Public relations vets often complain that they’re stuck with subordinates given little or no training after they’re hired. Most industries utilize interns for cheap labor in exchange for the promise of on-the-job training. Unfortunately, few industries actually provide good on-the-job training, relegating interns to menial tasks and errands. For many interns, the promise of a job down the road, a recommendation, a stipend, college credit, or simply something to fill out the resume is all they expect or want. None of which solves the problem faced by office veterans who eventually try and turn former interns into productive employees. I sat down last week with a longtime friend who was recently promoted at a major company to discuss how public relations firms can make better use of their interns.
At work, my friend is responsible for designing and implementing a training program for interns and new hires in the company’s corporate communications, public relations, and marketing divisions.
“I’ve been putting this off,” he said. “It’s the least exciting part of my new job.”
As he prepares to break in a dozen interns and a dozen more new hires in the next few weeks, one of my friend’s biggest fears is that competition will become the overriding theme for all involved.
“Everyone we’re hiring is on a probationary basis,” he explained. “You have six months to prove your worth and then you have face to a review. If you’ve done well, you keep your job and get a raise. If you haven’t done well, you’re shown the door. And the interns know that if they do well, they’ll be here next year on a probationary basis.”
During my own time as an intern I essentially had to compete with the two other interns in the office. To this end, I worked longer hours and kissed more butt, neither of which mattered in the end because the other interns were lazy and unmotivated. I wasted precious time and energy that could have been used working smarter, benefiting the company as much as myself. To do away with unnecessary competition, my friend said he would simply “lay it on the line” and address the interns and new hires directly about the issue.
“I don’t want them going around stabbing each other in the back or doing each other’s work,” he said. “I don’t want them to feel daily pressure to perform at some super-human level. I just want them to do their jobs and learn how we do business.”
My friend’s plan is to provide a relaxed environment on the first day of training where the new interns and hires can get to know each other. He wants everyone to be “humanized” so that the newbies don’t look at each other as competitors, but as co-workers. As part of this first day of “anti-competitive” training, he says he will make absolutely clear that “we’re not stupid and we’ll see through you butt kissing, so don’t even try it.”
Regardless of what you tell people who are driven to succeed, they’ll often shove whoever stands in their path. Still, I feel if my friend can get his philosophy across and admonish those who care more about themselves than the company, then at least he’s done his best. When it comes to review, he’ll know who has been naughty and nice.
Another of my friend’s fears is that the interns and newbies won’t be utilized effectively by the company.
“The new employees I’m not so concerned about because they’ll have bosses they report to directly,” he said. “But the interns sort of just plug holes and I don’t want their time wasted.”
We decided it would probably be best to have the interns work in teams–we liked the idea of “boy-girl” paring for some reason–and that the interns be assigned to specific people in their respective departments. Our feeling is that if the interns have someone to report to and specific tasks, they’ll be well-groomed for the future. As a marketing intern, my friend was basically “grabbed by the collar every morning” and told to do this or that. The next day, he’d be working on something completely different; he never got to see the fruits of the previous day’s labor.
Next on the agenda was coming up with a way to give the new hires serious assignments without putting the company at risk, especially when those fresh to the world of public relations may find themselves confronted by a journalist.
“I don’t want an intern in the PR department speaking to someone like you,” he said. “There have to boundaries.”
Give a newbie the opportunity to screw something up and fear will often overcome common sense, especially during a probationary period. Thinking about this subject, we realized it wasn’t the newbies fault when they screwed up; usually their bosses were to blame.
Most of my key mistakes as an intern and a new hire stemmed from times when I was given too much responsibility without enough training. How could I possibly be expected to know something that my boss, a company veteran for a decade, knew but never told me? The problem could have been solved in two ways: by me asking or by me being told.
A big part of my friend’s “training program” involved working with incumbent employees. The incumbents need to understand how to best utilize the new talent at hand and what their limitations are. A manager doesn’t give a baseball player his first major league at-bat with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom ninth while you’re down by a run.
This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.