Ideally, Internships aren’t just about getting resume-filler. They’re about practical experience, networking, and portfolio-building. One aspect of internships that most of us take for granted is the vital role they play in acclimating young people to office culture.
Don’t laugh. I was fortunate to have worked in my father’s insurance office since I was 13, but most young people don’t have that sort of exposure to the white-collar working world and its various intricacies.
Office culture is so ubiquitous and richly-textured that the sitcom “The Office” has spawned numerous adaptations for the varying office cultures around the world, beginning first in the UK but then moving to the US, Germany, Canada, Chile, Israel, and Sweden.
Virtually every textbook in Communications and Public Relations stresses the importance of cultural competence in effective communication. So many of our paradigms for encoding and decoding messages are culture-specific. Here’s what I mean:
Tips for Students on Maximizing Their Internships
1. Get Something out of the Experience: Unfortunately there are still a lot of organizations that don’t monetarily compensate their interns. The practice is unethical in my opinion (and the opinion of the Public Relations Society of America). The current dismal economic climate isn’t helping matters much, but for students unable to get hourly pay or a stipend (to cover the cost of the credits for the class) for their efforts there are still ways to get value from the experience by ensuring that one of three things comes out of their work:
- A Name: It’s easier to make the case to take an unpaid internship if the organization is one that has a solid reputation that will look good as legitimate work experience on a resume.
- Solid Experience: Another intangible value if a name and money aren’t available for an internship is hands-on experience. Particularly for nonprofits and small companies, the possibility exists for an intern to be given a great deal of responsibility that exceeds the typical student experience. Being able to oversee projects and produce valuable portfolio content also has a great deal of merit.
- Cultural Competence: For the rare student that already knows what field or type of PR that they want to practice, gaining exposure to the networks of professionals and world they operate in is also valuable. Absent a name, cash, or responsibility in return for one’s work – being a fly on the wall in high-level meetings or consuming industry-specific literature on the job can also be valuable.
2. Keep a Diary: Many people find journaling to be valuable while studying abroad and that also applies to “studying abroad” in the office environment. Frequently when we’re in the moment at a job, it can be extraordinarily difficult to process and remember everything we experience. Writing them down helps not only the exercise of processing what we learn, but helping us internalize it so that we can actually apply it to our own careers. Try the following:
- Jot down terms you don’t understand to look up later.
- Keep records of the names of people you meet and the organizations they work for (this may come in handy . Maintain a running list of all of the unspoken “rules” for office behavior that you encounter (email alone is rife with behavioral norms).
3. Stay Open to Unfamiliar Experiences: Just as when traveling abroad, working in an office is a richer experience when you keep an open mind and volunteer for (or better yet, seek out) opportunities to do things or go places we wouldn’t have otherwise.
Looking back now after 15 years in PR, I realize that learning what I DON’T like has been just as valuable as learning what I DO like. The earlier you can develop self-awareness, the more opportunity you have to change your career trajectory toward a career that is fulfilling.
It may not seem like it now when you’re eating Ramen and worrying about affording gas for your car, but money isn’t everything. Contrary to what many textbooks, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and services like Salary.com say – you’re likely not going to get rich doing PR (the “starting salaries” they list are laughably inaccurate) … and that’s okay. What matters more is that you like the work and find it life-affirming.
4. Observe Others Reactions to You: Despite egalitarian ethos espoused by the the US, not everyone is equal in the workplace. Different standards (and in some cases, double-standards) still exist for for race, gender and culture. Understanding this is critical to navigating office politics. I’m sorry to be the one to break it to you that a strong work ethic and quality output aren’t all you need to be successful in the white-collar world.
Given how much of PR is interpersonal relationships (with the media, with clients, with co-workers, with customers), every aspiring professional needs to be aware of how they may be received by the people they interact with daily. Fortunately you have plenty of opportunities to make mistakes and learn from them early in your career – those opportunities diminish as you get older.
Women especially have to be aware of relationship dynamics in the office, as they are more frequently held to a different standard than men. Take the adage “Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult” from Charlotte Whitton. Regrettably I’ve found this to be true in the so-called enlightened workplace of the “modern” era.
The curious thing I’ve observed is that women need to worry less about sexism from men than they do from other women. Throughout my career, the majority of my supervisors have been female and I’ve watched as a female colleague many years my senior in experience and ability has her view challenged where I am not even though I’m making the same contention.
As far as race and ethnicity go, the sad reality is that most organizations put the “White” in “White-Collar.” There isn’t nearly as much diversity in most offices as there should be. The upside is that this creates a great deal of opportunity for minority PR students: savvy firms and companies are looking to hire them. Naturally, PR pros know the intrinsic value of a diverse range of backgrounds and viewpoints in generating creative ideas as well as in relating to the increasingly-diverse US population.
I was talking to a couple of colleagues yesterday over coffee about teaching Public Relations and something occurred to me.
PR students are, in some cases, better experts on some areas of PR than their supervisors.
Public Relations is a relatively young discipline. Many people who practice PR have no formal education; they’ve acquired their expertise informally – usually through experience.
As a result, the people who lead PR departments or agencies frequently don’t have a broad-based understanding of the profession. They may have come from hospitality with event-planning expertise, or from a news background (which gives them media relations expertise). While they have a very deep and nuanced understanding of those disciplines – they have relatively little or no awareness or education about some other areas of PR – which is a very broad field that encompasses many responsibilities, practices and tactics.
In my experience, this has proven to be true. I’ve worked in PR for over a decade and the majority of the leaders I’ve worked for fit this description. They have very strong skills in particular disciplines, but they invariably have blind spots as a result of how their knowledge was acquired. They may be experts on handling crises, but lack skills in measurement. Or they may excel at writing, but know very little about the legal concepts that apply to PR.
That broad base of knowledge is what the Public Relations Society of America’s “Accredited in Public Relations” (APR) designation works to remedy – the gaps in the whole profession that may have been missed through one’s career in the profession.
It can be intimidating to be an intern or an entry-level PR pro sitting at the table with leaders who have decades of experience on you. PR pros who are young to the practice should take confidence from the fact that in addition to the fresh perspective they can offer, they may also offer leaders knowledge they may not have.
This window of opportunity likely won’t be open forever though.
Public Relations is now a formal degree offered by an increasing number of colleges and universities, so eventually the majority of PR pros will have some formal education. I tried to track down the first college/university to offer a PR degree and found references to Boston University – but despite Google and leafing through a couple of PR textbooks I’ve not been able to locate a history of PR higher education (and if anyone knows the historical roots of formal education in PR – I’d love to hear about them).