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.

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