I spent my first year of college at the University of Florida figuring out what I wanted to be when I grow up. As soon as the light bulb went off and I realized I was born to practice PR, I started interning. I plowed through four PR internships in three years. I worked at two small agencies, a credit union and a student-run firm. During this time, I learned invaluable lessons and gained undeniable experience that put me in a great position to secure full-time work after I graduated. The following are five nuggets of wisdom I acquired on how to successfully land a PR internship.
Step #1: Build a Portfolio
The hardest part of completing internships is landing the first one. Many agencies expect you to already have experience. Talk about a Catch-22. Be proactive and publish pieces in the student or city newspaper, local magazines, credible blogs and newsletters. If none of these options are available to you, create a company newsletter for your job, get some friends together and write a magazine or express your thoughts in a blog. EVERY interviewer (relevant to PR or not) has been impressed with my collection of published articles. I got lucky when looking for a PR internship and landed a writing internship instead. Of course, I didn’t feel lucky at the time, but the experience honed my craft and got me practicing what my professors were teaching. PR revolves around words, written and oral. Perfect both skills.
Step #2: Personalize your search
In addition to combing the job boards, (PR Couture's job board and FreeFashionInternships.com are great places to start!) ask friends, family, professors, mentors, teacher’s assistants, co-workers and everyone else you may know about opportunities. It is always better to have a personal email address, phone number or accurate salutation for your cover letter than to send out a cold resume. You never know who might know someone who knows someone who is looking. I was involved with Student Government and earned my first internship with the help of the college president. After getting to know her throughout the year, she sent out one email. Her one gesture opened the doors to each prospect that followed.
Step #3 Find the right fit
Have a vision for your career and find companies that fall in line with your goals. Look for internships that will prepare you to work at your dream company. If you are lucky enough to live in the city where your dream company is, don't wait for an available internship. Instead, introduce yourself to the company in question, and don't be afraid to let your passion (and knowledge) shine through in your cover letter. Let HR know that you love this company and see yourself continuing to work there. Employers like to invest in employees, however far in the future that may be.
If your heart has yet to settle on a firm, search the internet for local firms concentrating in your area of interest. If none are available, check out what kind of clients local firms are retaining. If anything can train you for your next step locally, take it. Perhaps Vogue is your dream, then intern with a firm working with client magazines. Look at those with retail or consumer branches to work towards experience in fashion. Work with what you have and set a goal to intern in another city as soon as possible.
Step #4: Learn to love the interview
The interview can be a scary step in the process, but remember, you already got this far. They like you enough on paper, now you just have to deliver those impressive skills in person. Calm your nerves and do your homework on the company. Find out the name and background of the CEO (linkedIn is great for this), know about how many people are on staff, how much the firm bills in a year, mission, vision, goals, clients etc. Researching these facts arms you the company’s “resume” and who knows what similarities you may find that will help you make a personal connection during the interview. In addition, coming prepared with a few questions of your own or anecdotes will help you to to interview the agency at the same time that the employee is interviewing you.
At the same time, be prepared to answer some tough questions: What is your weakness? is a very common question. Others include, how have you demonstrated leadership? What would you do in situation X with circumstance Y? Above all, dress your best, stay positive and let your personality shine.
Step #5: Don’t let the “U” word turn you away- Unpaid
My writing internship was unpaid. I'll admit that at first it felt like a blow to miss out on an "official" PR internship. However, that one internship was an incredible resume builder and led to others. Yes, working for nothing can be overwhelming, and if you are like most, you will have another job to pay the college bills. But at the end of my time both working and interning through college, I had numerous articles published in local client magazines (with my name listed as a contributing writer) and an understanding and appreciation for journalism and reporters. Understanding both sides of the media is invaluable in creating support for a campaign. The temporary monetary sacrifice led to higher pay and other rewards at future positions. Consider it.
Once you earn a coveted spot, let yourself be known within the organization. Share your opinions. Don’t be afraid to apply what you learn in class or to ask questions, doing so shows that you are paying attention. Thinking critically shows your intelligence, dedication and eagerness to learn-- all qualities that employers LOVE. By looking for problem solving opportunities or taking on responsibility, you leave a good impression on your supervisor and solidify yourself as a valuable employee and team player. This is your time to learn as much as you can, so make the most of it. If you want press releases to add to your portfolio, ask to take first crack at a new client release. If you want to know how new business presentations are given, ask to sit in on a pitch. If you want to understand the PR strategy, ask to participate in a brainstorming session. The firm that hired you has an agenda for you; you should have an agenda for them as well.
Vianka McConville is a recent University of Florida grad with a B.S. in Public Relations. Vianka completed four internships in three years, held various leadership positions and helped create an FPRA award-winning PR campaign during college.