Work experience covers internships (placements), shadowing, volunteering and other creative options. The following advice should be useful for those studying PR qualifications or others looking to get a foot in the door – and may also help those looking to offer work experience.
Here are my five top tips:
Finding opportunities. Universities are geared up to offer placements on many PR courses (for example a year long internship is integral to the undergraduate degree at Bournemouth) – so the careers office or graduate employment centre is a good place to start (it’s the first point of call for those seeking talent too). Don’t automatically opt for the high profile brands or sexiest sounding jobs. These will be the most popular and may not offer the best experience. Consider ‘tougher’ challenges, perhaps in a corporate, the public sector or a small consultancy. Being pro-active is vital (even if going for a published placement). Research organisations thoroughly, make contact with the PR function (at the least through social media) and prepare for any interview carefully. If an opportunity isn’t advertised, then make an informal approach to ask for advice, seek a brief chat or offer to volunteer (see below).
Know what you want from work experience. Set yourself clear goals for developing your skills and adding vital experience to your CV (resumé). If possible, share these with your line/placement manager so they can see your ambitions and help give you a range of challenges. Monitor your progress, keep a portfolio of your work and reflect on what you’ve learned; ideally with input from others. You will need to be flexible to take advantage of opportunities that may arise, but always think of these as incremental to your core goals.
Build connections. Work experience is a great opportunity to enhance your contacts book. Collect business cards, or at least email addresses for those you meet or engage with – and ask if you could follow up with them in future. Use social media to make connections – LinkedIn is great for this and offers you a chance to join groups where you can participate in relevant discussions. Think about how you can add value to your connections – if you are planning a dissertation for example, will its findings be relevant to your contacts?
Be professional. Although we are talking about work experience, you should treat the opportunity very seriously and act professionally at all times. Even when letting your hair down on social occasions, consider your personal reputation and never do anything that you will later regret. This includes avoiding drinking too much, never being indiscrete or critical of others, and dressing inappropriately. You should also reflect a professional attitude in all your work – ensuring it is of the highest standard and looking for feedback for how you can improve. Although you may well be the junior (and there’s nothing the matter with taking on more basic tasks in any team – indeed, try not to appear an arrogant “know it all”), be the best at whatever you are asked to do. Quite often this offers a real chance to shine – can you improve a filing system, write short-cut guides to software or technical equipment, offer ways to improve reporting or evaluation of campaigns.
Manage ‘brand-me‘. Consider what you want to be remembered for and ensure that you reinforce the strengths of your personal brand during your work experience. What would you like people to say about you and how you can ensure that you are establishing this reputation? If feasible, produce your own branded business cards or other aide memoir (I love www.moo.com for this). Ensure people know how to contact you when your have finished your work experience – set up an email and online presence that is accessible after you graduate.
If you are looking to recruit an intern you can also apply this advice. You may have to be creative to attract the best students, but don’t restrict yourself to the obvious candidates. Look for diversity and potential. Agree clear objectives and a development plan with your intern. Use their knowledge and encourage them to make connections, which could then be of use to you eg in reaching younger influencers. Act professionally and do not see work experience as free labour. And help your intern to build a strong reputation as that can only reflect well on you as they progress their career. You could even act as a mentor going forward.
A final word on the issue of paid placement. I believe that any organisation offering work experience of more than a month should offer a basic salary or at least generous expenses. Consultancies who charge clients for work done by unpaid interns are dishonest, so avoid being exploited and look elsewhere. If you are going to work for free, then volunteer for a charity or social enterprise where at least you may be doing some good whilst you learn. You could offer your services independently to a local amateur theatre group, school, or other organisation. Or ask if you could shadow someone for a day or even a week to gain insight into the world of PR work. Maybe you could offer to undertake a specific project which would be a useful addition to your credentials and of value to an organisation.
Work experience can definitely enhance your career prospects but needs to be managed to add value to both parties. It is an ideal opportunity for an intern to develop practical skills, and enables employers to benefit from young talent with fresh ideas. But a successful ‘work experience’ experience requires respect on both sides – and should be considered as a professional relationship with long-term benefits.