Guest post: Starting from the bottom. How to make the most of an internship

In this guest post, the brilliant Olivia Shalofsky shares her story after interning for a year at Direct Line Group. She talks about successfully securing coverage in the leading media publications, professional development, and obstacles she had to get through. Olivia also shares career advice she has received during her placement.    

By Olivia Shalofsky

Today marks my first year working in PR as an intern, and it is quite phenomenal what I’ve been able to achieve given some great opportunities, serious graft, and a lot of support from inspirational industry leaders.

I moved down to Bromley to work at Direct Line Group as an intern on a rolling placement year, and have learned a lot from people all over the industry about surviving your first year, and whole career in fact, in the communications industry.

This year, I’ve had the opportunity to create press releases, spokesperson comments, responses to journalist queries and PR strategy plans across our products, for all our brands (Direct Line, Churchill, Privilege and Green Flag). I’ve had the best time organising radio days, attending PR stunts, visiting our agencies, and getting great coverage for my research, even a mention in America on the Today Show!

Towards the end of my placement, I’ve been entrusted with managing the PR for our pet insurance business, after a big team reshuffle in April. My first big pet insurance story was an annual piece of research focussing on dog theft. In terms of PR, the story was a huge success – achieving over 300 pieces of coverage, including every National newspaper, over 400 million opportunities to be seen, and interviews with our spokespeople on numerous regional radio stations, as well as Sky Sunrise, ITV News and mentions on BBC News and Good Morning Britain.

More importantly though, the publication of our research helped a petition for dog theft law reform succeed in making its way to Parliament – where my team joined with campaigners and MPs to debate harsher prosecutions for dog thieves. Our research was used by MPs in their statements, and it has been wonderful, as a result, to see the real impact that this work has made, as well as the alignment of our Direct Line brand behind such a worthy cause.

The year certainly hasn’t come without its difficulties though. I’ve struggled with my confidence throughout the process of learning so many new things, and have had to push myself at times to step out of my comfort zone, doing things such as presenting to the whole marketing department at DLG – something I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing a year ago.

In a bid to learn as much as possible this year, I’ve sought the advice of every PR professional I have met – and there’s been a lot of them. Through my work for the Women in PR blog, and efforts to network, I’ve had the opportunity to meet countless people across the industry that inspire me and who are more than happy to share their experiences to help me grow. I’ve been consistently humbled by the people I’ve met this year, and especially after being shortlisted for the PRCA’s Best Intern award, I’ve been pleasantly surprised and heartened by how many people took the time to congratulate me and offer their support.

The advice I’ve received has given me the best kick-start I could have asked for – so I’m sharing it here, because every person starting out like me, or even other industry leaders, can always learn something from the experiences of others.

Addy Frederick, Senior Corporate Communications Manager at Bupa, on: getting over your mistakes

“One of the limitations of being human is that we’re fallible. We’ve all made mistakes at some point in our career, and at the time they can feel mortifying, but the key thing is to try and find the lesson in every mistake. Learn from it rather than letting it paralyse you with fear. You don’t want to make the same mistake twice or allow it to make you question your ability to do your job – that is to say, don’t ignore it, but appreciate the learning opportunity. Some of the mistakes I made at the start of my career felt like the end of the world at the time but have helped make me better at my job and aware of the importance of things, such as knowing a client or story inside out before pitching. Having said that, I’d stress that the mistakes you learn from don’t have to be your own. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with leaders and mentors who were open about their failings, allowing me to navigate many potential pitfalls.”

Mark Evans, Marketing Director at Direct Line Group, on: being a sponge (making the most of a learning experience)

“The advice I give to anyone going through a learning experience is to be a “sponge” – soak up as much as you possibly can. A fantastic boss earlier in my career said that great marketers are eternally curious to discover the insights that are lurking around the corner that could transform the fortunes of a brand, a business or even an entire sector. I believe that this principle also relates to personal learning and development. Therefore, don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions, and volunteer for things that typically you might let pass you by. Ultimately, as in life more broadly, you get out what you put in so don’t sell yourself short and who knows where that curiosity might lead you!?”

Bibi Hilton, Managing Director, Golin and Women in PR President, on: always asking for what you deserve

“Research has shown that the gender pay gap can open up as early as three years into a woman’s career. It’s therefore so important that young women feel confident to negotiate their pay from that very first role and continue to ask for pay rises, and promotions – negotiating as they move up. Progressive recruiters and employers should really be asking ‘What are your salary expectations?’ at interview rather than ‘What is your salary?’ to help prevent women taking a salary gap with them to their next role. Make sure you know what the salary benchmark is for your level and answer questions on salary with the amount you want, not the salary you are currently earning. You may not get what you ask for but you will be respected for negotiating.”

Claire Foster, Senior Corporate Communications Manager at Direct Line Group, on: stopping with the self-deprecation

“A frequent issue amongst young people entering a new industry is that of self-confidence. Humility is always something that we should strive to achieve, but not to the extent that you come across self-deprecating. Keeping a note of all the wonderful things you get involved in or achieve throughout the year can be of unparalleled importance when it comes to moving on and interviewing for a new role – it is something that a lot of people forget to do. This is also an important way to remind yourself of all of the things you can achieve when you set your mind to it, and a way of restoring your self-belief at times when you are lacking in it. Speaking clearly and meaningfully about your experiences, challenges and strengths isn’t the same as being arrogant if you’ve got evidence for your claims.” 

Gary Wheeldon, Co-Founder of Talker Tailor Trouble Maker, on: the most successful people aren’t right, they are just themselves

“When it comes to interviews, it’s worth remembering that it’s almost impossible to ever be entirely right, just as it is to be entirely wrong. I used to spend a lot of time worrying about getting things right in interviews or pitches, but I’ve realised that when it comes to conveying my creative ideas or portraying the best things about me, it really doesn’t matter if I am right or wrong – it matters that I am staying true to who I am. If you can show that you are passionate, opinionated and experienced then you’re half way there. I would always say, be confident in your own capabilities, and try to spend more time conveying them and your true personality, than trying to match what you think the interviewer wants to hear.”

Emma Leech, 2018 CIPR President-Elect, on: what you don’t know can hurt you, don’t assume anything  

“I, like most people, have gone through life on the receiving end of many assumptions. Everyone knows the saying ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ but it isn’t as simple in practise, a lot of people will make up their mind about you within minutes of meeting you. And who can really blame them? In a world as fast-paced as ours, we don’t often have the privilege of time to reconsider our responses entirely before we make them. But one thing I can urge you to do is to never make your early assumptions about anything evident in your reactions, because in my experience particularly, it is very easy to be wrong about someone or a situation.”

Marcel Klebba, PR Account Executive, on: blogging your way to success – how to share best practice and create a personal brand

“Hone your writing and storytelling skills. These are crucial in public relations. Blogging is a great way to do that. Create useful content, document your journey as you go. Remember that blogging is a thankless task. Starting a blog is easy. Keeping it up is hard. But when you find your voice and will post regularly, your work will get appreciated. Take advantage of social media and connect with others in the industry. Engage with them, grab coffees with them. Always appreciate those who offer you good advice.”

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Make sure to follow Olivia on Twitter, @OliviaShalofsky. You can also find her on LinkedIn.