Monday, March 22, 2010

I Believe That Children Are Our Future, Teach Them Well and . . . yada, yada, yada

Is Your Company Doing Enough to Identify, Nurture and Promote its Interns?
Do you ever get a song inside your head and it just won't go away? Okay, enough said bout the title of this week's post as I began to think about the importance of promoting the next generation of PR ((INSERT INDUSTRY HERE)) professionals. Perhaps it's because spring is in the air and many companies who use interns are either in the thick of selecting candidates for summer internships or the choices are nearing completion. If you're in this boat, hopefully you already have a game plan in place for these fine young men and women when they walk through the door bright-eyed and ready to take on the world. If you're not as prepared, then I hope this post will give you something to consider.

The Good
Last week I had the opportunity to sit down with the VP of a small-to-medium sized and rapidly growing PR agency in Chicago, and I was impressed with her description of how they promote from within at the intern level -- and they don't stop there. The agency invests an inordinate amount of time on its internship program, starting with interviewing candidates to ensure a good fit and then putting the new interns through an intensive orientation process.

During this period, interns meet and spend meaningful time with each member of the agency team, including the CEO, to foster an "open door" atmosphere from the get-go. Interns are encouraged to participate in client calls, meetings and strategy sessions, and are given pitching assignments and an opportunity to interact with media contacts once they are ready. What they aren't asked to do is make copies, fetch coffee or handle any mindless administrative tasks that won't enrich their experience, add value to the team or advance their career. Each intern's direct supervisor and team account leader takes a hands-on role in mentoring and preparing their charges for the next level.

For their part, the interns know coming in that with an agency that has grown so fast over the past six years they have a better than average chance of being offered a full-time position upon graduation based on exemplary performance. The resulting atmosphere and mutual expectations is a win-win for all involved. If a hire is made, the agency acquires an eager and already loyal employee whom they've integrated into their culture and the intern has a head start in the industry with opportunity for growth. Upon hire, the next step is an equally intensive management training program that places the junior staffer on a path for long-term success at the agency, and not merely a career stepping stone as is so often the case in the PR business.

The Bad and the Ugly
If you haven't guessed by now, the above example is a best practice for an internship program; it's well thought out, has clear objectives and successful results. I've also known of agencies (big and not as big) whose interns are warm bodies meant to do the tasks that the more senior-level staff -- and by this I mean everyone from an Account Executive on up -- don't want to do. The workload has no real structure and in many cases, the staff members who could use help the most become frustrated because they feel the intern is underutilized or unqualified, due to lack of training or overloading from menial tasks. The intern becomes frustrated as well, not learning any marketable skills or contributing in a meaningful way.

Often times, this happens in part because there's no opportunity for a full-time hire; the agency is hesitant to invest a lot of time and training in someone who will be gone in a matter of weeks or months. Or perhaps the agency is understaffed and doesn't have the resources to develop and maintain a strong internship program. Either way, the intern lacks motivation and is eager to move on, most likely with a negative impression of the experience.

Granted the reality of converting an intern to a full-time employee is not always realistic and therefore shouldn't be the primary motivating factor for either party. In fact, it's even more important in those cases for the employer to make sure the experience is valuable, meaningful and rewarding, which will serve to enhance the intern's performance. You'll not only have more productive interns as a result, but they'll also be more likely to have positive things to say about your company as they move on to a full-time position. Remember, it's a small world and your former intern could be your future client (I have actually known this to happen).

So What's Your Story?
As you can see, I've offered both ends of the spectrum as to how an internship program can be handled, and I'm positive there are many more examples of all kinds in between. I'd love to hear from readers (whether interns, former interns or employers) about personal experiences and best practices. Therefore, please chime in and keep the conversation going as we prepare to welcome the future's best and brightest in the weeks to come.

Monday, March 15, 2010

So You Wanna Be a Star, Huh, Kid?

10 Critical Steps for Bloggers Hoping to Be Read and Sourced
Okay, so maybe you don't want to be a star, but I'm guessing that if you're taking the time to create, update and publish a blog, either for yourself or on behalf of a client, you at least want people to read your work. Ideally, you'd like it if they come back, perhaps subscribe and -- dare to dream -- share with others! Otherwise you'd write in your diary, lock it up and keep it in your dresser drawer.

But here you are with a blog, diligently (or maybe not so much) writing and publishing posts but no one is partaking in any of the previously mentioned calls to action. You may find yourself in the hamster wheel of doing the same activity over and over and expecting a different result. How about taking a step back to square one and conducting a critical analysis of your blog, thinking it through as though you were starting from scratch? Let's begin:
  1. Know why you're blogging.  Be sure that your blog has a purpose, or objective, and that your primary theme supports your goals. By all means you should inject your personal style, but each post you write should pass this litmus test.
  2. Write what you know -- or are willing to exhaustively research. In the Internet age, everyone's an expert, so don't try to be what you are not. If your post is clearly an opinion piece, be sure to position it as such but if it's fact-based be prepared to back it up.
  3. Stay focused.  Once you've chosen the topic for your post, stick to it and keep your subject matter narrow. If the topic is complicated, it's better to break it up into a multi-part series, but only if it's truly warranted and one that will keep readers coming back (see #8).
  4. Be inspired or you won't inspire your readers.  If you're sitting in front of a blank screen then don't post that day, if at all possible. Readers see through something that was published just for the sake of having an update. Better to keep a notebook handy at all times to jot down even the smallest spark that comes to mind for interesting fodder for your blog. You never know when creative lightening will strike!
  5. Give credit where credit is due.  Don't hesitate to cite examples of other blogs, statistics or links to resources, but never try to pass them off as your own. You will be caught.
  6. Don't make top 10 lists (or top anything for that matter) just to make them.  I know they're popular and can be effective. Ahem. But the last thing you want to do is to throw in unnecessary content for the sake of rounding off your "list." Use one only if it's helpful to the reader to separate the points you are trying to convey.
  7. Remember, you can't take it back.  With every post ask yourself, "Is this something I want my name attached to forever, no matter who sees it?" Only publish what you stand behind and are proud of; your blog is part of your brand or portfolio.
  8. Keep them wanting more.  Remember, this isn't the next great American novel, it's just a blog. If you want a visitor to come back, don't bore them to death or they can't!
  9. Don't blog in isolation.  Ideally, your readers are commenting on your posts, so pay attention to constructive feedback but also be prepared for push back and criticism. If you don't have comments, ask a trusted friend or colleague for input.
  10. Proof, and proof again.  This is the number one reason why I don't source blogs that otherwise contain content worth sharing -- nothing undermines your credibility more than grammar, punctuation and spelling errors. If I'm going to source you, it makes me look bad if your work looks bad. A good rule of thumb is to write, proofread, rewrite and then proof again before finalizing. If you're not a good editor, ask someone else to do it for you.
Now, you may be asking yourself what makes me an expert if this is my first blog post. Very astute. The answer is that I was inspired (see #4). As a PR professional, I do an endless amount of reading and researching each and every day, and when I find something notable and worthwhile I share it with my Twitter followers or colleagues.

Unfortunately, I've clicked out of too many blogs that didn't follow some (or all) of the guidelines above, yet I know that the author is spending a good deal of time trying to build a readership and become a useful resource. I'd venture to guess that if the blog was continually reinvented with most of these tips in mind, that may just begin to happen.

I'd love to hear some of your advice for new or veteran bloggers, so please share and happy posting!