Why interns and placement students should be treated as part of the team

Posted by Daniela Hamill

Internships and placements are often part and parcel of a student’s university experience. In competitive industries such as PR and comms, particularly, getting good industry experience before graduation is drilled into the minds of students trying to get their foot in the door. 

It’s no surprise that with benefits like increased employability and developing professional networks, internships and placements are popular. However, while most students can relay positive experiences, some fall a little under par when it comes to being accepted as part of a team.

PR is facing big changes – being in the middle of a pandemic and a movement being two. We can help by giving great internships and placement experiences to students, in a time when the future looks different and uncertain to the one imagined at the start of their study. 

We look at why PR agencies, no matter how big or small, should treat interns and placement students as part of the team.

 

First impressions of the industry

Going by experience, I went into my first industry job blind not knowing what to expect from it. And I can vouch for my former course mates on this too. An internship or placement is most likely to be the first time working in the industry and that’s why the first impressions are key in many ways. 

From conversation with some of my course mates, I’d go as far to say that their short term placements put them off the PR industry altogether with the biggest complaint being that they didn’t feel as part of the team, just somewhere that they went to sit at a desk between the hours of 9 and 5. And as confirmed by Dolly herself, that’s no way to make a living.

Agencies must remember why interns and students are there. Like most jobs, having a bad experience during the first snippet or taste of the industry can leave people uninspired. With PR’s rocky reputation, can we afford to scare off potentially great PRs at this stage?

One fellow student that I recently talked to admitted that her former internship company left her to do tedious jobs that no one else wanted to do, like packing competition prizes for five hours on her own. As placement students we want  to put what we have already learned into practice and develop our skills further. While competition prize packing and tea-making is a job that needs to be done (I strongly agree with the latter), I can assure you they’re not on the university curriculum.

She said: “Although I got the chance to input ideas for campaigns for some amazing organisations, this was the limit. I felt listened to however there was always an attitude that lingered in the air where I knew everybody was thinking ‘she’s just the intern’. This came across when I wasn’t allowed to take part in company day activities because I was new. The roles that no one else wanted to do were handed to me, such as buying items for the kitchen and making cups of coffee during staff meetings.”

 

Interns and placement students are PR’s future potential

Students are taking everything in and trying to absorb as much as they can in the short time they have, and the team should act as a mentor to an intern or placement student. For context, a new staff member will take between three and six months to settle into their job. Placement students can be there for as little as a fortnight.

An intern’s expectation of their placement may be learning how to write a press release and brushing up on their pitching skills but in reality, what they get out of a placement in a short amount of time is much more. They’re exposed to the culture of the workplace – how the team is treated, how they interact with one another and how senior level PR pros work in that workplace.

The first impressions of any industry or job will stay with students throughout their formative professional years. If we’re committed to improving the way PR is perceived, we should start by improving placement experiences.

Former PR student, Jess, from Leeds Beckett University gained a short term placement at a well-known PR agency during her second year. 

She said: The staff there treated me like I was one of their own – asking me for input, giving me important tasks and even inviting me to after work gatherings. Being treated in this way made me feel at ease, which helped me make the most of the experience because I was comfortable enough to ask for help if needed, or more work if I’d finished what I had done. I was also asked to return to do more interning the following summer.”

 

Reputations matter

As PR professionals, we’re familiar with the power of word of mouth and importance of reputation management, and we know that bad reputations work both ways. A bad experience with an agency will get out to the rest of the academic cohort, which will more than likely reduce the graduate pool for future jobs. As finding decent graduates has been listed as a challenge for many agencies we have to ask whether a lot of this stems from internship and placement experiences. 

 

4 ways placement experiences benefit both students and agencies

  • Students bring fresh ideas – sometimes employees become accustomed to the way the company or clients work which often limits new ideas. Placement students will have a fresh and different approach which can help generate ideas.
  • Students can keep your new staff pipeline going. As mentioned above, there’s competition when it comes to finding the best graduates. By offering a placement student a permanent position for after they graduate, they are more likely to return to an environment that they’re comfortable and familiar with, taking some of the cost and hassle of recruitment away from agencies.
  • Students talk. Good work experience will get talked about between family, friends, not just other students. And you never know who’s listening, we’re increasingly holding bad employers to account, and choosing where our business goes based on behaviours and actions of companies.
  • Students help build relationships between industry and academia. By building a relationship with universities, companies can open doors to a bigger talent pool as they can take advantage of university job boards and student/lecturer recommendations to other students on where to work or intern, it also helps ensure that universities are teaching relevant skills that agencies need from graduates.

In an industry like PR, internships and placements are vital for students to kickstart their career but it’s not just the students who reap the benefits of a making placement students feel like part of the team. If we are to continue to develop and push for the much needed changes to our industry around diversity and making us more representative of those we claim to support and represent then we have to rethink how we welcome placement students to our teams.