April 13, 2023
How to Make Your Internship Program a Pipeline for Gen Z Talent — Prioritizing DEI and Social Impact
If you’re looking for tangible ways to improve your PR or professional services firm’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), you’re not alone. DEI is a key business priority for a majority of C-suite executives and in-house counsel, according to Greentarget and Zeughauser Group’s 2022 State of DEI Content report — and the most frequently mentioned area where decision makers want guidance from their service providers is on how to recruit and retain diverse talent.
That report got me thinking about what leaders could learn from my perspective garnered from wearing various hats at Greentarget: a former intern, a current senior associate and intern coordinator, an Asian-American woman breaking into a historically and predominantly white industry, and — last but not least — a member of Gen Z who, like many of my peers, prioritizes the social impact of my work and the inclusive values of my employer.
Two years ago, I navigated a remote internship with Greentarget in the midst of the pandemic. Last summer, I returned for an in-person internship. And today, not only am I an associate serving clients in the legal and professional services industries, with a focus on media relations — I’m also a coordinator on Greentarget’s intern team, responsible for recruiting, training, and overseeing our intern classes (whose seat I was in not too long ago), as well as expanding our diversity recruiting strategy and partnerships.
My internships played a direct role in influencing my decision to further my career in public relations at Greentarget, not only by giving me hands-on PR experience — but also by fostering a workplace with an authentic commitment to DEI, allowing me to envision myself as a team member, mentor, and leader whose perspective would be encouraged, rather than curtailed. And as value-oriented Gen Z professionals continue entering the job market, decision makers at professional services firms can and must take proactive steps to recruit and retain young talent.
1. Demonstrate an Authentic Commitment to DEI at Your Firm
Gen Z is the most diverse generation in American history. We actively tune into DEI conversations and want to work for organizations that align with our values. And we expect employers to go beyond the performative when it comes to creating a diverse, equitable, and inclusive atmosphere.
Tackling issues of diversity and inclusion is not easy, and it’s not about establishing quotas or simply boosting your numbers. Rather, it’s about creating a workplace culture where diverse talent wants to invest their professional energies. Getting started can feel intimidating, and DEI initiatives can and should be ongoing. But the good news is there are thoughtful ways to start embedding DEI into your culture that aren’t overly complicated or expensive.
At Greentarget, we started a book club that gives interns and employees an avenue to explore DEI-focused topics. Reading Minor Feelings, for example — an autobiography by Korean American author Cathy Park Hong — particularly resonated with me. Not only was I able to voice how my Asian-American identity has impacted me personally and professionally, but our whole team engaged in open discourse about the Asian-American psyche, and how we can be more culturally competent in the workplace.
If you’re looking to start a similar initiative at your firm, don’t be deterred by your level of understanding about a given identity or aspect of DEI. Initiatives like our book club are, after all, about education: providing a platform for your team to share their experiences, and actively listening for insights and opportunities to become a more socially conscious professional and person.
It’s also important to give interns a seat at the table, and for them to see employees from underrepresented backgrounds taking part in the business, including as decision makers. One way we do this is to invite interns to participate in many of the same professional learning opportunities that associates and leadership team members attend — from company-wide trainings on media relations and strategy, to brainstorms during which we discuss current events and explore new pitching angles. Of course, it’s also important for interns to see diverse employees in action, whether in client-facing roles or leading internal initiatives. Representation matters.
2. Elevate Diverse Voices Internally and Externally
It can be challenging for people of color and members of underrepresented groups to speak up and share ideas freely at work. And frankly, it can be especially intimidating to interact with powerful (often white male) senior executives.
This is as true for associates as it is for interns.
That’s why people in positions of power within your professional services firm should look for ways to open doors of opportunity and amplify diverse voices. This can be as simple as:
- Asking questions and truly listening to the answers
- Encouraging interns and young associates to share their ideas and giving them merit
- Staying curious about perspectives and lived experiences that differ from your own
- Seeking input about ways to improve your culture
- Offering one-on-one mentorship and support
It’s also important for your interns to see you promote diverse perspectives through your owned and earned media efforts. Greentarget is deliberate about representation on our own Insights page. We use it as a platform to amplify voices from across our entire organization, from our CEO to associates and interns.
The diverse employees at your firm have unique and compelling points of view that will resonate with your audience. Use your platform to make their voices heard.
3. Provide Interns Access to Meaningful Work
The best internships offer students a glimpse of what their professional futures could look like. So if you want your internship program to become a powerful recruiting tool that advances your DEI objectives, you need to give interns work they can be excited about.
From day one of my internships at Greentarget, I felt I was part of something bigger than myself. I was able to:
- Immerse myself in topics that matter to society as a whole — like tax law, healthcare/drug pricing, and labor/employment law
- Create a start-to-finish media campaign addressing corporate responses to the Black Lives Matter movement and present it to the entire company
- Interact with and learn from junior, mid-level, and senior members of the team
That’s not to say I didn’t also handle lower-level tasks as an intern. After all, I was there to learn the business from the ground up. But employers can elevate even menial tasks if you share the “why” behind each one. For example, I initially overlooked the importance of the media lists I assembled — but by educating my intern cohort on the media relations process and how our work shaped this process, my mentors at Greentarget illuminated the significance of a “simple” task like a media list.
4. Connect the Dots Between Your Firm and a Larger Societal Impact
The media and the PR industry help shape our understanding of the world around us, from business trends and political news to social issues. Consider what role the media has played in cultivating your awareness of the most pressing issues today — climate change, inflation, racial and gender inequality, presidential elections and geopolitical struggles happening halfway across the world?
When most people read a Washington Post article or watch a CNN segment, they probably don’t think about everything that occurred behind the scenes to produce those pieces. Before I entered the PR industry, I certainly didn’t. But PR professionals like us at Greentarget often play a key role in helping that work come together.
Reporters often say to me, “My reporting is only as good as my sources.” Journalists rely on trustworthy, expert authorities — lawyers, accountants, consultants, and more — to explain complex issues in straightforward language and provide credibility for the accuracy of their reporting. PR professionals may spend weeks, even months, cultivating the reporter-source relationship behind a three-sentence quote.
Over the two years since my initial internship with Greentarget, I gained an understanding of the end-to-end media relations process that has illuminated the value in even the most routine tasks. From helping a client articulate their unique perspective on a topic, sharing that perspective with reporters, coordinating and attending an in-depth interview, and eventually seeing our clients’ words from that discussion contribute to a tangible story, I see how my efforts contribute to the larger conversation.
So, how does this apply to you? To reach intern candidates who value the social impact of their work, highlight the larger results of their role. Remind them that when they do research to ensure the stories we pitch are rooted in fact, not fiction, we help fight fake news. And underscore the reality that when they secure a writing opportunity or a quote placement for a source with a diverse perspective, they’re giving that individual the opportunity to shape a broader public discourse.
As a PR firm with clients constantly grappling with big issues, part of our job is imbuing big stories with their insights — and interns play a foundational role in this process. Developing a media list of healthcare publications or researching energy tax credits might not seem all that exciting or meaningful. But that media list could be used to pitch a story on drug-pricing legislation affecting millions of Americans. That research might prepare an energy lawyer for an interview about sustainable financing that could help businesses or communities tap into programs aimed at reducing their carbon footprint.
Your interns and associates — especially those who are part of Gen Z — need to see a connection between their work and the most pressing social issues of our day. Being part of something bigger — something that’s driving progress and change — is a significant motivating force for my generation.
Create an Inclusive Culture Interns Want to Be Part Of
As an executive leader, you set the tone for your professional services firm. It’s up to you to establish diversity, equity, and inclusion as an organizational priority and empower your team to allocate the necessary time and resources to bring new initiatives to life.
Change won’t happen overnight, and making real strides will require sustained time and effort. But if you truly want to attract and retain a more diverse workforce: now’s the time to get started.