Preparing for the Real World: Q&A with People Who Hire Interns

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Posted At: April 12, 2007 10:22 AM

by Craig Langley

I recently contacted three public relations professionals and questioned each regarding internships.

Scott Womer is a senior account executive for The Bohle Company, a corporate and marketing public relations firm located in Los Angeles.

Dave Curley is the vice president of public relations for Trahan, Burden and Charles (TBC), an independent PR firm located in Baltimore.

Kate Dietrich is a communication specialist for the Great Lakes Division of the American Cancer Society and much of her work is done within the Detroit area.

Their views and responses resulted in a brief overview of what interns need to know as well as inside information of what is expected.

Q: Why do you offer internships? What benefits does your organization get from providing internships?

Scott Womer: We offer internships primarily to bring in fresh, young talent – those hungry and ready to make an immediate impact. We look at it as a win-win situation, where the intern benefits from learning the ins and outs of PR, and we benefit from their daily contributions to the accounts they help service.

Dave Curley: Internships are an excellent opportunity to share knowledge with young, enthusiastic people who are eager to learn through firsthand experience. The primary benefit of interns to an organization is the flexibility they allow managers in assigning projects. The right intern can deliver tremendous value to a business by taking on important, time-consuming tasks that otherwise would occupy the schedules of more senior team members.

Kate Dietrich: As a nonprofit, our communications is very lean and multi-functional. We can utilize the support of interns, often multiple interns, all year long. And as the nationwide, community-based, voluntary health organization fighting cancer, much of our work is done through volunteer efforts like internships.

Q: When reviewing applications from prospective interns, what are the kinds of things you’re looking for: in the cover letter? in the resume? in setting up an interview? 

SW: The first thing I look for is if it is properly formatted and easy to read. What I hate the most is when I get a resume that looks like it was just thrown together without any thought. If I am going to take the time to look through your resume, the least you can do is provide a clean and well-formatted document.

Spell-check! It is amazing how many times I read through resumes and see misspelled words. I will most often trash the resume and move on to the next if I see this.

If you have an objective statement, make sure it matches up with the industry, company or particular job you are seeking out. I will often see people forget to change this from one job to the next, and I end up with someone stating they are looking for a job in sales when we are seeking candidates for public relations.

DC: In evaluating interns, I look for someone who is smart, self-motivated, detail-oriented and capable of taking ownership of a project once properly instructed.

I want a prospective intern’s resume and cover letter to clearly demonstrate his or her critical thinking skills and provide examples of assignments the candidate has overseen from start to finish.

During an interview, I want to hear about challenges the prospective intern has faced, how he or she handled them and how the resulting lessons are relevant to the job for which the candidate is applying.

KD: Cover letter: concise, engaging and well-written. Resume: easy to scan; includes other internship experience and course work; NOT work experience with no ties to the communications field (summer jobs, etc). Interview: someone who sounds mature, confident and intelligent on the phone when I call.

Q: During an interview with a prospective intern, what signals a strong candidate? What are the red flags?

SW: It is very important to exude confidence, but be careful not to confuse this with arrogance. Engage the interviewer and actively listen to what he/she is saying. Come prepared, know what the company specializes in and be able to list a few of the recent achievements – all of this information can usually be found very easily online.

A strong candidate will ask informative questions, but be careful to not go overboard and ask a lot of questions that could have been easily found online if you had just looked over the Web site prior to the interview.

Some red flags might be if the candidate starts to drift in and out of consciousness. Interviews can be long and boring, but do your best to stay alert. Don’t be late, but if you are, call ahead and ask if it is still all right for you to come in. Your appearance is important; dress the part and be well groomed.

DC: Strong candidates ask informed questions that make it clear they have done their homework before arriving for the interview. If a prospective intern doesn’t know who a company’s primary business partners are, who makes up its leadership team, how many employees it has or what important deals it has recently completed, he or she is woefully unprepared. At a time when such basic information is just a few keystrokes away, it’s unacceptable to walk into an interview without it.

Strong candidates also have taken the time to evaluate how they can assist the company with which they are interviewing. They should consider the skill set they offer and how it would benefit the organization. It is the responsibility of the candidate to clearly demonstrate his or her value, not the responsibility of the interviewer to uncover it.

KD: Strong: well organized, well-spoken, confident, someone who can walk me through writing samples and portfolio and still hold my attention, someone who asks questions and will represent the organization well in the community and through their interactions with the media.

Red flags: lack of eye contact, unprofessional dress, little knowledge of the organization, slang and excessive use of “um” or the word “like.”

Q: What are some of the mistakes you’ve seen interns make over the years? What are some things students could do to avoid these? 

SW: The biggest mistake is not being prepared. It is crucial that you understand the role and responsibilities of the internship you are applying for. For instance, if you are interviewing for an internship with a PR firm such as The Bohle Company, don’t try to impress the interviewer with your knowledge of international marketing. Although we like that you are knowledgeable in this area, we want to know that you understand public relations and will be able to quickly contribute.

Also, we work in videogames and technology. If you do not know much about either, then study up because it is inevitably going to come up and it will only benefit you if you express interest and an understanding in this industry.

DC: The single biggest mistake interns make is failing to ask questions. No reasonable manager expects an intern to know everything. The point of an internship is to learn, so take advantage of the opportunity to pose questions to the experienced professionals with whom you are working. If you simply go through the motions without proactively seeking information, you are wasting a tremendous opportunity. Keep in mind that a good intern often evolves into a good job candidate.

KD: Not asking for guidance or taking initiative. Internships are what you make of them. If you want a great experience, ask for challenging projects, jump in and help whenever needed and don’t be afraid to ask for feedback along the way — it’s the only way to learn.

Q: In thinking about internships from both the intern’s and organization’s perspective, what would you say are the most important elements for a successful experience for both parties — in the short term and the long term? 

SW: For us, the greatest interns are those that are willing to learn and ask questions — those that keep a good attitude and work hard to help their team and the company succeed. Successful interns take an immediate role in the company; don’t fall into the trap of hanging back and getting comfortable; always look to improve and learn.

DC: Interns need to learn the lessons that will make them stronger job candidates in the future. Organizations need smart workers who can tackle important assignments and deliver strong results. So the intern that asks intelligent questions, volunteers for additional assignments and works hard on a daily basis receives the best education while providing the greatest benefit to the organization.

KD: An organized work plan that meets the needs of the department and organization, along with the goals of the student. There must also be opportunities to provide feedback and dialogue about the progress being made by the student, and the chance for the intern to share feedback about their experience to help better shape the program going forward.

Q: What other comments or suggestions do you have about internships?

SW: While you are interning, use it as a time to learn as much as possible and network with as many people as you can. There are lots of opportunities to build contacts and relationships; take advantage of them.

Don’t be afraid to ask someone if you can sit down with them and pick their brains. You never know if that person will later be able to hire you back or recommend you to another firm or company.

If you are applying for an internship, keep on it! There is a much greater chance of hire for the candidate who checks in regularly rather than the candidate who only checks in once.

KD: Send info out early, at least a couple months before the internship would actually start. Always send a hand-written thank you note.

E-mail: Scott Womer
E-mail: Dave Curley

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