What You Can Learn from My Accidental Internship

June 3, 2014

Bill InternshipEach year around this time, I find myself repeating one of my favorite stories about a summer internship that should never have happened, but became a career game-changer for me. Although it occurred (gulp) 30 years ago, I hope the lessons ring true for the many interns starting their PR careers this summer at Ketchum and throughout the industry.

As I finished my freshman year in college determined to become a journalist, I naively applied for internships at every radio station in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In those pre-email days, it meant lots of letters and in-person drop offs.

Urged on by my father, I kept calling news directors (from my dorm room rotary phone) saying I hoped they would consider me. During one of those calls, I was pleasantly surprised to hear, “Ah, yes, when can you start?”

Several weeks into my internship at WTMJ, I got up the nerve to ask my boss why he chose a freshman over older students who had actually taken journalism courses. “Because you called me on the day I realized that I had lost all of the intern applications,” he said.

I had mixed emotions, from “I shouldn’t be here” to “Wow, Dad was right. Persistence pays off.” And those emotions propelled me to make the most of this accidental opportunity. I worked absurdly long hours, finished my assigned tasks early so that I could “tag-along” with reporters on their stories, and even produced mock newscasts in the studio after hours.

Then one day, when someone was out sick, a story broke, and I was on the air with my first report. By the end of the summer, my boss handed me a microphone and tape recorder and deputized me as an on-call reporter for my remaining three years in school.

So what can aspiring PR professionals learn from this? Make the most of every opportunity you are given.  My tips for every intern this summer are:

Don’t wait to be asked for help. If you have the time, or the interest in doing something – speak up. The worst that will happen is we’ll say no, but even then we’ll know you are someone driving to grow your career.

Ask a lot of questions. Even if no one is asking you to become a community manager or write a media strategy, act like they will someday. Learn everything about it so when the opportunity arises, you are ready.

Find a mentor. After you get a lay of the land, determine one person who is excelling at what you hope to do in five years and ask them to be your mentor. Find five minutes per day or 30 minutes a week to get advice on your immediate challenges and positioning for long-term growth.

Stand out (appropriately). I will always remember the intern who had the winning creative idea, offered a great business development lead, had the guts to correct me when I was wrong, or convinced the Mayor of Chicago to pose for a client photo.

Try something new. In addition to completing your assigned responsibilities, volunteer for something else. If you have been assigned to the creative team, perhaps ask to do one project with the issues management team to flex a different PR muscle. You never know for sure until you try it, and the more you try early, the more ready you are for career opportunities.

Not everyone makes the cut for internships. Whether you got there with the best interview, or because the boss lost all of the resumes, seize the moment. Soak it in. Oh, and have some fun.

Bill Zucker is an issues and crisis communications specialist and Managing Director of Ketchum’s Food Industry team. A below average cook at best, Bill is well known in his house for his ability to pack a killer school lunch.