As the summer comes to a close, so do thousands of public relations internships at agencies across the country.
Or do they?
When we hired an intern from the University of Maryland at the start of the summer, it never occurred to me that we might continue our relationship with her when she returns to campus for her senior year.
When I was a student studying journalism at the University of Maryland in the early 1990s, an internship was as much a place to go as it was the work you did. I had two internships back then: one as a legislative aide to a state delegate and another as a jack-of-all-trades at a small advertising agency that handled America Online (we didn’t even know what it meant to “go online” back then).
As it turns out, the ability to work remotely is not a privilege reserved for full-time staff. Our intern came into the office three days a week, but offered to follow-through on certain projects that needed to be completed on her days off. A computer and access to the Internet made her physical location irrelevant.
We realized early on that “virtual internships” present a new opportunity for college students and their employers. Virtual internships were characterized as “relatively rare” in a 2009 article
in The Wall Street Journal
. It seems information technology and software development start-ups were the first to offer remote internships and are still the most likely to do so today.
But marketing and public relations firms are gaining ground. A recent search on UrbanInterns.com, an online marketplace that connects “high-growth” companies with candidates seeking part-time work, turned up 511 people looking for virtual internships in our field.
The benefits of this approach to internships are many.
First of all, you can draw from a much larger talent pool.
Second, virtual internships generally are more flexible than short-term seasonal internships. For example, the hours or the nature of the work may fluctuate as the business’ needs do over the course of the year.
Finally, hiring a virtual intern can save overhead as you’re not paying for office expenses, such as furniture, equipment, etc.
If you’re exploring the idea of a virtual internship program at your company, to follow are a few thoughts you might want to consider:
Conduct a real-world interview.
Finding a great intern via face-to-face interviews can be challenging, but imagine relying solely on email and phone calls. If you can’t find a way to meet in person, consider using Skype or another video conferencing technology. You will feel more confident about the hire and begin the relationship with a stronger rapport
Start with a hybrid approach.
Unless you’re hiring an intern for a very specific role—such as contributing articles to a company blog, or tracking and posting news articles to a social media page—it may be more effective to look for an intern who can spend some time in the office before going virtual. They will have a much better understanding of your company culture, which will yield better outcomes. It will also help the intern learn important career skills, such as building interpersonal relationships and navigating a corporate setting.
Set guidelines for accountability.
As you’d do with any employee, make your expectations known at the outset of any assignment and establish regular lines of communication. This is even more important for a virtual intern who can’t just pop in your office to ask questions as they make their way through a project. We have found instant messaging is a fine substitution for that kind of exchange.
Don’t forget to be a mentor.
One of the most rewarding aspects of employing an intern is the ability to make a positive impact on the person’s career. We heard from our intern that she was exposed to many experiences that they haven’t even discussed in the classroom. Paid or unpaid, an intern deserves feedback. Consider providing such feedback via phone or Skype since tone of voice and body language speak volumes.
Our intern’s last day in the office was less a good-bye and more a “we look forward to working with you on projects.” Specifically, we talked to her about helping with media audit research, target list development, and campaign reporting. We’ll have to rely on other signs to know that the end of summer—like the closing of our local Rita’s Italian Ice or the return of the morning rush hour—is upon us.
Rosemary Ostmann is the founder of Rose Communications, an independent, strategic PR firm.