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How to build a strong intern program for your company

by | Jan 26, 2024 | Public Relations

Diving into a first internship can be scary; no one wants to end up like Andy Sachs from The Devil Wears Prada—overworked, underappreciated, and dealing with a demanding boss after working hours.  

While most internship experiences will not end up as extreme, intern programs can be challenging to get just right. Balancing giving interns a well-rounded, hands-on experience to prepare them for employment and leveraging their skills for your company is a complex task. It can be tempting to deprioritize intern programs in favor of other efforts that give a quicker return on investment.  

Natalie Dow

Natalie Dow

However, interns can offer a lot of value to your company. Not only do they enhance an organization’s brand and improve productivity, they also create a strong pipeline of future talent—80 percent of interns accept job offers from their internship company—and bring fresh perspectives to the industry. Internship programs are an extension of your business, and the more effort you put into building your program, the higher the mutual value you’ll receive.  

A modern, strong intern program should be organized and designed to empower future workers. Here are a few steps companies can take to get started building their intern program, based on our own trial and error.  

Setting up the program

Before reaching out to intern candidates, it’s essential to have a structured, organized internal system in place. Asking questions like how many hours your interns will work, whether they will work virtually or in person, and if they will be paid can help give you an idea of the type of experience you want to put forward.   

Juliet Thomas

Juliet Thomas

These factors should be considered in the context of the broader workplace culture. For example, over 60 percent of internships are paid positions, with the national hourly wage being $20.76. Understanding these components is crucial, especially if you operate in a competitive field such as public relations or technology.  

If former interns are working for your company, it can be valuable to ensure they are also involved in leading or advising the program. The goal of internships is often to ensure a strong, continual pipeline of talent to your organization, and having firsthand feedback from previous interns is invaluable to identifying gaps and opportunities for your program.  

The next step is creating a hiring timeline, position offer letters, and material templates for each stage of the hiring process. Following the format and general structure used for new full-time hires can be useful as a baseline. Day-to-day materials should be tailored to the intern’s unique experience and responsibilities. Consider what might be uniquely helpful for interns, such as a style guide that lists key industry terms new hires might not know.  

These little details and being consistent and providing them with tailored materials can make a world of difference. Interns who feel heard, represented, and supported at each stage of their journey will be inclined to recommend the program to their network, even if they aren’t hired at the end of their term.   

Creating a recruiting pipeline with universities

Communications pros understand that connections are a vital resource, and it’s no different when looking for interns. Keeping in touch with professors, deans and career service counselors at your alma mater is a helpful resource for recruiting talent. Many students are actively searching for internship opportunities, and the first place they usually look is within their own resources at their university. 

“Universities and alumni networks offer an incredible wealth of knowledge, talent and resources for working professionals and business owners. Most colleges have a career center or recruitment specialist on campus to help students as they prepare for their careers,” said Mike Atkinson, PR Account Director at Sage Communications. “It’s mutually beneficial to identify and connect with those individuals when building a talent pipeline for your organization, since the students they encounter are taking the initiative to utilize university resources.” 

Building relationships with local universities is also key. Many universities have job posting boards on campus, including at the career services offices and in classrooms. If your company is neighboring certain universities, this is an opportunity to position yourself as a top-desired employer in your region. Consider casting a wide net to include a large set of candidates with diverse backgrounds. A great place to start is building relationships with HBCUs and considering interns outside of the “traditional” student background, including military veterans and returning students.  

Seek opportunities to meet with students in person, such as attending career fairs or volunteering as a guest speaker for classes and organizations like PRSSA. Meeting prospective interns in-person is a great way to vet candidates before an interview, get to know them in person, and save some legwork with online recruitment. Attending events at universities helps foster the mutually beneficial relationship between your company and the school. 

Empowering your interns

A strong intern program requires more than organized systems and industry connections, it’s important to empower interns to take on tasks that they can fully “own.” For example, Sage Communications developed a project that we present to the cohort each semester. We instruct our interns to develop a PR campaign to increase our company’s brand awareness as if Sage was the client. Interns develop their own strategy, tactics, and measurement and then, with approval, carry out the deliverables over their semester.  

Other examples of a project may include a writing project with a subject of their choosing or conducting/analyzing research of market segments. Instead of assigning busy work, an intern owned and led project allows interns to truly be hands-on with their learning experience. 

In addition to intern-specific projects, empower your interns with extra training and continuous support. Consider a once-a-week meeting to discuss a designated industry topic that they might not learn in their day-to-day responsibilities. This can look like leading a discussion on corporate culture, client relations, or diving deeper into some of the more technical aspects of the job such as writing or social media. Involve a diverse set of leaders or employees to help in these training efforts for additional perspectives. Continued exposure and an unwavering commitment to learning drive the best results. 

The value of mentorship

Interns are the future of talent in your industry. Mentoring these interns and setting them up for success is a mutually rewarding experience. In addition to building a thoughtful intern program, companies should consider having a team or assigned mentors dedicated specifically to leading the interns. Thoughtful training and personal connections are crucial to determining the success of your interns. 

“Internship experience has been foundational to the start of my professional career. One-on-one mentoring with leadership and PR professionals has enabled me to ask questions, grow, and truly begin to understand the industry,” said Abigail Allen, current intern at Sage Communications. “The brickwork laid by the internship program will last throughout my entire career and has undoubtedly changed the trajectory of my professional journey.” 

A comprehensive intern program is built by purposeful recruitment, training, organized processes and a supportive internal network. Curating the best possible experience for your interns builds trust in your organization and demonstrates a willingness to invest in the future of your industry. Building or restructuring any program takes time and dedication, but the results are more than worth it. 

Natalie Dow and Juliet Thomas
Natalie Dow and Juliet Thomas are Senior Account Executives at Sage Communications.

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