Recent graduates and students lucky enough to land internships report a wide range of experiences, none as fulfilling as in-person assignments.

“I’m just happy to have a job,” a recent grad told me, adding that the position saved her from having to move back home with her parents. “While $15 an hour saved my mental health, I feel like I’m working from a desert island with little contact or direction.”

Another intern said he attends daily Zoom meetings with his supervisor and one other intern at the mid-size agency that hired him after all internships were shut down at the major agency where he was expecting to work this summer. “I never thought I’d be working at a small shop, but this gig and more-interesting-than-expected B2B accounts have changed my perceptions and career goals.”

Internship director Michael Elias reports only a slight decrease in the number of internship opportunities for PR students in DePaul University’s College of Communications. But an increasing number of opportunities are cropping up at smaller firms rather than major agencies. And many of those smaller firms are effectively managing new work-from-home internship programs.

“Successfully on-boarding and supervising fully remote interns takes time, especially if you’re just learning how to operate virtually,” Michael explains. “This tends to be more feasible for smaller firms that may only hire 1-2 students per internship cycle vs major agencies with significantly larger programs.”

Michael works with employers to place students and recent graduates into real-world experiences so he knows the importance of these early-career opportunities.

“Employers are finding internship alternatives, like the PR Council’s Agency-Ready Certificate Program, to position future PR professionals for success. Additionally, there are unique behavioral skills that come from operating remotely, whether in an internship or in the classroom; these will be invaluable experiences to market to future employers who place an emphasis on problem-solving, initiative, and autonomy in new applicants.”

Based on recent concerns and questions from students and recent graduates, it is obvious many organizations are dealing with many seemingly larger issues. As a result, managing successful internships may not be a top priority. So, I decided to ask two wise recruiter friends for their suggestions on ensuring a successful experience for interns and their employers.

“Whether individuals are the most senior, or the most junior, clear, regular communications will always be key–particularly when operating 100% from a virtual perspective,” said Tina Dugas, senior associate at recruiting firm Chaloner. Once the intern is on board, Tina suggests employers consider the following points to ensure a successful experience:

  • Establish the intern’s broad range of unique skills (i.e. social media/digital marketing platform and analysis knowledge, writing) and integrate them into varieties of projects with specific assignments. Find ways to challenge and highlight an intern’s skill sets.
  • Schedule regular meetings and updates (including Zoom-types) so that all parties remain engaged, accountable and on track
  • Be able to add value beyond the always necessary, but tedious tasks that must be done
  • Establish who will be the intern’s “go to” in a crunch. Or what will be his/her communication chain of command?
  • Include the intern in analysis and decision making, as well as actively utilize their ideas and solicit their opinions
  • Schedule mini evaluations and final assessment (of a project or of an internship) so that there is real-world application, learnings and review of their contributions

A successful virtual internship isn’t a one-way street, according to Traci McMurray, director of talent at FleishmanHillard. “One of the best pieces of advice I can give to those interning remotely is to be proactive, and get to know your fellow interns!”
Employers have a lot of challenges these days, so interns can make themselves indispensable by taking initiative.

“While organizations are working through the ups and downs of client and communication needs during COVID-19 quarantine, building in the opportunity for comradery amongst interns might be lost in the shuffle,” Traci says. “Set up a virtual coffee or after-work hangout with other interns at your company to get to know them on a personal level. You can share about your individual experiences or projects, and start to build your professional network. I am still friends with people I interned alongside nearly 15 years ago, and they have proved to be valuable connections throughout my career.”