed to be more frequent (every one to three weeks) to make sure the student’s experience is meaningful, and vice-versa. Frequent evaluations also allowed me to see where the student excels and, hence, direct that energy appropriately.
And, I’ve found that there’s another, less formal benefit to having internship opportunities at your workplace — you get to meet young, up and coming professionals. Not only is it rewarding to help launch and guide a new public relations professional, but I also learned from them in return. I found my interns to be bright, eager and technologically savvy, and they did a great job of educating me. I firmly believe, in fact, that they could teach us all a thing or two.
Clearly, the old adage works both ways in the world of internship programs: “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” It’s a win-win proposition, benefiting us all individually and as an industry.
Barbara J. Whitman, MBA, APR, Fellow PRSA, is a member of the PRSA Board of Directors and president of BJW Public Relations in Honolulu, Hawaii.