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Supervised Experience

Perhaps no one aspect of public relations education has generated more discussion and diversity of implementation than the recommended “supervised work experience.”

The models recommended were built applying flexible time and content delivery designs that permit students to access courses in other academic disciplines. Too, in offering the course in distance learning or weekend formats, management faculty, for example, could teach business courses to public relations students. This section briefly describes the nature of the supervised work experience (internship), presents several issues surrounding differences in the manner in which programs define this experience and offers recommendations for such experience.

Summary of Recommendations in Previous Commission Reports

Two previous Commission reports (1987 and 1999) included “supervised experience” as one of the core courses in their recommended undergraduate curricula. A Port of Entry (1999) asserted that it was “… imperative that public relations students have the opportunity to apply the skills and principles they learn to the professional arena.”

Three qualities were included to describe the experience:

  1. cooperatively supervised by a practitioner and a faculty member;

  2. learning objectives guide the experience;

  3. consistent and continuous evaluation of the performance of the student during the experience.

Given those qualities, the report noted that when public relations students undertake an internship, they should (a) know the faculty and practitioner supervisor, (b) create objectives for the learning and professional performance that are understood and agreed to by both supervisors and (c) have the benefit of continuous assessment of their work by their supervisors throughout the internship.

Supervised work experience for graduate students assumed lesser importance than for undergraduates in the 1999 report. Specifically, supervised instruction was a complement, or an alternative, to a comprehensive examination. If undertaken, however, the three qualities guiding the undergraduate work experience also were applicable to a graduate internship.

The flexibility permitted in the previous reports has led to considerable variety in work experiences, depending upon how institutions addressed several issues. Some of those issues have included:

  • Is completion of an internship a condition for graduation? Should an internship be required of all public relations students?

  • Should a supervised work experience be counted as an internship only if credit is given?

  • Should credit be permitted for more than one internship and should more than one internship be counted toward graduation requirements?

  • If the work experience is unpaid, should it count as a for-credit internship?

  • Is securing work experience the responsibility of the student or the college/university?

  • Should part-time work be counted as “supervised work experience”?

  • If the student is paid (i.e., receives an hourly wage or stipend), is the student an employee of the employing organization or a student of the university?

  • If a student is enrolled for credit, how should the experience be graded? Who should determine the grade? Is “pass-fail” an appropriate grading policy?

  • Should it be expected that the student will produce a tangible product for the experience to be given credit? Should the student produce/ create/design/write/conduct research appropriate for a professional portfolio?

  • Should the student write a report about the experience in addition to supervisor evaluations and the accumulation of evidence of work completed?

  • Should the faculty supervisor visit the workplace of each student supervised, and how often?

  • Can an intern be “fired” by the practitioner? If so, does the internship count as supervised work experience?

  • What is the appropriate title for supervised work experience: internship, externship, cooperative work, practical experience or some other label?

  • Should oncampus work assignments be counted as a supervised work experience?

  • How long (measured in hours, or weeks) should work experience last?

  • How much credit should be given for internships of varying lengths: e.g., one credit hour for a set number of hours of work completed?

A variety of answers to these and other questions has led to a variety of methods used to provide students with supervised work experience.

New Research Findings and Analysis

Research conducted by the Commission for this report reaffirmed the central importance of supervised work experience to public relations students. Practitioners surveyed identified it as the highest-scored essential ingredient of an undergraduate education. Educators equally valued supervised experience and credibility. Practical experience also was one of the top five considerations in entry-level hiring decisions. In short, the attitude of educators and practitioners alike remains unchanged since the 1999 report: supervised work experience is an essential part of public relations education.

However, some discrepancy between faculty attitudes and institutional performance was revealed in the recent research. The broad, quantitative research study conducted in preparation for the Commission’s report showed that while both educators and practitioners believe internships or practicum experience are a highly essential part of public relations education, both groups judged the quality of internships as only “okay” at about the midpoint on a 5-point scale.

Many educators and practitioners argue that payment for work increases the professionalism of the internship experience and rightfully recognizes returned value to the organization.

A survey of faculty advisers to Chapters of the the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) revealed that fewer than half of the programs require public relations majors to complete an internship for academic credit. Yet internships for academic credit are encouraged. About three-fourths of the public relations majors at these colleges and universities typically complete an internship for academic credit. Furthermore, students in almost all the programs (98 percent) complete an average of one or more internships—for-credit and/or noncredit—during their undergraduate college careers.

Survey results showed that only 36 percent of for-credit internships pay students a stipend or salary, an issue of concern since students must pay tuition and fees to receive academic credit for an internship. Therefore, nonpaying internships for credit actually cost the student money. Furthermore, nonpaying internships— for-credit or noncredit—discriminate against students with financial need because they often must work to attend college and cannot afford to give up paying jobs to take on nonpaying internships.

Discussion about paid internships inevitably raises questions about nonprofit organizations, which stereotypically are portrayed as poor and unable to pay interns. Whereas volunteerstaffed nonprofits with revenues of less than $100,000 certainly would find it difficult to pay a student intern, many nonprofits seeking public relations interns have much higher revenues and multiple paid employees. Museums, colleges, hospitals and local chapters of large national organizations usually are far from poor. Reported annual revenue for some well-known nonprofits, such as the American Red Cross, American Cancer Society, Boys and Girls Clubs, Goodwill, United Way and YMCA, is $1 billion or more nationally. And, while staff salaries at nonprofit organizations are below salaries in the for-profit sector, they still are relatively competitive. For example, a 2005 compensation study by GuideStar found that top program officers at charities with budgets between $1 million and $2.5 million (classified as mid-size) earned a median salary of $62,700 in 2003.1

The 2005 survey of top executives’ compensation conducted by The Chronicle of Philanthropy showed that the national presidents of the well-known nonprofits listed above earn more than $300,000 per year.2

Another study found that the annual median salary of public relations directors for local nonprofits was about $50,500 in 2004.3 It is therefore difficult to understand why more nonprofits cannot pay student interns at least minimum wage.

A few additional points regarding public relations internships at nonprofits should be made. Nonprofits that are volunteer-staffed with revenues of less than $100,000 are unlikely to have an employee with expertise in public relations or communication who would be a suitable intern supervisor. Academic credit should not be granted for such experiences.

A valuable resource for educators is the GuideStar Web site (www.guidestar.org), which provides annual revenue, number of employees and other information about specific nonprofits. The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s Web site (www.philanthropy.com) also is useful for educators and nonprofit practitioners desiring to make a case for paying interns who want to work at nonprofits.

Many educators and practitioners argue that payment for work increases the professionalism of the internship experience and rightfully recognizes returned value to the organization. Some educators who responded to the survey believe that public relations firms using unpaid interns to acquire and maintain clients are contributing unethically to their bottom line.

A May 2006 Op-Ed piece in The New York Times, titled “Take This Internship and Shove It,” simply stated, “Unpaid internships are not jobs, only simulations. And fake jobs are not the best preparation for real jobs.” The author cited several studies relevant to this discussion, including a 1998 survey of employers by the Institute on Education and the Economy at Columbia University’s Teachers College, which found that “compared to unpaid internships, paid placements are strongest on all measures of internship quality. The quality measures are also higher for those firms who intend to hire their interns.”4

Regardless of opinions and studies, one basic principle of the marketplace should be kept in mind: Students almost always select the organizations to which they apply for internships, and organizations offering pay will attract the best candidates.

Results of the internship survey also indicate that availability of public relations internships is not a problem. Participants were asked to rate the availability of public relations internships for their students on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 representing “way too few” and 10 representing “more than we can fill.” The resulting mean score was 6.88, meaning that, on average, internship opportunities meet and slightly surpass the number needed.

Although more internships in general are not needed, students would benefit from an increased number of internships with certain types of organizations. At the top of the list for survey respondents were more internships with companies and corporations, followed by public relations firms and government agencies.

PRSSA faculty advisers reported that typically only about two-thirds of the internships currently available to their students are “high quality.” When asked to name the one factor they believe is most important to making an internship high- quality, the overwhelming plurality focused on the internship supervisor and his or her availability, expertise and working relationship with the student.

Ranking second as a quality factor was students being given meaningful assignments and not being treated primarily as clerical workers.

The importance of the faculty supervisor’s communicating often and openly with internship sponsors was underscored by the study’s finding that internship coordinators generally have limited contact with students during their internships. The majority reported that the person coordinating public relations internships for academic credit in their programs has formal contact with the student only about once a month or even less frequently.

2006 Recommendations

  1. The Commission recommends that sponsoring organizations of all types—companies, firms, government agencies and nonprofits— pay public relations students for internships.

  2. The Commission recommends that academic credit for internships be reserved for workplace experiences that include an on-site supervisor knowledgeable in public relations.

  3. The Commission strongly recommends that organizations, regardless of type, assign students to supervisors who will routinely and clearly instruct students and evaluate their performance.

  4. The Commission recommends that educators make concerted efforts to communicate with practitioners—in person, by phone and/or by e-mail—to candidly discuss needs and expectations of public relations interns.

  5. The Commission recommends that public relations faculty have a high degree of quality control in the administration of internships for public relations students.

  6. The Commission recommends that, when faculty hold primary responsibility for coordinating internships, the work be credited as part of the faculty member’s normal teaching load.

  7. The Commission recommends that, when faculty hold primary responsibility for coordinating internships, one instructor be assigned for every 30 students taking internships for academic credit during a term.

  8. The Commission recommends that individual public relations educators and associations to which they belong conduct in-depth research to determine best practices in public relations internships.

It is hoped that research findings presented here and recommendations by the Commission will assist public relations educators and practitioners in their efforts to offer high-quality internships for their students. Doing so will benefit the public relations profession now and in the future.

Notes

1 [Blum, Debra E. (2005, October 13). Female charity executives win big increase in pay. The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Retrieved September 12, 2006, from http://www.philanthropy.com/premium/articles/v18/i01/01003501.htm]

2 [Executive compensation survey. (2005, September 29). The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Retrieved September 12, 2006, from http://www.philanthropy.com/premium/stats/salary/]

3 [Langer, Steven. (2004). Compensation in nonprofit organizations (17th ed.). Crete, IL: Abbott, Langer & Associates.]

4 [Kamenetz, Anya. (2006, May 30). Take this internship and shove it. The New York Times, p. A19.]