New landscape for public relations interns?

Internships in public relations aren’t what they used to be, at least not here in Northeast Ohio. It’s good news and it’s bad news. Good news because opportunities for highly skilled public relations majors have never been better and paychecks never fatter ($10-$15/hour for the corporate posts, slightly less in ad agencies and PR firms).

Here in Greater Cleveland, there’s work for interns and plenty of it. In fact, in a typical semester we fill, at most, half of the requests we get for paid interns. Any student who wants to build his/her experience can usually do so.

But the rules have changed.

Internship employers, especially in the corporate sector, are asking for and getting more work from interns — up to 30 hours per week during the school year, 40+ in the summer. It’s tough for students carrying full course loads, but it’s also a chance to build a fat portfolio while getting a crash course in time management.

The bad news? Maybe it isn’t so bad. You tell me.

Post-grad internships are on the rise. Three employers this year told me they’ll hire only interns who’ve earned their degrees. Post-grad interns, they say, have the full complement of skills and strategy classes; most of them have previous internship experience. But the primary benefit to employers: Post-grad interns work full-time, even more if needed — and they work cheap, sometimes as low as $10 and hour with no benefits.

One agency VP told me post-grad interns should view the experience as a 6-month “interview” with the possibility of a job at the end. Makes sense from the employers’ perspective. But there’s a downside, even for them.
The top 30% of PR grads from Kent State land permanent jobs before they graduate or shortly after. That means the talent pool for post-graduate internships doesn’t include the top candidates. Those trying to hire post-grad interns will still see good candidates, but they’re from the “B” team.

Extended internship commitments. With most corporate PR departments under pressure to trim staff, interns are playing a bigger role here in Northeast Ohio. One PR director for a Fortune 500 company told me his department would be hard pressed to operate without its interns. “We absolutely depend on them to get the day-to-day work out the door.”

That company and others have begun asking interns for year-long commitments. The longer an intern serves, the more productive he/she becomes. Of course, once the interns graduate, they’re welcome to stay on as temporary or contract workers (post-grad interns). I know of at least two Kent grads who stayed with their undergraduate internships for 18 months after graduation earning $12-$15 an hour.

For employers, longer-term internships have become the answer to cost-cutting pressure. And in many cases, interns (under-grad and post-grad) are replacing entry-level hires. Those entry-level corporate jobs and their high starting salaries have all but disappeared in our neck of the woods.

But aren’t these long-term internships and higher pay good for students? I’m not so sure. The students build voluminous portfolios, and that’s good. But the work is often one-dimensional, focused on employee communications, routine news releases and the like, and that’s bad.

Interns who make long-term commitments to corporate employers make decent money by college-student standards, and that’s good. But those students don’t experience multiple internships and the professional growth that comes with them, and that’s bad.


The “new” internships – be they post-graduate or extended undergraduate gigs – are serving our cash-strapped employers well. But are they serving the students who want to enter the profession? You tell me.


2 Responses to New landscape for public relations interns?

  1. Laura Capp says:

    Hey Bill,

    As one of those PR Kenters who did a yearlong internship, I have to say it was a great experience for me. A lot of what you talk about happened at Goodyear, especially relying on interns to do the work of entry-level staff. Yes, I did a lot of employee communications, but I also attended press conferences, helped with special events and various other PR-related activies. The only think my internship lacked was media relations experience, and I have to say, that’s probably what I needed the most!

    Even still, as someone that hires, trains and works with interns now, I would prefer to have them stay for a year. I guess things are a little brighter in Ohio, because here in Pittsburgh, most internships are unpaid or offer a low stipend. Students rarely work more than 20 hours a week, even in the Summer because they’re working part-time at other jobs. At that rate, it takes a long time for them to get trained and oriented to the point where they’re actually productive. Of course, as soon as they’re finally trained, it’s time for school to start and their internship is over.

    My new agency is small and I’m hoping to find a good intern that can stay for a year. In an agency (especially a small one), intern experiences are broad and I think its well worth it for the intern and the employer to have them stay for a year.

    PS. Love your blog! Its my new favorite PR Biz blog.

  2. Hi Bill — welcome to the blogosphere. And “Hi Laura” to Ms. Capp! On behalf of my colleagues here at Goodyear, “Thanks for the props.”

    The Goodyear internship is tightly focused on internal communications — matter of fact, it is an Internal Communication internship! That said, from time to time there are opportunities to deal with other aspects of PR. This year, we had a full time summer-only internship focused on news media content analysis, and because we launched a new blimp in June, there was some exposure to media. However, corporate-side media relations experience is tough unless the specific internship is for that area.

    Many companies don’t want to risk having inexperienced people talk to the media, and the dearth of press kits often means you won’t have a chance to do anything at all with media.

    One of the best ways an intern can get that kind of experience is to be involved with a university club — the political ones, for example — as communications person. Even in an off-year, there are things one can do to support and expand membership using PR, while getting some exposure. One of our previous interns was comms director for her university democrats — she did speaker events, position papers, news releases and proactive discussion.

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