PR Industry Scrambles to Save Summer Internships

As if it weren’t enough for college students to deal with shifting to online learning and finishing the semester away from their campuses and friends, COVID brought a challenge to their summer plans as well. Normally, cities would flood with interns, and public relations agencies and departments would welcome them with open arms, providing real-world training for the next crop of communications innovators. 

With entire offices working remotely, the challenge of how to provide a quality summer internship lingered on the minds of those in the industry. Due to economic and bandwidth restraints, some businesses chose to forgo programs for students this year, but a great many overcame obstacles and developed new programming, albeit remote, to provide eager participants with a place this summer.

A Unique Opportunity

While some students may miss out on the complete office experience, others will learn—along with their managers—how to overcome challenges created by distance, and how to emerge with innovative ideas and skill sets.

Jason Mollica, professorial lecturer in the American University School of Communication, said his students experienced disappointment from canceled internships, but also a mix of intrigue and nervousness for those going remote. 

“I've stressed that it is key to be open-minded during these times,” Mollica said. “While students want to be working on site, this can, however, be a tremendous learning experience for future professionals. From the digital/remote perspective, understanding what will be expected of you is number one. How often will you be required to check-in? How can you show your flexibility without being always available?”

An Easy Transition

For Barbara Goldberg, CEO of PR firm O’Connell & Goldberg, after her initial concern regarding the continuation of their long-standing internship program, a decision to shift to a remote experience has resulted in an almost flawless changeover. 

“We are dealing with a digital generation,” Goldberg said. “If anyone can handle remote learning, it’s these college students. (The staff) shifted a bit, utilizing Microsoft Teams, hosting daily check-ins with video chats, and increasing the frequency of communication. Because (students) are tech-savvy, they haven’t even batted an eye.”

Work for Goldberg’s interns consists of researching trends and consumer patterns, media contact updates, utilizing tech platforms to monitor media coverage, basic writing including press release drafting, brainstorming on pitching and social media management. But aside from the traditional workload, the students are also learning skills to take into the virtual office. 

“They have to be a bit more conscious of how they appear on camera, and think about what they are wearing, what they are saying and how they are coming across," she said. “They have to learn to be very clear in communication, (because they) don’t have face-to-face nuances. Also, they have to learn to work independently, so we can trust they are getting it and (working) up to our standards.” 

An Industry-Wide Effort

In just two weeks 2,400 students registered for the PR Council’s (PRC) Agency-Ready Certificate Program. With over 41 agencies participating including global heavyweights like Edelman, Weber Shandwick and BCW, college students and recent graduates are in good hands. 

“Our member firms are dedicated to being a resource for the next generation of agency superstars, which is especially critical at this time,” explained PRC board chair, Jim Joseph, who also serves as global president of BCW Global. “Our goal is to keep them inspired about a career in the agency world and help them be even better prepared to join our workforces when businesses begin to recover.”

PRC created this solution in response to the economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis, allowing students from anywhere to participate in this free, educational program. Beginning in June, students will engage in eight weeks of agency-led webinars on critical subject areas such as strategic planning, applying data, social media strategy, crisis communications, measurement and more. The program will also supply an unparalleled opportunity for networking.

“New talent is the lifeblood of our agencies,” said Kim Sample, PRC president. “In addition to helping this critical group build their skills and build their resumes, we will be able to help our member firms easily find great talent when this challenging time is over.”

Don’t Give Up

There’s still a lot of opportunity for students who have canceled internships. Mollica instructs his students to use this time to find other ways to expand their knowledge and experience. 

“There are free webinars, certifications (see above) and virtual events you can enroll in,” he said. “Don’t just shut it down. Students can also use this time to audit their own social profiles and look at how they may be viewed. Don’t let this ruin the chance to grow and better understand the direction you’d like to go in the future.” 

Goldberg agrees and encourages students to be proactive, as many agencies and communications departments have seen their needs change drastically in a short period of time. 

“Reach out to employers,” she said. “With layoffs and furloughs they may be more receptive to internships. Agencies are a bit more flexible, and this has changed the landscape. The experience of working with agencies is fabulous, and a great way to get in the door (and see if you like the work.) It’s a great way to taste the steak without having the five-course meal."