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  • Writer's pictureAnn Willets

How to Manage a Virtual Intern Program

Guest Blog by Public Relations Intern Sydney Kennedy

Last August, I was fortunate enough to land my first internship with public relations superstar Ann Willets, who took me on sight-unseen. I worked in-house with Ann for about four months.

Working with Ann was smooth sailing. She showed me the ropes of PR by showing me how she navigated it herself. I sat in on conference calls and pitches. I read all of her writing. She listened to my pitches and re-trained my weak spots, such as in the uncertain tone of my voice or the way I hooked the person in on the other end. She showed me where she tweaked my writing so I would know how to write the pitch or press release better the next time.

This experience is clearly nothing short of the ideal. Interns want to be trained, taught, and corrected. There’s nothing more frightening to an intern than messing up (and mistakes are inevitable even with the finest training), which is why it’s so important that interns are given a guide who’s willing to lead them to success.

At the end of that fall semester, Ann offered to keep me on as a virtual intern for the spring semester. This would be an easy transition because I worked for her remotely one day per week over the fall semester. We already had a system in place for working together remotely, and I knew what it took to be a remote intern. We scheduled weekly Skype meetings to confer about our progress and she would expect me to return to our next Skype call with completed work.

This story has taken on new relevancy as thousands of college-aged students across the U.S. face an uncertain future with COVID-19. Will more internships be remote?

By agencies turning in-house internships virtual this upcoming fall season -- at a time when we are uncertain about the length and possible reemergence of the pandemic -- the opportunity to be an intern for a high-profile agency is now open to students no matter where they live. Agencies can now consider resumes from candidates who were otherwise unable to travel to a major city. This also expands opportunities for handicapped students, who may have struggled with transportation or other logistics.

Yet while remote opportunities offer great promise, they also present obstacles such as accessibility to technology and proper management. Interns will likely need a laptop or desktop with a camera and a phone. They’ll also need to familiarize themselves with email, Skype, and Zoom.

Remote interns will need to prepare to be productive and self-starters. They’ve probably gained some insights into this with a transition to online schooling during the spring semester but working from home in a business setting will be a new challenge. Interns will need to find the best strategies for productivity and motivation. This translates to waking up early and getting dressed for the day, eating breakfast and drinking coffee before the workday begins, working in a space that’s outside of the bedroom, and resisting temptations like TV or social media.

For remote interns, my greatest piece of advice is time-blocking. After a week or so of work, you will most likely have a feel for what a typical day looks like and what’s on your agenda. Get out a piece of paper and assign tasks by the hour. Say from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., you’re doing pitches. From 11 a.m. to 12 p.m., you’re writing a press release. From 12 p.m. to 1 p.m., you’re having lunch. And so on. This will keep you from jumping from one task to another without completion or from becoming distracted and overwhelmed.

Agencies need to plan for remote interns by establishing team members who will train interns, hold interns accountable for work, and serve as a guide when interns have questions or concerns. These team members should be patient and willing to work with interns. It’s important that interns can watch someone pitch over the phone or can talk to someone as they carry out an important task for the first time. Interns will need to have a means of communication with the agency. They should also be familiar with all members of the management team.

Agencies should determine which assignments are appropriate and manageable for a remote intern. Figure out which media databases you can give interns access to, how you can involve them in conference calls and meetings, how often you can meet with them, and so on.

Agencies should also set up a system for interns to submit hours. Agencies can pick a day that interns can submit their weekly hours.

This isn’t a perfect system, but if this is what it takes to adapt to our changing times, then so be it. Interns can look forward to learning the ropes of the industry, mastering remote work, the internship experience, and developing a growing network. Agencies can look forward to a robust internship program, a diverse pool of candidates, and an opportunity to develop remote systems opportunities for employees or interns of the future.

Ann and I continue to make it work and adapt as we go. It’s an incredibly rewarding experience for both of us, and I believe it will soon become the new normal for all agencies and interns.

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