Making the most of work experience in public relations

greenshoots The third of my “Back to School” posts (following Preparing to Study and Starting to Study) steps into the real world to consider work experience opportunities in public relations.

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 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.

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

4 thoughts on “Making the most of work experience in public relations”

  1. I found your blog after days and days of searching for something worthwhile to read and then respond to for my Communication and the Media class. I am a Public Relations major and have just started to take my Intro to Public Relations class this semester. I am loving the class so far and am so exciting to learn more about press releases, PR plans, and more. I cannot wait to get an internship and then finally get out into the real world. It feels as if it will never come! Anyhow when I came across your blog about internships and work opportunities I was elated. This blog seems so much more concise than advisors or career counselors have offered me in the past. There never seems to be rules or tips, it just seems as if students are pushed out on their own with not much idea of what they are embarking on. A set of tips for getting a job in writing? I feel like I have hit the jackpot.
    Though an internship isn’t required at my college, I feel as if it is a viable part of my education. Personally, I learn from real-life experience and I don’t think that I would really understand or retain anything I have learned in my classes without putting it to practical use. Plus the thought of getting to do PR as soon as possible is ideal, as is getting your foot in the door , even at an entry level position. You can always work up, right? As you said, it is important to put your best foot forward and always try to make sure people think that you are professional. I think most young people that first get out into the workplace do not realize that this also applies to when you go out to happy hour after work. Many young people think they are still in college at a frat house and that is truly doing themselves a disservice. I believe that these sort of ethics were lost in my generation and those younger than myself. I do believe this does work in my favor and gives me an advantage when going up against other’s for a job.
    In this economy any advantage could be the difference between employment and unemployment, so I think it’s a great thing that you talked about doing pro bono work for local small business and charities. I think it’s a great idea to go around and do charity work for internship experience. This is the mutual business relationship that was spoken of in the blog. Not only are they receiving a custom-made Public Relations plan, but you can acquire a shining letter of recommendation and/or an invaluable experience to put on your resume or portfolio. I have already talked with my cousin about working with her on a PR plan for the salon she’s hoping to open up within the next two years. Having that under my belt before I have even graduated college is beyond invaluable and is great way to start “branding” myself. This hopefully will be the start of an amazing career that I love.

  2. Katy – thank you for the comment and good luck with your studies and future career. Do come back and share any experiences you manage to gain – and let me know if I can help in any way further.

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