When jobs and internships were getting pulled this summer, a group of PR students and new grads took command of their careers, launching their own comms firm to get the kind of experience — and connections — they’d get from internships in more typical times.

“Empath Worldwide was born out of this worldwide era of void,” said founder and executive director Maya Malekian, who graduated with a degree in PR and journalism last spring. Now nearing two months in business, Empath (which does all its work pro bono) has enlisted 61 volunteer employees, many of whom met through the PR Council’s summer certificate program, and 14 clients in the arts, nonprofit world, startups and small Black-owned businesses among others taking them up on it.

“We are trying to put our own personal aspirations in this moment, and helping small businesses and organizations through communications,” Malekian said.

Empath is one of the more dramatic examples showing that for all the impediments to young talent’s advancement over the last six months —school closures, office shutdowns, and educational programs upended — 2020 has not been lost on the crop of up-and-comers on the brink of their PR careers.

After a pretty bleak start to pandemic life — which saw potentially cash-strapped firms nixing internships and the like — agencies and aspirants alike have, to a large degree, figured out how to maintain their symbiotic relationship, engaging in which has long been a precursor to new grads getting jobs in their industry of choice.

As PR Council head Kim Sample explains: “Summer internships didn’t happen for two reasons: leaders were concerned about the client work and revenue to support interns and the viability and value of remote internships. As our leaders have gotten more comfortable with their client activity and a remote workforce, some are hiring ‘winterns’ — sometimes just for the fall semester and sometimes for the fall and spring semesters.  I’m definitely seeing a focus on hiring BIPOC talent for these roles where possible.”

Industry execs are also dedicating time to having informal chats with young people, holding one-to-one meetings on Zoom, inviting them to connect on LinkedIn and creating video series offering students advice. “Agency leaders say they are committed to helping out young talent in these terrible times. And we all know we are going to need them sooner versus later,” she said.

“We are connecting with students in very much the same way we always do, just virtually,” said BCW’s North America president Chris Foster. “Our people team would normally visit colleges and host informational sessions for students, have coffee chats or participate in career fairs. These things are all being done remotely.”

The efforts are paying off for individuals on both sides of the equation.

Take, for instance, Rebecca Ann Owen, a Boston University senior who interned at Takeda Pharmaceuticals last summer and is now interning with Metter Media. “After the shutdown, I knew my initial summer plans were not to be, but I was so impressed with the adaptability of both companies,” she said. “The experience I got was way more than I expected at the beginning of the shutdown. Everyone has been so welcoming, understanding, and willing to help by having informational interviews or reviewing my resume. In my opinion, the PR industry really stepped up for young professionals during the Covid-19 pandemic.”

There have been upsides on the agency side, too. BCW, Zeno, and Ruder Finn are also the beneficiaries of keeping internships up and running, having newly hired employees who came up through the programs.

And the internship season isn’t over. Rather, the industry is trying to keep the momentum going into the fall, and possibly longer, despite little chance that we’ll all be heading back into the office anytime soon.

DeVries Global is in the process of recruiting participants for the fall session of its Decoding PR Externship, which it launched this summer to fill the void created by the cancellation of other educational programs. The firm plans to turn the externship, which is exclusively for students and new graduates from diverse communities, into an ongoing seasonal opportunity.

For the second year, MWWPR with American University will be running a student training program that includes students crafting responses to creative briefs from the firm’s clients. In October, the firm will launch a more traditional remote fall internship that will see recent graduates working on accounts across all practice areas.

All of which builds on the agencies successfully pulling off virtual internships this summer — and students still chomping at the bit to get in on them.

BCW enrolled 16 students in its longtime summer internship program who joined practice groups, working as part of the larger team, and had individual video conferencing with regional leaders, including Foster. Two of the students came through the Lagrant Foundation as part of the firm’s push to boost diversity, as they have since 2015.  “The only difference in our program is that it all took place remotely,” Foster said.

FleishmanHillard offices around the globe have, and continue to offer, paid internships, as well as Alfred Fleishman Diversity Fellowships, which provide diverse candidates paid training and mentoring for up to a year.  In St. Louis, FleishmanHillard’s hometown, the agency held interactive sessions with low-income middle school girls to boost their presentation skills, while the London office’s efforts included internships and mentoring for low-income secondary school kids.

Weber Shandwick had nearly 100 students and recent grads from around the world participate in its six-week Media Genius Master Class program, a virtual deep dive into themes surrounding modern media and communications such as disinformation, the role of culture in PR and marketing, new influencers driving social change, and how brands are navigating major industry shifts. Author Douglas Rushkoff, First Draft News executive director Claire Wardle, and Aspen Digital executive director Vivian Schiller were among the guest speakers.

Retooling its program for a virtual workforce, Zeno hired interns across the US who worked with local account teams while providing virtual access to leaders, including CEO Barby Siegel.  The firm made “a concerted effort  to increase personal touchpoints between interns, their managers and teammates to foster stronger relationships and provide a sense of belonging despite never setting foot inside a Zeno office,” said chief talent officer Carol Gronlund.

“Our guiding philosophy with interns has always been to provide valuable and relevant work experience. Despite the challenges of a virtual environment, some interns will return to school with new focus, having drawn a connection between their academics and the working world,” Gronlund said.

In addition to supporting student internships, W2O held virtual training for new employees. Nine newly hired analysts participated in a four-week digital program focused on instruction, workshops and hands-on activities meant to prepare them for being part of an integrated team.

“In many ways the virtual environment has helped new employees feel closer and more connected at W20,” said head of people and performance Marlena Edwards. “ From social tools that create bonds and make relationships easier, to weekly town halls with our CEO, we’ve become even more intentional in our approach. We offer virtual coaching for all new employees on day one, another way we ensure a strong onboarding experience.”

Agencies overcame logistical challenges, Ruder Finn, for example, kicked off its 12-week executive training program by delivering students the technology necessary for video conferencing and studying pitching, data analytics and media strategy remotely.

Participating in that program led to a job for Vanderbilt University graduate Corina Phillips, whom Ruder Finn hired full-time earlier this month.

“I never anticipated starting my first job working from my parents’ house, but it turned out to be an incredible experience. I believe that such an important aspect of a first job is learning from the people around you and observing how they work, and Ruder Finn did such an amazing job of providing that experience virtually,” Phillips said.

“I don’t believe the experience of physically sitting in the same room with someone can ever be entirely replicated, so I do think participating in this program virtually had an impact in that I didn’t get to see everyone’s personalities as much as I would have in person. That being said, I do not believe working virtually had a negative impact on my learning whatsoever.”