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Never Underestimate the Intern: Why PR Needs Reverse Mentoring
By: Kimberly Shrack
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If you have a question about high-level strategy and crisis management, you go to a VP. If you have a question about Twitter, Foursquare, or Facebook, you ask the intern.
This idea of the less-experienced teaching the seasoned vets a thing or two about the Interweb isn’t a new concept. In fact, it even has a name: reverse mentoring. Coined by General Electric CEO Jack Welch, this term refers to a structured workplace relationship in which senior staff are paired with younger, less-experienced workers. These industry newbies are typically more tech-savvy than their more-experienced counterparts, and can provide their colleagues with a crash course on the Web’s latest applications and tools that rivals any lunch and learn. And while this relationship has long been known and appreciated in other industries, it has just recently been studied in public relations — and we are a little behind the times.

A study recently published in the Public Relations Journal examined the role of reverse mentoring in public relations — but, more specifically, its perceived role. Of the survey respondents, a whopping 74% said their organizations do not practice reverse mentoring. Really? Really. If this is an accurate reflection of the industry and only 26% of organizations are looking to their younger employees to learn about the social media space and other facets of technology, then we really need to do some soul-searching.
Let’s think about this. The current college freshman was born in 1993. Nope, that’s not a typo. Bill Clinton was President when they were born. Whitney Houston was at the top of her game. But most importantly, a little thing called the Internet was beginning to really hit its stride — meaning that these college freshmen, our current interns and future co-workers, have never lived in a world without the Internet. Skills that senior management didn’t begin to develop until their late twenties, our interns have been doing since they were old enough to grip a mouse. And in a profession where communication is the name of the game, shouldn’t we be taking a few lessons from the generation born into it?
I think so, and I’m not the only one. Even though a majority of the respondents claimed to not be engaged in reverse mentoring, most could also identify the benefits of such a relationship, including improvement in social media skills and vocabulary (before asking an intern, I thought smh* was an onomatopoeia for a sound you made when you were frustrated), and involvement with a knowledgeable and enthusiastic mentor.
So if we know what it is and we know what it can do, what’s the hold up? In all honesty, it’s probably already happening. But instead of a formalized program, this relationship may be manifesting itself in one-off conversations by the Keurig (the modern-day watercooler equivalent). Could establishing more structured, consistent programs bolster the benefits of reverse mentoring in the PR space? Or are these informal, unnamed relationships more effective? That remains to be seen. But one thing’s for sure: in a world where babies play with iPads instead of rattles, our need to learn from PR’s incoming generations isn’t going anywhere.
* For those as unhip as me, it means “shaking my head.” Duh.

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About the Author
Kimberly Shrack is a PR pro based in Philadelphia, specializing in writing and content development. She has worked in communication for a variety of industries including technology, travel, art, and healthcare. Follow her on Twitter at @kjshrack.
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