Most students and young professionals are well-versed in the dos and don’ts of internships: say yes when you’re asked to do something, show up on time, have a good attitude and take notes.
We’ve been prepared by our professors and our friends who have already been through their own internships. But here’s the thing—a lot of tricks of the trade are learned on the job.
After completing two PR internships, I have picked up a few golden nuggets of internship advice that I want to share with you.
Pay attention to your peripherals
My first internship was in a corporate setting. While I enjoyed it, I wanted to try out an agency role so I decided to look for another internship. During my search, I met with industry professionals who asked me what kind of work I wanted to do at an agency. I thought the question was simply referring to the types of clients I would work on, such as lifestyle, consumer, tech, etc.
It wasn’t until I started working in an agency that I actually understood this question. I discovered there was a specific department dedicated to developing strategy and a department where the sole focus was building creative campaigns.
This completely opened up my eyes to opportunities and positions I didn’t even know existed in PR agencies. Once I understood more about how an agency operated, I paid attention to what other departments were doing and that helped me figure out what I was keen to pursue in my career.
While you’re interning, take the time to get to know your colleagues in different departments to learn more about what they do. If you’re able, offer to work with them on projects that would give you hands-on experience in their department. Internships are about more than building foundational skills and acquiring a new line on your resume. They are also an opportunity to learn about the industry and help you discover what you’re passionate about.
Be vocal about what you want
Most employers want you to get the most out of your internship and provide you with opportunities to work on projects you’re interested in. Unfortunately, they can’t read your mind, so discuss your ambitions and goals with your supervisor at the beginning of your internship.
During my first internship, my supervisor booked a meeting at the end of my first week, and another meeting half-way through my term, to discuss and evaluate goals and expectations. I knew I wanted to write, pitch media, work with influencers and build my knowledge of programming and software tools such as Cision, MRP and Meltwater.
By the end of my internship, I had created coverage reports using these software tools, drafted articles, put together a communications plan and worked with influencers.
To be clear, just because I made these goals and shared them, doesn’t mean I was guaranteed to work on them. I still did my share of media monitoring, packaging influencer kits and administrative tasks. But these one-on-one meetings ensured my employers knew what I was passionate about so when an opportunity came up, they let me take a stab at it.
Finetune your follow-up etiquette
Understanding when to follow-up in-person versus when to send an email is a skill I developed in my second internship. I was under the impression emailing was the easiest way to contact my colleagues, and I was too intimidated to approach leadership because I knew how busy they were.
I assumed that email was the best method of communication because they could answer when they had the time and I wouldn’t be interrupting them. What I learned was although sometimes email is convenient, following up in person can actually save you time.
The general rule of thumb I follow is if the question or comment you have is extremely time-sensitive, or exceeds more than a couple of sentences, it’s best to seek out the person. Otherwise, emailing is usually okay. This rule helped me in my internships because it prevented lengthy email threads, fostered collaboration with senior staff and moved urgent information along quicker.
Following up in person is also a form of networking. It gives people an opportunity to put a name to a face, which will help them remember who you are and it builds rapport. This will work in your favour when you are looking to make the jump from intern to a permanent role.
Don’t rush to meet a deadline
As a student, I was always the person to finish something three or four days early so I could hand it in and get it off my plate. I carried this mentality over to my internships. Whenever I was assigned a task on a deadline, I would retreat to my desk and sink my teeth into it. When I finished, I would immediately return it to my supervisor and usually before it was due. I thought this demonstrated my ability to be efficient and get things done quickly.
During one of my check-ins, my supervisor encouraged me to reconsider this approach and instead, make the most of the time I had before a deadline hit. This was not because my work was bad, but it could’ve been better. I could’ve used the extra time to revisit my work with fresh eyes or asked someone else to take a look.
This advice changed the way I work. I realized I wasn’t an Olympic swimmer trying to beat the clock. As long as I was still meeting my deadlines, it was more effective to take the time to refine my work, rather than hand it in at record speed.
To be clear, I am not advising that you procrastinate or leave things to the last minute. Rather, I am encouraging a “draft, edit, edit again” approach to your work. This will help you meet deadlines and submit your best material.
There is no such thing as boredom
At some point or another during your internship, you will finish your to-do list. You are now bored, taunted by the ticking of the clock and it feels slower than counting down the minutes while running on a treadmill. I’ve been there.
As tempting as it is to check Facebook, there are things you can do to stay busy and be productive:
- Ask your supervisor if they need help with anything. Seems obvious, but I found most of my supervisors relied on me to take the initiative and ask for more work. Supervisors are busy and don’t always have time to check what’s on your plate.
- Ask another department if they need a hand. There were usually one or two departments bogged down with projects and they appreciated getting extra support.
- Research industry trends. This will broaden your scope of knowledge and keep you up-to-date with ways to break through the clutter of the marketing/advertising/social world. You might even be able to use what you learn in a brainstorming session.
- Catch up on the news and current events. Staying on top of the news is crucial for any communications professional, and should be a daily habit.
Ask for feedback and you shall receive
In my experience, being in the right frame of mind when receiving feedback changes the way you internalize it. When a supervisor offers feedback and you’re not anticipating it, or it seems to come from nowhere, you get immediately defensive.
We all need feedback to grow professionally and personally, so the best way to prevent yourself from being caught with your back against the wall is to ask for it. Block time in your calendar with your supervisor to go over areas of opportunity and ask for constructive feedback. The more specific the question, the better the advice you’ll get. This shows your supervisor that you take your professional development seriously and you value their opinion. It will also put you in the right mindset to digest feedback without feeling like you’re being attacked.
The PR industry moves fast and sometimes you’re going to get feedback before you’re ready for it. I am a bit sensitive and during the first couple of weeks at my internship, receiving criticism was hard for me because I took it personally and associated it with my worth.
The best advice I got from a colleague was to check my ego at the door. It sounds harsh but the people commenting on your work are trying to improve upon what you’ve brought to the table. They are not attacking you as a person. Remember that you are separate from the work you create. When your work is critiqued, you are not being critiqued as a person. Thick skin and an open mind are necessary to succeed in this industry.
My final internship advice is this: don’t stress too much about finding a full-time job after your internship. If you’re interested in staying with the company, let your supervisor know mid-way through your internship. If you’re not interested in staying, that’s okay too. It’s all about finding the right fit.
It’s not uncommon to do more than one internship and I certainly found it helpful to have two different experiences. There are so many opportunities out there and you never know where you’ll end up—but just remember to make the most of it!