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.
Right now, the Southern Illinois University Carbondale is in the middle of a contract negotiation dispute which has resulted in a strike by the tenured faculty. As one would expect in a situation such as this, the faculty has urged its supporters to be vocal on the union’s behalf and some students took to the SIU Carbondale Facebook Fan Page to urge a resolution to the contract dispute.
Unfortunately, the SIU Carbondale administrators of the page began deleting those messages. One report noted that they began by deleting only the messages of support for the faculty, but later began deleting all messages related to the dispute – and even went so far as to ban some users. Read more…
Today at the West Michigan PRSA chapter event on using video in public relations campaigns, I talked to a couple of people about the accelerating trend of college students being virtually unaware of current events. One person I spoke to was amazed by how disconnected students at one particular university were – and how refreshing it was to interview Grand Valley State University (GVSU) students because they were much more attuned to the world around them because of requirements for their degree programs (so props to my alma mater).
If you’re a PR student (or really any student working toward a degree in any profession – particularly business) - you can really distinguish yourself from other internship/job-seeking students by being fluent in current events, which is increasingly becoming scarce. In PR, news is the practically the air you breathe.
It makes perfect sense of course, and it’s not an indictment of the youth of America – it’s just a practical reality of the myriad new options we have for consuming information. We have thousands of TV channels, millions of websites, and hundreds of different forms of entertainment options (from video gaming systems to social networking sites).
The best part is, it’s not hard; you can set up any number of ways to follow the news (and virtually any TYPE of news, given the granularity with which the content is sorted/segmented):
- Browse: Set virtually any news site (npr.org), portal (news.google.com) or social news site (like Digg or Reddit) as your start page in your browser and look them over every time you launch it.
- Email/Text: Sign up for Google Alerts and get SMS texts of news updates throughout the day (or a digest all at once).
- Feed Readers: Use a feed reader like Google Reader and sign up for RSS feeds of news from any of the millions of news feeds offered by thousands of news sites
- Facebook: Friend or “Like” any major news organization (I recommend NPR) on Facebook and news/information will show up with all of the other updates sandwiched between Farmville enticements and wall posts from your friends.
What’s happening in the rest of the world invariably affects you no matter what you plan to do with your education; new laws, economic developments, research findings, and profiles of community leaders will invariably affect your employer no matter what your calling is.
Yeah, a lot of it isn’t as interesting as whatever Megan Fox is up to this moment, but just like exercise or downing Robitussin when you’ve got a cough – it’s something you need to do.