Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Recruiting and managing interns

It’s easy to tell when the summer’s almost over. It’s getting darker earlier. Clients and executives are coming back from their vacations with to-do lists in hand. Spiral notebooks become startlingly inexpensive. And your intern chair is empty.

While classes are out during the summer, intern candidates are plentiful, especially in larger media markets. Managing interns during the school months, though, can be more of a scheduling challenge, and many students choose to prioritize school over acquiring work experience. So, how do you make sure you have a team of productive interns all year long?

Move on it now. If you don’t have a fall intern lined up, start right now. The students are either just moving back to school, or they’re sobering, er, gearing up for their first week of classes. Find your area’s university job boards. Send an email to the colleges’ career development offices. Use your local PRSA or IABC chapter websites. At least log on to and post a job for free locally. Hey - I said start right now. Go!

Plan ahead from now on. Okay, you’re back and you’re forgiven. But let’s make sure right now that you have a winter, spring and summer internship program as well. First, mark your calendar for November 15th, when you’ll do the above tasks again, so students can think over their plans during Thanksgiving. Don’t wait until they’re mired in finals. Also mark it again for April 15th for the same reason. For summer internships, plan to spend more time evaluating the students. While there will be many more candidates, the pool may not be as dense with the type of overachiever who chooses to work during school. Save the best resumes for future semesters – especially if the candidates accepted summer spots at other firms. Many firms don’t bother with interns while classes are in session, and you may be able to grab a great candidate for a spring internship who’s already been trained up.

Choose wisely. Once the resumes start coming in, devote some of your team’s time to assessing the candidates. Conducting first rounds of intern interviews can be a good exercise for your full-time junior professionals, and they can likely relate better to the candidates. Scrutinize attitudes and aptitudes more than majors. If you’re hiring more than one, which is often necessary to fill even a single intern chair 40 hours a week, choose candidates with diverse skills. Some students might be better at process, while others are out-of-the-box thinkers. There are upsides to both – the process-oriented candidates will often be more content and even productive in their roles but may not be as proactive about problem solving. The out-of-the-boxers usually are comfortable with working more independently, but can bore easily. Regardless, if candidates can write – snap them up. You are hereby encouraged to convert an English major to the dark side.

Don’t waste your or their time. Too many interns spend their days surfing the Internet between coffee runs, mostly because no one has actually planned to use them properly. Your interns shouldn’t be relegated solely to photocopying and gopher tasks. They should get a real sense of the various roles in the PR profession and a solid understanding of what is expected in the work environment. Why not leverage the time spent creating relationships between your company and future PR professionals and get a real sense of what they can do?

Create a formalized program. Because interns are accustomed to a curriculum-based learning environment, they often do best in a program that follows a linear path. Try to layout a specific plan for teaching essential skills while still serving your company’s needs. Take the time to analyze each intern’s level of experience proper placement within the program – if a candidate is on a second internship, (s)he can skip some of the basics – and graduate from PR 101 to PR 201.

The program should start with the working world basics – mail merges, Excel sorting, document scanning, etc. Emphasize the importance of speed and accuracy even in the “lowest” of tasks. Don’t allow them to take all day to fax out 10 documents. Empower a full-time junior professional to keep them moving.

From there, move into PR staples – how to scan for company and client news, create lists using media databases, create client and department reports, etc. Include your interns in internal brainstorms and client reporting calls, and have them put together briefing books and other documents that will passively familiarize them with journalists. Emphasize the importance of attention to detail and the idea of “client-ready” work.

As a final step, see how well they can write – first drafts of press releases, one-off pitches, and competitive news summaries, etc. If you see talent, you may well have a future full-timer on your hands.

By the time the program is complete, you’ll meaningfully extend your team’s capacity and simultaneously give a crop of future PR professionals the building blocks they need to start their careers. If you do it right, you will build a reputation for a good program among the local universities - and recruitment will become easier each cycle.

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