how to create an internship program

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Creating a quality internship program that avoids legal problems and educates interns about PR and marketing requires thoughtful planning and management. These recommendations can help managers develop programs that offer a satisfying experience for both intern and employer.

Orientation. A well-developed orientation process helps interns become acclimated to the new work environment. The program can include information on the company’s business model and history, a glossary of PR and marketing jargon, and formal introductions to staff. Some companies create a handbook, now mostly in digital formats, that outlines expectations and answers frequently asked questions.

Specific tasks. Like most people, interns work best when they’re assigned definitive responsibilities, with clear instructions, work hours, deadlines and management structure. Some PR managers recommend assigning both individual and group projects to develop collaboration skills. Be sure to keep interns busy with substantive assignments. The days of using interns to fetch coffee or run personal errands are long gone.

Assign a range of jobs. In addition to teaching interns about essential daily PR functions such as media relations, media monitoring and building and maintaining media lists, invite the young professionals to attend events such as panel discussions, a new product launch or a media interview. A broad range of assignments will provide a realistic overview of working in PR.

Train staff to manage interns. The intern’s supervisor has a major impact on the quality of the internship experience. Training sessions for managers help them better manage interns. At MasterCard, managers meet with human resources managers to ensure they clearly understand the expectations on how to supervise emerging, young professionals, says David Fischer, executive director of New York City’s Center for Youth Employment.

“Particularly for first-time managers, the chance to review and learn from more experienced colleagues is useful in thinking through how to use and support a young worker who will be on hand for 10 weeks,” Fischer says.

Assign a mentor. A good mentor can be invaluable for interns just learning the ins and outs of the trade, writes career counselor Penny Loretto for the The Balance Careers. With so much new learning taking place at the start of an internship, a mentor can help the student navigate the waters of a new job much more quickly than trying to learn everything on their own.

In addition to a senior mentor, MasterCard assigns a “buddy,” a near-peer mentor in age and experience, who can answer questions, connect them to colleagues in the firm, and provide general guidance, Fischer notes.

Consider virtual internships. In today’s uncertain environment, more companies offer virtual instead of in-person internships. Clear and quick decisions about holding a virtual internship program will ally fears of students who worry if internships will be cancelled. Decisive and swift action also provides more time to create a virtual internship program that’s just as effective as an in-person program. Whatever the decision, transparent communication is paramount.

“Clear communication is now more important than ever as companies work to ensure all of their stakeholders are well informed about plans for the future, even if those plans are still in development in a rapidly changing situation,” writes Becca Carnaham at Harvard Business School. “When a virtual internship becomes a part of those plans, making sure students know what to expect and when is critical.”

Pay them. Department of Labor guidelines explain how to determine when interns should be paid. Basically, the DOL expects unpaid internships to provide training and education much like an academic environment and that interns don’t displace paid employees. One caveat: Nonprofit organizations and public agencies can legally hire interns as volunteers.

Violating the guidelines entails severe financial penalties, including back taxes and punitive damages. Employers also risk public relations crisis and reputational damage, especially if unpaid interns sue the company. The PR Council, an association of PR agencies, requires its member agencies to pay interns at least minimum wage and has urged others to end unpaid internships.

Given the severe penalties for violating the guidelines, employers would be well advised not to take chances. It’s best to work with a bona fide educational institution that grants school credits for internships.

Avoid legal problems. To avoid legal pitfalls of hiring interns, Justworks, an HR and compliance firm, recommends:

  • Create a hiring process that resembles the process for hiring employees as much as possible.
  • Never promise a paid position once the internship is complete. That can jeopardize the intern’s legal status.
  • Set clear ground rules and expectations in advance. Be clear on any compensation, school credit, supervisors, schedules, and selection and performance criteria.
  • Cover interns under the organization’s worker’s compensation policy to limit liability exposure.

Bottom Line: Internships benefit young professionals as well as communications agencies and departments. To make internships worthwhile, it’s critical to develop an organized, well-managed program that includes thorough orientation, an experienced mentor and substantive assignments.

This article was first published on the blog.

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