PR Interns Part II: Interviewing and Selection

The last post focused on finding the best intern candidates for your PR firm or department. Now lets discuss the selection process. If you’ve done a good job promoting your internship, you should have plenty of applicants.

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Email/resume/samples. For most internship candidates, the email and its contents create the first impression. And it’s usually an accurate one. You don’t need my help evaluating these packages, but let me recommend you focus on these questions:

Did the subject line break through? Did the message offer a clear and concise introduction of the candidate’s qualifications? Was it accompanied by the the writing samples you requested — or links to them? You did request writing samples, right?

One caution: Don’t expect students to be too creative or flashy. They’ve likely been advised to make a simple, crisp presentation — and with good reason. If you find a few smart candidates who also write well, test their creativity later.

The interview. Vet your candidates carefully and narrow the field to 3 or 4 who will earn face-to-face interviews. Talk to references in advance, not after the interview. It will save you time by further culling the herd. Also, be sure to examine each candidate’s online presence in advance. Review LinkedIn profiles, blogs, and public social network activity.

Aside: One of Kent State’s most loyal internship employers tells me internship interviews have become anticlimactic in this 2.0 world. “We know an awful lot about the kids before we meet them, just from checking their online activity,” he said.

Be sure candidates should interview with the staffers they’ll work with most. Chemistry is critical. But most important, leave at least 2 hours for an intense writing test.

What’s in the test? That will vary according to your needs, but I recommend a two-part test:

  • News release or publication story. Not everyone you interview will be schooled in writing news releases. But all should be capable of writing a straightforward story that’s publication ready. Supply a list of facts along with quotes and background. Ask for a 250-300 word story that presents the message as you’d like it to appear in the targeted publication or website.

Include a clear strategy with audience and objectives spelled out. Allow the candidate access to one of your staff in case questions arise. In fact, if you want to be really sneaky, leave out one or two critical info nuggets to see if the candidate is savvy enough to raise the questions. Critical thinkers won’t be fooled.

  • Problem scenario. Develop a 1-page scenario that presents a problem or opportunity your client is facing. Ask the candidate to write a memo that presents recommendations to the client for both action and communication, along with a rationale for each one.

This two-part assignment allows candidates to demonstrate clear thinking and clear writing. Oh, yeah. Be sure tell ’em that grammar, spelling and punctuation count.

Warning: Bad writers are everywhere, and a lot of them want to work in PR. Don’t ask me why.

Part III: You get what you pay for: Why unpaid internships are for losers.

6 Responses to PR Interns Part II: Interviewing and Selection

  1. Rich Becker says:

    Hey Bill,

    Great advice all around. I’m especially found you brought out the last tip. Unpaid internships are fundamentally wrong. I’m still sour about reading one offer of an unpaid internship for a professional who has a $22k day rate. Even as the owner of a small firm, we’ve always paid.

    I might add I’ve had one advantage in the internships lately. I’ve sometimes drawn upon interns from classes. I would recommend the same to anyone fortunate enough to have the ability to do it. I already know where their skill sets lay as writers, thinkers, and doers.

    For those that cannot. I’d recommend teacher references. Teachers tend to know. And if they are honest about the student, the employer will have a sense if the position is being farmed out for community service or if the intern will be able to build their own permanent position.

    Best,
    Rich

    • Bill Sledzik says:

      Thanks, Rich. Wish we had more employers like you all over the USA. I have completed the Part III of this post, and have concluded — with the help of two labor lawyers — that most folks who don’t pay their interns are probably breaking the law.

      I’ll post it later today. I have visions of a class action suit that would land me on the front page of the Chronicle of Higher Education.

  2. Great suggestions for the writing tests, Bill. This year, we included Twitter and had candidates write sample tweets. We were looking for comfort level with hash tags and the like as well as whether they could be concise and compelling. The results were startling, though. Candidates struggled with that section the most, we were a bit surprised.

  3. Bill Sledzik says:

    I suspect that student struggled with Twitter because not many of them use it. We more or less require our students to Tweet (in the “Online Tactics” class), but not many of them like it, and social media really can’t be “forced.” Even fewer students take the time to observe the Twitter stream and the strategies people use within it.

    So I’m not surprised by this. Not a bit.

  4. revealpr says:

    Very interesting posts on PR internships from the employer’s perspective. I’m a student pursuing a Master’s degree in PR and corporate communication at NYU and I’m also in a process of finding a summer internship. I think that those applying for an internship can use your recommendations as a general framework for the preparation process. The advice is great in a way that it directs students’ attention to specific things, instead of making abstract generalizations that are often hard to apply into practice. Also, interesting comment about Twitter as a way to test candidates’ writing skills. Now I have an additional incentive to twit more often.

    Thank you,
    Marianna Kosheleva

    • Bill Sledzik says:

      Thanks, Marianna.

      While I see value in learning to write for the short format of Twitter (and we do it in many of our classes), I believe a good writer can adapt to the platform. I worry that by placing a Twitter exercise in a writing test, you disadvantage a student who may simply not be familiar with the nuances of microblogging.

      Same is true of those who aren’t familiar with press release formats. A good writer can figure that out pretty quickly.

      Anyone hoping to break into PR should be familiar with the tools we use. But I like to remind everyone that PR isn’t brain surgery. And some of the best folks I know in this business never took a course it. I know that’s heresy for a PR academic to say that, but I’m nothing if not transparent!

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