A few weeks ago, while going over applications for our summer internship program, I wrote a post with tips for landing an internship in PR. Shortly after it went live, I got a call from veteran journalist Jack O’Dwyer, who’s covered the PR industry for over 40 years. He said that while he enjoyed my post, the market for internships at traditional PR firms is so competitive, students and recent grads may need to think outside the box to gain real world experience. He suggested that they go door to door to local businesses and offer their services for little or no compensation. “Do anything they need including sweeping the floor and washing the windows. Do what the regular employees won’t. Bring them news of new products or what the competition is doing. Show them how to create a website if they don’t have one,” he said.
At first, the whole conversation made me very uncomfortable. He was essentially saying that people with little to no PR experience should start freelancing. It sounded like a disaster waiting to happen. Interns make mistakes – it’s a part of the learning process, and a traditional internship is a safe, supervised environment where this can happen (usually) without dire consequences. I couldn’t see how any good could come of letting inexperienced 20-somethings run amuck with a company’s public image.
Over the next two weeks we reviewed over 300 applicants and finally hired one. The process made me reconsider Jack’s advice from the perspective of any one of the many qualified candidates we didn’t hire. If you haven’t had much luck finding a traditional internship, you really don’t have much to lose. You don’t have a professional reputation at stake, and you most likely won’t be signing any major clients. As long as you’re careful and only offer services you’re relatively equipped to handle, it just may be what gets your career started.
Just ask Andrea Marilyn Garcia. Before becoming an Account Executive at Jaffe Communications, she gave herself a head start, making industry connections early on. “While at school I had an art blog for a journalism class and was looking for fresh new media content,” she said. “I realized that if you have a camera, anyone will want to speak with you. I would go to events and take video and interview people. Before I knew it, I was working with PR and marketing people at institutions and events.”
Christina Dela Cruz, now an Assistant Account Executive at a PR firm in Atlanta, got her start with a virtual internship. “I graduated from college right when the economy took a nose dive in 2009, so I found it extremely challenging to find relevant internships in my area. I decided to take up ‘virtual interning’ as a means to gain experience,” she said. “I was able to intern for a small content marketing and digital PR consultant company based out of Virginia (I am located in Atlanta) via email and Skype.”
Nick Patrikis, a senior at Ithaca College, took a long shot, answering an ad on Craigslist for a VP of Marketing position at a record label startup. Though he didn’t get that job, the head of the company replied and agreed to meet with him. They talked basic marketing strategy and Nicholas left the meeting with his first assignment: developing a new logo for the record label.
The takeaway? Think beyond traditional internships. There are so many small businesses that haven’t even considered PR – each one is a potential client. The owner of my favorite taco truck once offered to pay me in tacos if I’d manage his Twitter account (sadly, I had to decline because I was moving). Though traditional internships may seem like a safer way to get started, in many ways, they may not be as edifying as branching out on your own. Many firms won’t let interns take on important tasks out of fear, precisely because they do have a professional reputation to consider and client accounts on the line. Mistakes will be made, regardless where you work, but fear of failure should never deter you from taking risks.