PR Interns or Assistants – Which is Right for You?

Mary Deming BarberThis is a guest post from Mary Deming Barber, APR, Fellow PRSA, president of The Barber Group. A continually important topic, it has been updated from the original version, which ran on this blog in 2010.

Solo practitioners regularly seem to chat about the best way to scale up their businesses. The topic of interns versus assistants is the topic of discussion. As public relations professionals, I believe we have a responsibility to help others learn and grow so they can be responsible professionals as well. At the same time, as small business owners, we know the amount of time we have to devote to helping those less experienced get their on the job training. So, how do you decide? What do you need to look at? Here are some thoughts, and I hope you’ll add your own in the comments section.

Dictionary.com defines an intern as: “A person who works as an apprentice or trainee in an occupation or profession to gain practical experience, and sometimes also to satisfy legal or other requirements for being licensed or accepted professionally.”

If I look at my workload from that perspective and can parse out some things where an individual will gain practical experience, I’m on the road toward securing an intern. If I look at my workload and the needs are more administrative, I should probably look for an assistant. Don’t get me wrong – interns can definitely do SOME administrative work. We need to make sure they get a taste of the real world, but the emphasis needs to be on practical experience…something to put in their portfolio.

However, it’s important to look beyond the work I need done and look at what an intern needs. That’s where, as small business people, we need to take an honest look at the time we’re willing to invest. Do I have the time to help someone learn more about public relations or would I rather pay someone to go away and get the job done? Am I interested in building a long-term relationship with a student whom I can watch grow and help succeed or do I just need to get the project done? Neither answer makes you a good/bad person, but your honesty will help everyone succeed in the end.

My most successful intern experience was when I was able to give a very capable public relations student a project, meet with her regularly to determine benchmarks and next steps and then watch the final product come off the production line. In the end, we were all happy and the client got a project completed they would never have been able to pay the agency’s AE rates to complete. More than 30 years later, we’re still mentoring each other.

If you want to dedicate time and energy to an intern, which I highly recommend, take a look at PRSA’s Internship Guide. This extremely comprehensive guide was put together to help everyone get the most from the experience.

What do you think? Is having interns worth the investment for you? Was being an intern critical to your career growth? What should professionals look for in successful interns? Interns in professional internships?

Mary Deming Barber, APR, Fellow PRSA, is president of The Barber Group, a communications consultancy created in 2000. She has counseled companies in the West and internationally for more than 37 years. Mary’s clients range from Alaska Native corporations, tourism and telecommunications to a variety of food organizations and two successful US Senate campaigns.

She serves on the Whitman College Alumni Board and has been active in PRSA nationally and at the chapter level. She is a past president of the Ad2 Division of the American Advertising Federation and the International Foodservice Editorial Council.

  • Such a timely topic, Mary. I hear many people lately referring to all help as “interns,” and I often wonder if they truly want an intern or an assistant. I fear some think “intern” and “cheap or free” labor are synonymous.

    I've never managed an intern, nor was I ever one, but I did work a few throughout my agency years. I worked full-time while attending college (nothing like a 10-year plan ;)) and was lucky enough to find a receptionist position at an agency that eventually led to an AAE gig at the same agency just before I graduated. I definitely had to scratch for projects (and get them done in addition to my other duties), but I was also getting a paycheck for my other duties). My motivation for the extra work wasn't school credit, but a hunger to learn more about PR as a career.

    If a person is willing to work for credit and/or lower rate, they are considering their time an investment in their future. Someone who wants to do nothing but take care of administrative tasks and isn't interested learning about PR as a career holds a completely different set of motivators.

    You are absolutely correct. If you are not completely honest with you or the person you are asking to help, you'll both be unhappy. I would never hire an intern – at least not anytime soon. I understand I just don't have the bandwidth to make it worth their (or my) while right now.

  • Nailed it on the head, Mary. This is exactly what I've been struggling with myself. I've concluded that, for now, I need an assistant. Pure and simple. When I have the bandwidth again to actually mentor and offer guidance on some really cool portfolio projects, then intern it is.

  • marydemingbarber

    Great comments Jennifer,

    I completely agree with you. As small businesses many of us don't have the time to offer that education piece for interns that is so important to an intern's success. I think it's really important for us to recognize those limitations and know we can't offer the time. It keeps things fair for everyone.

  • marydemingbarber

    I agree with you LuAnn. Although I might wish I had time for an intern, I'm in the same boat as you. I do spend time mentoring and that makes me feel as though I'm helping. But, it's the administrative type tasks that need help right now as opposed to supervising someone on a project. Maybe someday!

  • kcdpr

    Without a physical office location, I feel that an intern won't get nurtured the way I'd prefer in a typical situation. My firm recently hired an assistant to take the administrative tasks off my plate and allow me to better serve my clients and source new business. I had found that a good 1-2 hours a day were being wasted on my part compiling invoices, going to the post office, bank, buying supplies, following up with vendors, etc. Ideally, I'd like to be able to hire an intern soon as there are a ton of bright young minds out there. If and when I'm in a physical office setting (next year?), having an intern will be a first step in staffing. Right now, I love the virtual office setup and having 3-4 freelancers contracted to work.

  • marydemingbarber

    I agree that our virtual offices present an additional challenge for internships. The successes I've had with interns were all in more traditional settings.

    I would love to hear of people who've successfully handled interns from a virtual/home office setting. Anyone out there with a success story?

  • Kevin- you've outlined exactly the kinds of tasks I've delegated to an assistant myself. There are many out there who are all too happy to do this work for us! As for virtual interns, I know many Solo PR Pros have used them successfully – students today are often even more comfortable being virtual than we are. I'll let them share their experiences directly.

  • I've had a lot of success with virtual interns. In fact, I put together a presentation to help others have the same success I've had! Don't hesitate to contact me with questions. http://www.slideshare.net/ComeRecommended/creat

    (I'll reply to the rest of the content in this post and other comments later — pressed for time but Kellye asked me to chime in on this!)

  • heatherwhaling

    What an interesting discussion! I was fortunate to have two fantastic internships during college — one at the largest agency in the state (at the time), one for the university's PR department (this one last nearly 2 years). Those experiences were invaluable — helping me develop the skills needed to land an agency job right out of college.

    I currently work with two PR freelancers on a limited capacity, mostly to help with research and developing media lists. Both are paid positions, and I wouldn't consider either an internship. I'd like to get to the point where I can have an intern, but I'm just not able to devote enough time to help that person learn and grow. I had an intern, *I'd* be doing them a disservice at this point because I don't think I could devote enough time to the learning aspects of the internship. And, as someone who cherishes her internship experiences, I'd hate to do that to someone else.

    But, Mary, I 100% agree that we need to do our part to help others learn and grow. I've spoken to PRSSA groups via Skype, often go to coffee with PR people who want to discuss career options, and respond to emails from students looking for advice. Even though I — and reading the comments, many of us Solo PR Pros — don't have the time to manage an intern, there are lots of other ways that we can help practitioners learn and grow.

  • heatherwhaling

    I just left a longer comment, but wanted to chime in on the virtual intern thread. Part of what made my college internships so helpful were the “intangible” lessons: watching how my boss performed under pressure during a crisis situation, seeing him in action at press conferences, hearing him on the phone pitching stories to the media. I'm sure lots of students have had successful virtual internships, but I wonder if some of the lessons you learn by observing are lost? For example, with a “remote” intern, I could help them rework a press release to make it better, but would they miss out on how to manage difficult reporters at a press conference? Interested to hear other views …

  • While I did not have the mindset to even consider trying for an internship (after all, I was training to be an actor…seriously), I can say that this kind of experience would've helped me out tremendously.

    that being said, I believe that working with someone like Mary (had I even considered the term 'internship' insted of 'summer stock') would have paid off in dividends! You've given this topic some much need analysis.

    Narciso Tovar
    Big Noise Communications
    @Narciso17

  • marydemingbarber

    Thank you my friend. And…the flattery will get you places. 🙂

  • marydemingbarber

    I agree Heather and think the more we can invest as mentors the better our profession will be in the long run. It's up to all of us to make sure the foundation we were able to start with is still strong for those coming after us.

  • Kellye,

    Great topic to tackle, as we have college students starting to submit applications for summer work. I have some wrestling to do with this article as I approach the time to make a decision.

  • Kellye, I think whether having a PR intern or an assistant is a good topic to discuss. I do not know what would be a good idea for the employer’s perspective because I am just a student, but I like the idea of having an intern. The reason I like an internship is because a future employee can learn the necessary things to make it in the business because I think in an internship there are a lot more things a person can learn than if they just went on their education. It would be good for the employer because if the student is highly skilled at public relations the employer can get free labor out of them.

    Thank You
    Trent Callier