Ethical Use of Interns

Did you happen to see the piece from PRSAY on the “Ethical Use of Interns?” Since I am the chair of the University Relations Committee, I was asked to give my perspective, so here goes…

I really don’t want to rehash the conversation (instead, I’m here to start a whole new one). If you are interested in the specifics of the PRSA guidelines on this subject check out PSA-17. I also checked with the Texas State Attorney General and the Texas Workforce Commission and they said potential employers should familiarize themselves with the Pay Day Law. Specifically, I was advised that if any employee, including interns, do work for an organization they should get paid. “Sure, that makes sense,” I said. But, the Texas Workforce Commission took it a step further and said that if you don’t pay an intern or an employee, they can actually come back and file a claim against you provided they have documented the hours they worked and the work produced.

To me the bottom line is if the work produced by an intern has any value whatsoever to the employer—I’m talking to nonprofits too—the internship should be monetarily compensated. The benefit of the arrangement is that each party, employer and intern, has a vested interest and motivation to make the arrangement productive.

To me there’s actually a bigger issue here than whether or not to pay interns and that is the ethical treatment of interns. The worst is when I hear stories about students being relegated to filling drink and lunch orders or being subjected to cattiness in the work place.

Typically, I hear students or junior communicators tell me they wish the people they interned for had talked to them more, explained things or put them into context. Most times, their employers just dictate orders and the interns blindly follow them. As professionals, aren’t we better than that?

Here are few tips to make the internship productive for both your organization and the intern:

EXPECTATIONS: On Day 1 set expectations for what the intern should expect and what your organization expects of the interns.

VARIETY: Give the intern a variety of work to do for a variety of clients. Most interns still aren’t 100 percent sure what type of work they want to do or in what industries. Give them a chance to see a diversity of both.

MISTAKES: No one is perfect and often making mistakes are the best way to learn. Allow your interns to make mistakes, but coach them on how to learn and improve from those mistakes.

FACE TIME: Expose interns to new business pitches, let them participate in client meetings and, if you’re a large agency, facilitate a Q&A with the boss.

REVIEW: On a regular basis, sit with the interns and discuss how things are going. I recommend weekly meetings but bi-weekly would be effective as well depending upon the duration of the internship.

EXIT: At the end of the internship, have the intern sit down and do an exit interview or survey so you can learn what they most valued and how you might improve.

RECOMMENDATION: Not every intern is going to be able to move into a permanent position with an agency, but give them the next best thing, a glowing recommendation they can use in their search for a job.

So, I ask that each of you take a minute to remember how your internships were, what you would have liked to have changed and apply it to how you treat interns now. The students will get more out of it. Your organization will benefit from it. Our profession will be better for it.

Ed Davis, PRSA Houston president-elect, director of Media & Public Relations at the United Way of Greater Houston.

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High Fructose Corn Syrup’s PR Problem

Watching television a few days ago, and saw an ad featuring a rather agreeable-looking farmer with his daughter, moseying through a corn field, discussing the benefits of something I’d never heard of before, called corn sugar. High Fructose Corn Syrup, now that I’ve heard of. Cane sugar, also on my radar. But corn sugar? “This must be a new, healthy kind of sugar made from corn!” I took to The Google to search for this magical new sweetener to see what was up with it (they must have a mega budget to advertise during prime time television).
Guess what: Corn sugar is just High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS for short) with a fancy, new name.
There have been numerous studies done on the effects of HFCS, and so far, the results have been mixed. Corn growers, manufacturers, and the Corn Refiners Association insist that HFCS reacts exactly the same way table sugar does in the body, yet some research suggests that there is a direct correlation between obesity and the use of HFCS in soft drinks and shelf-stable, grab-and-go snacks. Princeton University released a study earlier this year, stating that sweeteners are “not equal when it comes to weight gain: Rats with access to high-fructose corn syrup gained significantly more weight than those with access to table sugar, even when their overall caloric intake was the same.”


I’m not a scientist or a doctor, and don’t pretend to understand how different types of sugars react in the body, but what interests me here, as HFCS gets rebranded as corn sugar, is how we, the public, even though we know better, can be influenced by a good marketing campaign. Instinctively and intuitively, my brain drew the conclusion that corn sugar was somehow natural and virtually unprocessed, but just by the nature of what it is (sugar… made from corn), there must be heavy process involved.
Upon doing a little more digging, I discovered that Big Corn has been courting mommy bloggers in an effort to spread their message. We know that mothers do the majority of the grocery shopping and are often the ones educating children on the values of eating apples instead of Dunkaroos. Some mommy bloggers have engaged in the conversation with CRA and have been convinced. It’s caused a stir in the blogger community, and popular blogger Jessica Gottlieb has spoken out on the subject, asking mothers “to collectively say ‘no thank you’ to processed foods.”

Food PR has taken center stage over the last several months. KFC released that crazy, attention-getting sandwich, artist Sally Davies let a Happy Meal sit out for 180 days, and photos of what mechanically separated chicken looks like before it’s molded into those strange loaves have all made front page headlines. Now High Fructose Corn Syrup’s producers are on the offensive, proactively working to reverse the mindset that it is one of the major causes of obesity, whether it is or not.
PR pros, I ask you: What would YOU do if Corn Refiners of America was your client, and your task was to rebrand HFCS as “natural”?

Esther Steinfeld is public relations manager for Blinds.com <http://www.blinds.com/>, a major online provider of custom window treatments.  In 2010, Blinds.com was named the No. 1 e-commerce company in Houston by the Houston Business Journal.

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Texas Tribune Editor Evan Smith Speaks at PRSA Houston September Luncheon

Smith was the guest speaker at PRSA Houston’s luncheon on Sept. 1, where he discussed the year-old media outlet’s mission to promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, politics, government, and other matters of statewide concern.

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Why Leaders Can’t NOT Communicate – Even as a Mortgage Company CEO

I love my job. I mean that. I look forward to Monday mornings on Sunday nights and when I took a half-day in April to attend a friend’s wedding, my boss had to force me out of the building when the time came. I genuinely enjoy what I do, and I believe in my employer.

A lot of my personal satisfaction comes from the fact that I simply love to write, paired with the constant state of ecstatic disbelief that someone is actually paying me to do it. I know I’m not in the majority; most of my friends either hate what they do or they can’t stand whom they do it for. I’ve always thought this was just a natural attitude toward the “dues paying” stage of the career life cycle I made up just now. I never stopped to think about why I believe in my company.

At the July PRSA Houston Workshop, David Grossman, president and founder of The Grossman Group, practically laid it out for me. Speaking on the subject of executive communications, Grossman said many executives have no idea how to communicate, often having been promoted for other reasons. However, while my company’s CEO prefers to handle much of the internal communication himself, he seems to have a natural handle on many of the ideas Grossman shared. That’s not to say his expertise is common knowledge. I know my college courses focused primarily on what we say to the public rather than maintaining corporate morale.

While working in the mortgage industry during the now waning housing crisis, being informed is crucial to establishing and maintaining employee morale during these troubling times. It’s hard to put forth your best effort and focus on the job at hand when the possibility of unemployment and the terrors of job hunting loom over your head. Nothing is neutral; even to stay silent during periods of uncertainty sends a strong message to the workforce. I have no way of knowing whether our CEO is familiar with Grossman or the ideas he shared, but my company’s leader seems to understand how powerful the messages he sends to his employees can be. He kept everyone informed, and I’m certain that it’s at least partially through those efforts that our organization made 2009 its most profitable year in its 22-year history.

According to Grossman, employees want to know answers to eight key questions.  Our CEO provided those answers throughout the housing crisis. The questions are arranged in a hierarchy beginning with a desire to know how the individual fits into the organization and ending with how the company is functioning as a whole. It’s knowing the answers to these questions that helps establish a vested interest in the company and the sense of security that goes hand in hand with a feeling of sustainability from the organization.

1.     What is my job?

2.     How am I doing?

3.     Does the organization care about me?

4.     What’s going on with the company and with my personal status?

5.     What is our business strategy?

6.     How is the company doing as a whole?

7.     What are our vision and values?

8.     How can I help?

It’s also important to note that whenever industry or corporate change occurs, we return to question one.

What many executives don’t understand is that communication sends the message that they mean business. According to research Grossman presented, effective employee communications is a leading indicator of financial performance and a driver of how engaged employees are with their companies. Organizations that are led by highly effective communicators had a 47 percent higher total return to shareholders over the past five years compared to firms with less effective communicators.

It’s not that business leaders don’t want to communicate, but rather that they believe one or more of three common myths about employee communication. They think they don’t have time to communicate, or that they don’t have time to plan for it. But as Grossman pointed out, companies typically allocate time to clean up a mess, but don’t always invest time to prevent a crisis.

Another myth is that people won’t react to a lack of communication. However, people naturally interpret just about everything. Even if we stay silent, it is in our nature to speculate and theorize amongst our peers as to where the organization and our jobs stand.

As for the third myth, many leaders believe that simply talking is communicating. However, communication is much more involved than that. It requires listening, acting, purpose and strategy. Communication is a two-way street. We have to listen to those we entrust with the day-to-day responsibilities to create positive employee engagement.

It’s important to practice and plan communication. I don’t know what my CEO’s strategy is when planning his communications, but he inherently understands how much it affects his employees’ performance. It’s the reason our company has thrived while others have failed. It’s the reason I love where I am and intend to stay there for quite awhile.  It’s the reason I look forward to the Monday morning grind as soon as the final credits of The Simpsons roll on Sunday nights.

Jason Saenz is a public relations writer/editor at Cornerstone Mortgage Company and has been a member of PRSA Houston since January 2010.

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Want more success working with the Houston Chronicle?

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Sage Advice

Did you miss PRSA Houston’s April luncheon? Don’t worry. With this video, we captured a few of the sages giving career advice. Thanks, Ed Davis (PRSA Houston board member and director of communications at the United Way of Greater Houston).

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What do newspapers and cereal have in common? The breakfast table?

As the economy recovers and PR job openings increase, don’t pass up positions that require industry-specific experience even if you don’t have it. Let HR or the hiring manager disqualify you.

But first let them know this. PR skills are a communications professional’s most important asset, not knowledge of a given industry. Expertise in PR is transferable to a variety of industries. As an outsider, you may be in a better position to render an objective opinion on the strategy and tactics of a PR program by leveraging knowledge of other business models.

We’ve all heard managers say that they have been around their industries so long that they have lost the “big picture.” PR practitioners are big picture people. Share your knowledge of what other industries do. Don’t hide it. Draw parallels.

Companies that place a premium on talent will invest in educating new hires. If companies are not willing to do that, then perhaps they are not the best employers.

Recently, an out-of-work colleague was disqualified for a PR coordinator position because he did not have industry experience. He landed a PR management position at another company after that. Good for him. Bad for the entity that passed him up.

Don’t let this get lost in the discussion either: Several high-profile companies have hired CEOs and top managers from industries totally unrelated to their own. The Times Mirror hired CEO Mark Willes from General Mills.

What do newspapers and cereal have in common? The breakfast table?

Likewise IBM lured CEO Louis Gerstner from RJR Nabisco. Eastman Kodak enticed CEO George Fisher from Motorola. AT&T hired CEO Michael Armstrong from Hughes Electronics.

If companies can do that for CEOs—alpha leaders who make (not necessarily earn) millions of dollars a year— what is stopping them from doing that for PR practitioners?

Recently, we had a local example. A few months ago the Port of Houston Authority hired energy executive Alec Dreyer as its executive director. Dreyer was formerly CEO at Horizon Wind Energy.

Insist that companies wanting industry experience consider your resume and skills first. The worst that can happen is that they don’t listen and you don’t get the job. But you’re better off trying than doing nothing at all.

— Mike Wysatta, PRSA Houston board member

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