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Don’t Let Your Intern Pitch

I recently read a great post suggesting that you shouldn’t use interns to pitch the media. The post references a recent Forbes.com article on do-it-yourself PR tactics that suggests using an intern to pitch the media. Using an intern to pitch your news is like having an assistant shop for your spouse. It lacks the personal touch and sends the message that you really don’t care.

Now don’t get me wrong, I think interns should get real-world experience from an internship. If your organization is willing to invest the time in training an intern on media relations, participating in phone pitches, proofing and editing their email pitches, and giving them one-on-one coaching throughout the process, then by all means go ahead. Of course, if you had the free time to train an intern on media relations, you probably wouldn’t need an intern to do the pitching for you in the first place. Most of the time (and there are always exceptions), organizations hire an intern to pick up the slack. They think an intern is cheap labor.

The major problem I have with using interns to pitch your story is the message it sends to journalists. You’re basically saying, “I’m busy with more important things than talking to you about our story.” While the intern may only be trying to schedule an interview for the expert, having an intern call a journalist is the wrong way to introduce your organization. If you don’t value the journalist’s time enough to call them yourself, do you really expect them to give your story the attention it deserves?

Here are a few other reasons why I don’t think you should let your intern do the pitching for you:

  • Interns don’t know your business. The typical internship is three months long. How long have you been working? Chances are you know a lot more about the topic than your intern. Reporters won’t just agree to talk to you without asking a few questions. If your intern can’t answer those questions, the reporter will quickly lose interest and move onto the next story.
  • Interns will sound scripted. You have to get reporters excited most of the time. If you’re reading a script, they’ll pick up on it. You need to sell the story, to get them excited about what you’re pitching. This comes from more than a couple months experience.
  • Interns don’t know the “dos and don’ts”. Your intern may think it’s perfectly fine to ask a reporter “when will you be able to write about the release I sent?” or “can you make sure our story appears on the front page, my boss says it has to be a front page story?” These are both real examples.
  • Interns are still learning. It’s an internship, which is part of college. College is a place where you learn stuff. You can’t expect an intern to be completely up to speed yet. They’re still developing their writing experience (a big point). They’re still learning what media relations is, let alone how it works. If you have a great training organization in your company, you may be able to give your intern more responsibility.
  • Interns take “no” for an answer. A lot of reporters will reject your pitch right out of the gate. They’re interrupted all day long and do their best to get you off the phone in under a minute. If a reporter says, “can you call me back later?”, most interns will say “sure.” The chances of getting the reporter back on the phone are slim to none. You have to be polite and aggressive (provided your pitch is relevant). It could be your only chance.
  • Interns are fearless. This is not always the best thing. Good interns will call any media outlet and pitch any story angle you ask them to. This is the media relations equivalent of jumping off a bridge if asked. I have seen interns asked to pitch stories that more experienced PR professionals didn’t think they could place (because they knew the story was weak). This takes advantage of the intern, setting them up for failure and not necessarily providing them with the best work experience.
  • Interns aren’t paid by your clients. In agency environments, clients are paying for your best talent. Having an intern work on a client account (without authorization) is a no-no. Provide the best available team to work on client accounts – or prepare to spend more time looking for clients.

Let’s turn the tables. What if the local paper wanted to interview you for a story and sent the intern out to write it. How would that make you feel? Imagine how frustrated journalists must get this time of year as interns blindly pitch them off a mass media list?

Now, before you jump all over this post in defense of internships, let me be clear: I think internships are an essential right of passage for public relations professionals. Internships should involve some media relations training, but the emphasis should be on training. Consider doing role-playing on a regular basis with your interns (not a bad idea for your entire media relations team) where you practice pitches, prior to doing a live pitch with the journalist. Have participants throw questions at the pitcher (or objections) and practice. Practice makes perfect with anything. Don’t just hand the intern a media list and have them go at it. Spend the time to put together an intensive program that works towards getting the intern pitch-ready by the end of their tour.

I’d also like to point out that there are a few instances when I think it’s fine to have an intern pitch your story. If you have a local community event coming up and you want to alert the local papers, have the intern do it. If you’re announcing a new hire or a promotion, and you’re confident you have all the right contacts on your media list for this type of announcement, fine. Run of the mill news announcements can be handled by an intern. A product announcement about your latest software product should not.

If you have any major announcement to make, consider pitching the story direct from the source. You have a much better chance at getting a reporter’s attention if your CEO calls her than your intern.

What do you think? Should interns do the pitching?

(Photo Credit: DVS)

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About Jeremy Porter

Jeremy Porter is co-founder and editor of Journalistics, a lively blog about public relations and journalism topics.

  • http://twitter.com/mandibaronas mandibaronas

    I disagree RT@journalistics Don’t Let Interns Pitch Your Story http://tinyurl.com/m9oasl.

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  • http://jamiefavreau.wordpress.com Jamie Favreau

    Thanks for posting this.
    I was an intern for LLS and I know I didn’t get to do much of the media relations. I was more of their social marketer.

  • Justin Hale

    I would really like to see how interns are supposed to get this kind of experience. There is so much to handle, but where does an intern start? I mean we usually get the odd ends, but that rarely adds up to experience. The newspaper industry is drying up, and every position is being taken by those who already have experience.

  • Garrett

    I disagree on some of the points you provide. Just because interns are getting to know the inner workings of journalism doesn’t make them complete morons with no sense of journalistic presence or ability. If that is the kind of interns you are hiring, perhaps you should increase your standards a little.

    I’ve never done an ounce of journalism in my life but even I could pitch news in an exciting enough way as to garner some attention from reporters. Points like “interns sound scripted” are a terrible generalization based on a stereotypical oaf of an intern. There are plenty of charismatic, intelligent, and generally outstanding individuals who are interning solely in an effort to get their foot in the door and learn the ropes better. It is wrong of you to class them all as being generally semi-incompetent.

  • http://www.angelamhernandez.com Angela Hernandez

    Your points about sounding scripted and knowing the Do’s and Don’ts are extremely important to address, but I feel students should be learning this in their PR courses and through involvements with organizations such as PRSSA. I know I’ve been to many workshops that have helped me address many of the concerns you mentioned.

    Also, many employers are requiring previous internship experience to ensure interns are prepared to do more pitching from the get-go. Even though I have pitching experience, when I first started pitching at my internship this summer, I spent a long time going over the client’s Web site, past releases, annual reports, etc. and preparing a list of bullet points I wanted to address (not a script).

    In my experience as an intern, it seems my employers really want to help me learn, as well as learn from what I can bring to the table. I agree interns should not be the sole option for publicity results, but I hope employers are not afraid to give interns the opportunity to learn.

  • http://twitter.com/AerialEllis AerialEllis

    I second the motion. RT – Don’t Let Interns Pitch Your Story @Journalistics http://tinyurl.com/m9oasl (via @tweetmeme)

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  • http://adriennebailey.wordpress.com/ Adrienne Bailey

    There are some very interesting points made here, some I agree with and some I do not. The suggestions you mention at the end are valuable.

    I believe there are some interns that should not be pitching but it isn’t fair to say every intern should not be able to pitch. Each circumstance is different at every agency. It makes more sense to have an intern begin pitching gift guides than it does having them pitch the top 100 newspapers, but the experience is still a crucial part of learning. Also, you don’t need to throw them into phone pitching right away.

    If an intern doesn’t know your business, that is your own fault. Part of your job is to give the intern the information and resources he or she needs to become the most knowledgeable about your business and the industry. Providing a set of guidelines or simply having a staff meeting where everyone can share “best pitching practices” is just one idea to help the intern learn the do’s and don’ts.

    My philosophy is there is a process to pitching, something every intern needs to experience. Here it is:
    -Research, research, research
    -Time devoted to developing a thorough press list
    -The art of crafting the pitch
    -Creating a catchy subject line to draw attention
    -Reading relevant articles by the journalist to personalize the pitch
    -Organiziing and recording who you pitched, the date, and any repsonses
    -Ensuring follow up is completed and to the appropriate people only
    -Corresponding with the journalist to make arrangements (submitted article, interview, etc.)
    -Sharing the good news with the client (interview prep sheet if needed)
    -Staying on top of the story and following up after any interviews
    -Looking for the story to run
    -Following up and sending a thank you card

    As a previous intern, without the opportunity to pitch I would of had a limited knowledge once I began my job as an Account Executive. Part of the reason we have internships, is so we have minimal training once they are brought full time, no matter where it is. Interns need to learn how to pitch- that is PR. And as they are still learning, so are we. We learn by trial and error. In order to minimize error, we need to prepare our interns to handle any task we do, including pitching.

  • http://www.bridgeny.com Lucy Siegel

    I disagree with many of Jeremy’s points. Companies should NOT be looking to interns to do professional-level work on the cheap. Interns are there to learn, and companies shouldn’t hire them unless there’s someone who can take the time to instruct them. Our firm teaches our interns how to pitch, including how to write a pitch email, how to make calls, what to say, what not to say, how to answer questions and objections, and we rehearse with them before they are allowed to pick up the phone. We make sure they understand what they are pitching and don’t give them anything too complex to pitch. Unlike many other agencies, we do not charge for our interns’ time, either. They do end up making a contribution on our clients’ accounts, and the clients are not paying for it. We also have a very structured summer internship program that we developed with several other small PR firms to provide a richer learning experience that touches on many different areas of PR over the course of a 10-week period. The interns also work together on a pro bono PR program for a small non-profit organization, under the supervision of an experienced staff member. College students need a chance to have hands-on experience in our industry under careful supervision. That is what an internship should be.

  • http://beckyjohns.wordpress.com Becky Johns

    I understand the point you’ve tried to make with this post. And saying there are plenty of exceptions to what you’ve laid out is a good first step, but isn’t enough to cover a major truth about many PR interns.

    In the current state of the economy, many interns have already graduated from college and received degrees in fields like communications, advertising, public relations, etc. Because of the difficult job market, many of these interns have already completed one or several internships prior to the current position, and have chosen to become interns because many entry-level positions available a few years ago have disappeared. With the amount of education and experience interns like this have already acquired, I see no reason to take them out of the pitching game.

    I’ll use myself as an example. I have a background in journalism, as both a reporter and editor. I’ve worked on the staff of a newspaper, in the newsroom and also in advertising. I had a sales job for more than two years during college, and have seen excellent results from my pitching skills. In addition to that job, over the past 3 years I’ve been a full-service agency intern, media planning intern, and now, a corporate communications and public relations intern (as a college graduate with a BA). Just because my title happens to be “intern” does not mean I don’t have the experience, skills, or knowledge about my company to make important pitches. Many of my peers are in similar positions and have gathered much more experience than the typical idea of an intern.

    It is important for bosses and supervisors to educate their interns, and include them in as much as the PR process as they see fit. If interns are not given opportunities to take on projects or pitches with higher importance, especially interns that are well-suited to make pitches based on prior experiences and proven track records, then they are never going to take any major steps toward becoming professionals. Interns should be guided, not scripted. Supervised, not micromanaged. Interns should be not only allowed, but encouraged to make pitches. If the company doesn’t trust them to pitch on its behalf, why did that person get hired as a PR intern in the first place?

    Just something to think about.

  • http://twitter.com/adriennejj adriennejj

    I’m an intern, and I think he makes a good point What do you think?: 7 Reasons You Shouldn’t Let Your Intern Pitch http://bit.ly/1YxvN

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  • http://twitter.com/aribadler aribadler

    Should interns be pitching stories? Blog and comments, including 1 from @beckyjohns, makes me think “it depends.” http://bit.ly/Il7e1

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  • http://fusionpr.com Suzanne McGee

    Jeremy, Thank you for your well thought out post! I agree with your approach in terms of understanding the intern, his/her education, the journalist and each client. You do have to understand their level of experience and tailor their work to fit according. You also have to keep in mind your client – many would not appreciate an intern pitching as opposed to a trained account person. (Yes, there are exceptions to every rule, but most need more experience and knowledge before calling The Wall Street Journal.) As you note, starting with calendar listings and PSAs are a great way to get some experience and provide some support for accounts.

    And finally, thanks for putting the shoe on the other foot. We did have a newspaper send an intern to cover a launch event that we had planned. While she tried to be professional, she wasn’t prepared with questions and didn’t quite know how to handle the interview with our CEO. It was awkward for everyone involved. I’m all for intern learning experiences, but not going solo – no one should throw their interns into a situation by themselves. As PR pros we have a commitment to ensuring a high level of training to support any media pitching possibilities.

  • Jennie Ecclestone

    Hi Jeremy,

    I agree exactly with what Becky’s stance is. An intern should always be valuable no matter what their title really stands for. They also being a fresh and non-jaded perspective which is often helpful in pitching stories.

    I also think you should be careful about being too quick to judge a client’s perspective on sending an intern journalist to cover a story. I work for General Motors Corp. and last week at a product launch one of the local broadcast stations sent an intern to cover our story for their station and a sister station. This individual actually got a story for us at both stations and we had other well-known and seasoned broadcast journalists there that did not provide any story, but spent a great deal of time interviewing us and taking down our facts. I think interns are being, and should continue to be, taken more seriously as entry-level professionals, not just the person you lean on for the dirty work.

  • http://adriennebailey.wordpress.com/ Adrienne Bailey

    I understand what you are saying Jeremy, there are some jobs that should be in the hands of the Account Exec, Coordinator, etc. For the bigger stories, having interns do the research and possibly writing a rough draft pitch is excellent practice, and apart of the pitching process as I mentioned above. But I agree, for the bigger pitches let that come from someone who has either had a correspondence with reporter or who has a better connection to the client.

    Looking forward to more insightful posts!

  • Ellen Porter

    We hire interns to learn the business. And that means while all of them will learn how to WRITE a press release here, they probably won’t be calling to pitch it. We only pitch our clients’ major events and the interns aren’t writing those releases. The releases the interns are writing go to long-established contacts who in this day and age are hungry for news that’s ready to use, and that’s what we provide.

  • Sean Sutherland

    I’ve been fortunate enough to hold four internships and while I can understand your message applying to some interns, I have to disagree. Allowing an intern to pitch the media is what the intern needs. I was nervous, tense, anxious even when I first called the media but with enough tenacity and experience it became a second skin.
    You have to have faith in the interns to get the job done. I received plenty of training, I think I remember actually doing a mock phone call for an old employer I interned for, but I learned the most when I was able to do it myself.
    I’ve never encountered someone being offended that I, instead of my supervisor or other account exectuive, had contacted a member of the media. The journalist never refused to talk to me. Never scoffed at me when I said that I was an intern, (which on second thought, I don’t think I’ve ever said I’m an intern from XXX calling on behalf of YYY).
    Interns NEED to pitch to the media. If they fail they learn, if they succeed they learn. You can’t expect to hold your interns hand the whole way. That’s a waste of both parties’ times. Have faith in interns. If you’ve done a good job preparing them, and they care enough to be comfortable with the media, they’ve come through in the end.

  • http://www.twitter.com/monfineis Monica Fineis

    I think the important point that this article is trying to make is that interns should be effectively trained before doing the pitching. PR curriculum in college should cover this, but I have a feeling that most colleges don’t–my PR courses in college didn’t. The company should also teach the intern the basics–who to call (Assignment Editors), when to call (deadlines for TV stations, newspapers), what information is most important, etc. Interns should also be allowed to listen to a co-worker pitch a couple times before trying.

    At the very least, the intern should have familiarity with the client or story. There’s nothing worse than being handed a news release for a client you’ve never worked on and being told to pitch the story to reporters.

    Although I feel that my “thrown to the sharks” experience with pitching has helped me grow immensely and I do believe there is value in trial and error–there are definitely some avoidable blunders I wish I could take back.

    Great post :)

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  • Erika Wah

    Thanks for sparking this discussion!

    Jeremy, your point about organizations using a structured program is key. Without trying to sound like an ad, here at Simon Fraser University in Canada, Co-op Education (semester-long paid work experience, with learning objectives, supervision and training) is the way for motivated Communication students to get hands-on experience, build up their networks and graduate with a year or more of industry experience. Our students do not learn PR practices in their courses (degree courses are rich in Communication theory, history and research) but find the experience they get on their co-op work terms through the guidance of their employer, the best way to learn how to write a press release, pitch to the media, launch a campaign, etc.

    To do this successfully, we tell our employers hiring co-op students these things:
    - Give co-op students/interns a job description (so they know what you expect of them).
    - Compensate them (so they are a valued part of the team and show up for work).
    - Train them (so they can succeed).
    - Supervise them (so you can make sure they add value appropriately and learn from your feedback).
    By doing this, you invest in the future of the profession, and quite likely someone who will want to return to your organization at some other point in their career.

    To those who posted here about students who have lots to offer, I couldn’t agree more. We know a lot about Gen Y’s motivation to make a difference (and hunger to take on the big stuff)! Yet, the rest of us Gen Xers, Boomers and Veterans all bring our own generational baggage to the table and what we expect. How are we all supposed to work together? How do we balance what our organization needs (a solid pitch to the media) and what we need (a chance to do the work/mentor someone else to learn the work)?

    Some answers to this came out of last week’s IABC World Conference in San Francisco, where Anna Whitlow (Deveny) and Leah Reynolds (Deloitte) engaged us in a good session talking about what ALL generations have in common. They said, we need to focus on what we all want:

    Balance
    Be authentic
    Recognized for contributions
    Be respected
    Be heard
    Have interesting work
    Feel secure in marketability
    Have fun at work
    Be drama free
    Be compensated fairly

    This goes for co-op students/interns/managers/frontline staff/CEOs of all stages and ages, don’t you think? Perhaps I should send a note to Forbes!

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  • http://www.burrellesluce.com/freshideas/?p=276 Valerie Simon

    Great post Jeremy! You have sparked quite a debate on what responsibilities are appropriate for interns. I agree with Adrienne’s comments- “For the bigger stories, having interns do the research and possibly writing a rough draft pitch is excellent practice, and apart of the pitching process as I mentioned above. But I agree, for the bigger pitches let that come from someone who has either had a correspondence with reporter or who has a better connection to the client. ” An internship is a great opportunity to begin developing PR skills, including pitching the media, but it is important to recognize the significance of this responsibility and determine whether the particular intern has the experience, knowledge and savvy to pitch the particular story to the particular reporter.

  • http://www.astamm.com/ Alan Stamm

    Hear, hear! Smartly said, Becky.

    Though I’m waaaay past my only career internship at The Bergen Record copy desk in 19xx (don’t ask, won’t tell), I was ticked off mightily on your gen’s behalf at Jeremy’s ageist, elitist rant.

    He sounds so last century . . . as you tactfully, convincingly show. That fresh breeze is a wind that’ll lift your career.

    [ And no, I don't write like that in client deliverables. =^..^= ]

    Well-done – – take the next two days off.

    This comment was originally posted on I’m Working On It

  • http://beckyjohns.wordpress.com/ beckyjohns

    Thanks for your comments, Alan. I’m glad you enjoyed my post, I hope you continue reading!

    I tried to structure my rebuttal to show Jeremy the other side of the coin. Although I disagree with much of what he said, I do also think that he makes some good points when considering first-time interns. Many of my points apply more toward more experienced interns.

    This comment was originally posted on I’m Working On It

  • Fiona Discala

    Hi Jeremy,

    I really enjoyed your post, and even though I am currently working as an PR intern, I agreed with many of your points.

    I have to admit, however, that I found your point of “Having an intern work on a client account (without authorization) is a no-no” quite humorous. In my several years experience of interning, I know for a fact that agencies were billing my work at the AAE and the AC level, without the client’s permission or knowledge that a lowly intern was doing most of their work. Nor is this limited to the smaller firms. I think you would be surprised at how widespread this practice is, especially among the top ranked PR firms.

    Unfortunately, us interns are often some of the unsung heros of the company – picking up the slack, while others take the credit (and money) for our work.

  • http://erinism.wordpress.com Erin

    I completely agree. During the FIRST DAY of one of my past internships (thank God I am done with that part of my career), I was to pitch a client to the Washington Post. We’re not talking some small town weekly here. Washington Post. Not only was that frightening enough, but I knew literally nothing about the client other than what I read in a provided pamphlet. Needless to say, the results were not favorable. I also believe that interns should not run social media campaigns for similar reasons.

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  • http://www.twitter.com/jeremyporter Jeremy Porter

    Why the defensive tone Garrett? What does this have to do with interns I’ve hired. I made no reference to interns being morons, nor am I anti-intern. My issue is with organizations that hire interns to do the dirty work, rather than to help them get some early experience. It is a total generalization, and I admitted there are many different exceptions. In general, companies looking for PR should not look to the intern as the solution. My guess is you would have a different opinion if you had did have that ounce of journalism experience. Maybe not.

    Again, if you read the piece thoroughly, you’d see I don’t have a problem with interns. I’ve had some awesome interns in the past. And they’ve pitched the media successfully, landing a lot of great placements. But I wouldn’t rely on them as my sole option for publicity results. That was the point I (obviously) failed to make. Thanks for your feedback.

  • http://www.twitter.com/jeremyporter Jeremy Porter

    Interns should not settle for odds and ends. To answer your question, I think interns should look for structured internship programs where the job description where there is a progression of skills over the course of the experience. When I’ve had interns, we would start off with basics like research, media list development and press release development in the first week. The second week we would work on pitching, using role playing with the team internally. The third week, maybe we’d have them write a fact sheet or pitch an event to a local paper. So on and so forth.

    Another great way to get experience is to volunteer for a local non-profit. I did work for Big Brothers Big Sisters, a local Domestic Violence Shelter and a Food Bank when I was in college. They needed the help and I needed the experience. If your friends and family have small businesses, offer to help them out too. I realize this contradicts my post, but it’s the truth.

  • http://www.twitter.com/jeremyporter Jeremy Porter

    It sounds more like you agree with me. I made many of those points in my post.

  • http://www.twitter.com/jeremyporter Jeremy Porter

    There is a big difference between the intern candidate you describe and somebody in their first internship. You’re describing an entry-level AAE who may be working as an “intern” because he/she can’t find an entry-level job. This is a big problem and I’m glad you pointed it out. Frankly, this isn’t a new problem though. It’s been like that for a long time. Most entry-level PR employees have to pay their dues this way. Once you get in the door, it’s much easier to move up the ladder.

    Obviously I’m referring to actual interns in this post, not somebody who has the title “intern”.

    Again, since this isn’t coming across in the post. I’m not saying that interns should never, ever pitch. That would be silly. I’m saying that organizations should not hire interns as their solution to PR. In other words, as an alternative to hiring an agency or “more expensive” full-time employee.

  • http://www.twitter.com/jeremyporter Jeremy Porter

    Hmm. How can I be more clear about this? I love interns. My position is that you shouldn’t use interns (agree, horrible generalization) to pitch bigger stories. I agree that some interns can do as good (if not better) a job pitching stories once they have some experience.

    That said, I appreciate your perspective and am glad to hear GM takes their interns seriously.

  • http://dirtt.wordpress.com Terry Brock

    Maybe start your post with, “First off, I love interns” ;)

    I don’t work in PR, but I do use interns in my work: http://dirtt.wordpress.com/2009/06/13/the-internship/

    Every intern comes in with different levels of experience, and with different skills. Some interns I am perfectly comfortable doing more advanced tasks, others I hired because I realize that they have the drive but lack some of the skills, and more exposure and experience will help them develop. Also, they tend to come in wanting to learn different things…it’s important to consider tailoring the internship to something that will meet each party’s needs…

  • http://www.twitter.com/jeremyporter Jeremy Porter

    Great points Monica. All that stuff was taught in my PR classes, which ultimately prepared me for my first job. I agree you can learn a lot from being thrown to the sharks (that’s how most of us have learned), but that’s part of the problem. That trial and error approach comes at the expense of journalists who have to listen through both good and bad pitches.

  • http://www.twitter.com/jeremyporter Jeremy Porter

    This doesn’t surprise me Sean. After four internships, I would expect most interns to be able to pitch effectively. I think you’re looking at this from only one perspective, that of an intern. Of course you would feel strongly about letting an intern pitch, I would too. I think mistakes should be made in role playing and ongoing pitch practice. Once you go to live pitching, you’ll still make some mistakes and learn, but you’ll make far less. I’m surprised a journalist has never hung up on you, you must be doing something right. Thanks for sharing your experience.