So Your PR Internship Sucks (5 Things to Do Instead of Quit)

Thousands of recent grads and students are competing to land coveted (often unpaid!) PR internship slots each quarter. Millennials know that the days of landing your dream communications job without a set of industry internships or relevant job experience is super rare. However, incidents like the recent Conde Nast lawsuit or the $6.4 million NBC Universal settlement attest to the fact that not all internship experiences are equal.

Here are 5 common ways employers fail their interns, and 5 ways to turn that frown upside down, and maximize the potential of this opportunity, instead of calling it quits.

The Invisible Internship

Feeling invisible? If you’re not being given clear instructions and receiving on the job training, it’s totally normal to feel confused about what you’re actually supposed to be doing, or learning. Know that while it’s your responsibility to look for ways to support your company, an employer is equally responsible for providing you with a learning component and real-world experience. Sometimes a company knows it wants to benefit from intern help, but they haven’t clarified what that means. A lack of an organized intern program can be a recipe for disaster is no one is empowered to delegate tasks and guide interns.

How to make the best of it: Getting no love from the big boss can be discouraging, but don’t just slack off because it appears as if no one is watching. Distancing yourself from your colleagues and shutting down is the worst way to end the cycle of poor communication and a surefire way to get pretty much nothing in value for your time. Instead, take initiative. Sit in on meetings, clean the kitchen, request informational meetings with other departments. Build relationships with other interns and entry-level folks who do have more time in their schedule to explain things to you.  Although getting ignored by the one person you want to learn from is tough, using your skill set to help out assistants and other interns may benefit you down the line. Finally, if there isn’t an intern program – offer to build one out – how’s that for initiative!

The Intern as Expert Internship

Sometimes small brands hire interns because they don’t have the budget to hire an actual expert. If you’ve been brought on as an intern and expected to do the tasks of a trained professional, welcome to overwhelm city. Now, these sorts of internships may help you build your portfolio as they force you to “figure things out,” but it can also be a sign that you’re being set up to fail.

Back in high school I took a digital marketing internship with an unnamed furniture retailer. Unfortunately, my boss didn’t quite know how to operate a computer, so coming up with digital marketing strategies wasn’t his forte. He said he needed “fresh and young ideas.” I had no idea what that meant at the time, but he made it clear that it was my job to get more foot traffic in his store. In addition to being his secretary, I ended up teaching him how to send e-mails and post online ads with captivating imagery and text that drove sales.

How to make the best of it: Having no direction can seem daunting when you’re being assigned huge tasks. But, don’t quit! The beauty of carrying all the dead weight of a company is that you get all the credit for the success of your projects. This is absolute gold for your portfolio and your ability to confidently take on entry-level tasks with ease when it’s time for your future paid gigs.

It’s time to self-educate! Get your hands on the boundless information available online that help you figure out what the heck goes into a “media kit.” Shoot your school’s PR professors an email and ask them those overwhelming questions your boss can’t answer. Seek out informational interviews with professionals in your industry through LinkedIn. And never underestimate the power of reading a book, or signing up for a course like PRISM or Instappable. This industry moves so quickly that your undergraduate education simply cannot keep up. Smart communicators take their education into their own hands. Extra points if you can at least get your office to pony up the cash for your professional development.

The Barista Internship

Fetching coffee, checking in samples, scrubbing off price tags, taking out the trash…Someone’s got to do it and as the new humble intern, it might be you. Ask any successful PR professional and you will hear the most incredible tales of their intern days. Later on, these will be the stories that will cause other people to shoot wine out of their noses, right now, it feels like you’re not learning anything, right? Mmmm…sort of. Know that everything you do contributes to the whole and it does matter. However, if you having nothing to add to your resume except for the ability to balance 6 coffee cups, a cell phone and your keys on one hand, you aren’t getting what you need from the experience.

How to make the best of it: Don’t be shy, you’ll regret it. Ask your supervisor for more challenging tasks. In some instances this may not work, but the cliché holds true: “closed mouths don’t get fed.” This rule applies at any career level. Before Claudia Marulanda landed her first big gig as Art Director in Avon’s marketing department, she was a humble intern at a publishing company. When a larger position opened up at her company Marunlanda says she “just asked to take the job.” Had she never asked for the opportunity, the beginning of her lifelong career may have never begun. You can start by asking to help with those projects you’re curious about – and then darling, blow them away!

The Thanks for Nothing Internship 

Have you ever submitted a project to your boss and waited days for feedback and got nothing? Granted, expecting an in-depth evaluation for each and every task isn’t realistic, but it’s much harder to grow as a professional if you have no idea what you’re doing right and doing wrong.

Growing is a large part of internships. If your employer is interested in your professional growth they should provide regular feedback. If you’ve requested feedback and been ignored, endlessly rescheduled or told outright “no,” this could be a sign that you might need to move on. Without feedback, your internship is just as effective as educating yourself through a Google search.

How to make the best of it: If simply asking for feedback when you submit an assignment isn’t working, meet your boss halfway. Propose a monthly review for about 15 minutes with your boss to evaluate the work you’ve been doing. Make sure you have questions ready; your boss’s time is valuable.

If simply asking for feedback when you submit an assignment isn’t working, meet your boss halfway. Propose a monthly review for about 15 minutes with your boss to evaluate the work you’ve been doing. Make sure you have questions ready; your boss’s time is valuable.

Jadel Rowe interned in six reputable firms before landing her job at Kate Spade today. Rowe told us she’s been in this situation before. She advises interns to “Follow up politely. Sometimes your boss is just really busy. And there will be times were you just have to accept that and move forward on to the next project.”

The Closet Internship

Your boss is closing a deal with some industry big shot on Tuesday. On Thursday, your team is attending a huge annual networking event with all the key industry players in the room. And you’re not invited. Not being able to sit in on important meetings may be a sign that your supervisor doesn’t see you as part of the team. If you’re shut in the sample closet and expected to be not seen or heard, if feels like you’re missing out on all the fun – and all the connections.

After all,  internships are about building your network to get that next opportunity. If you’ve been with the company for months and haven’t had the opportunity to observe or participate in a meeting or event, there’s a good chance no one is going to spontaneously offer this to you. done either, there’s a good chance they’re just not going to ask.

How to make the best of it: Some PR firms are reluctant to share their contacts with their own interns. Others are simply so used to event after event, they’ve forgotten how important and interesting they are to newbies. If simply asking to join in on these events isn’t working, find a needed task that can get you in the door, like handing out gift bags or helping to set up.

Esther Robles owns and operates “The Works Agency” where she provides clients with branding and event coordination services. Esther took on a slew of internships in her field before all she ran her own agency. She told us that one of her internships she was “very limited to doing clerical tasks, and running errands. I wasn’t part of any important meetings.” However, although some of her internships were less than ideal, Esther continued to intern until she gained the experience she needed. Eventually she got what she described as “a turning point in (her) career.”

The Creative Director at her last internship with an Event and Production company was a natural teacher that fully immersed her into his world and allowed her to participate in company meetings, site visits, networking events, and all those great things in between. “Because it was a small company I was allowed to participate in multiple projects on many levels, and eventually I was hired. Asking questions whenever possible and sharing the things you are interested in pursuing. Being proactive will make all the difference.”

Being proactive will make all the difference

So many emerging professionals hit these same snags in their journey. However, instead of being miserable or quitting out of anger or boredom, look at your internship as an opportunity to be proactive, ask for what you want, and show your value.

Learn the legal rights of interns here.

About Macy Harrell

Macy is a communications professional at New York City-based PR and marketing boutique agency The Posh Connect. She encourages you to stalk her on Twitter and Instagram @meetmacy.

Image via: Adorkably Nicole

PS: Looking for mentorship, community and help growing your PR skills? Sign up for PRISM, the PR 101 Course from PR Couture. Registration is now open!