PR Struggle: Internships and Diversity

According to a recent report, PR professionals are among the worst offenders for exploiting interns. In our field, it is not uncommon for unpaid interns to perform job functions that could be performed by paid staff, meaning that they could be entitled to at least minimum wage.

Interns Wanted

For organizations offering unpaid internships, this functions as a double-edged sword: yes, short-term bottom lines benefit by the assistance that interns can provide for free, but the organizations could also be limiting the pool of talent to only include those able to work without financial compensation, potentially cutting out many qualified and talented individuals – after all, most students have college loans and monthly utility bills to worry about.

The catch-22 of the situation, of course, is that it’s hard to imagine a college graduate trying to break into the highly competitive field of Public Relations without completing a minimum of one or two internships. Soon to be enter the job market myself, I am all too familiar with the expectations and pressure that go along with being in this line of work. It isn’t uncommon to hear that a PR student’s GPA is not as significant as his or her experience, or that a decent portfolio is mandatory when walking into an interview.

The effects of this dynamic can be dangerous to the field as a whole. In fact, just this evening, a major question raised at the Rochester PRSA event was why the industry wasn’t becoming more diverse at a pace similar to that of society as a whole. According to David Grome, there were “several comments about the event’s location (Brooks Landing) being “difficult to find” or “near some sketchy areas,” which might be part of the challenge to unite people behind the issue of diversity. We tend not to go, literally and figuratively, where we’re not familiar.”

Is it too far a stretch to correlate the low amount of diversity in PR to the frequently unpaid internships that are all but a necessity to those trying to join the field?

Though I think there is definitely merit to that question and that it deserves to be discussed, I don’t necessarily think that all internships should be paid.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have completed five internships during my undergraduate career. Of them, two have been unpaid and three have been paid – giving me a unique perspective on this issue.

I learned an insane amount during one of my unpaid internships and built a relationship with one of the best PR professionals in the area – someone I am still lucky enough to consider a mentor today. Looking back, the experience proved to be worth every dollar of financial sacrifice that was associated with it. To those who would argue that they can’t afford to work for free despite the potential value in the experience, I would challenge them to reconsider.

The fact of the matter is that most unpaid internships are part-time (mine was only about 12 hours per week) and during normal business office hours, meaning that there is still plenty of time to have a part-time, paid job during nights and weekends. Not only that, but I also know that it is very possible to excel academically during a semester including both paid jobs and unpaid internships.

Unpaid internships are not limited to financially stable individuals. They are limited to individuals with professional priorities and excellent time-management skills.

I wonder what Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson would think.

The Internship

Criteria for Successful Leaders

www.linkedin.com/in/joannlinder

I spent most of the last year as an intern with Carestream Health, and those close to me know exactly how positive of an experience I had there. From the beginning to the end of my time in Worldwide Marketing Communications, I was a fully integrated member of the team and was able to learn from some of the best in the business. My manager at Carestream, JoAnn Linder, was one that I enjoyed working for very much, and I think she is an excellent leader of individuals.

One fear that many interns have when joining an organization is that they will serve the stereotypical internship experience retrieving coffee and organizing the office space. Fortunately for me, JoAnn operates under the mantra that people should take on as many projects and experiences as they are comfortable with and ask for.

In other words, her rope extends as far as one can take it.

This mindset allowed me to become involved in a wide variety of work at Carestream, meet as many individuals as possible and learn about everything from corporate communications to social media to Salesforce.com.

Part of getting so much experience at a relatively high level, as an intern, is the possibility of failure from time to time. That was never an issue for JoAnn, though. In fact, letting people fail is something that JoAnn embraces.

Once, for example, putting a new graphical design on Carestream’s iPad app led to an issue where users could not access content properly. While it was stressful and I was worried that it would lead to negativity, I found that I was energized and simply worked as hard as I could to find a solution. JoAnn was, of course, calm and did whatever she could to help.

JoAnn believes that the way individuals recover from issues is much more significant than the issue itself. 

Another thing that I enjoyed while at Carestream was an environment of continuous education, both internally and externally. JoAnn takes professional development very seriously and took advantage of every opportunity to allow team members to grow. Attendance to community events and involvement in professional organizations outside of the office were always encouraged.

Internally, on the other hand, team members frequently shared relevant articles to help others understand their responsibilities within the organization. Training sessions were also held regularly for other employees on topics like effective blog writing and web analytics. Throughout my time with the company, a number of “Lunch & Learn” sessions were held, and I even authored a number of “Tips & Tricks” documents to help the team’s adoption rate of iPads.

At Carestream, sharing expertise is simply one component of having expertise.

I learned a lot at Carestream. But the most important lesson to learn was one that took the better part of a year to fully understand:

Empowerment + Failure + Development = Success.

Interns: proceed without caution

Interestingly, Kodak launched a new website, "Kodak Transforms," to be the hub of everything related to its bankruptcy.

A lot of people will remember Thursday, January 19, 2012 as the day that the Eastman Kodak Company, one that dominated the photography industry and the Rochester area for decades, filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy. Few people will remember it as the day that James Mignano began his internship at the George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and film.

Nonetheless, it was, and the ironic timing definitely made it a great day to start my semester-long journey with the museum’s PR department. Continue reading