Internships: Opportunity or exploitation?

Internships are becoming an essential first step on the PR career ladder, but horror stories suggest not all employers are treating their interns fairly. Cathy Wallace examines the evidence and the law.

For many graduates eager to embark on a career in PR, an internship is the perfect first step.

Take Richard Rowe, who is coming to the end of a year-long placement at Oxford Brookes University, half of which has been spent with the PR and comms team.

'My main responsibilities include writing and selling in press releases to national and local media and writing news stories for the university's homepage, staff newsletter, university magazine and campus television screens,' he says. 'I have also been asked to write introductory speeches for guest lecturers and was involved in devising questions for a social media survey targeted at students.'

With this kind of training and experience under his belt, Rowe will be an extremely attractive proposition for a PR agency or in-house team, and his annual salary of around £12,000, while not massive, has helped him pay the bills.

Unfortunately there is a compelling amount of anecdotal evidence out there that suggests for every satisfactory, well-structured and salaried internship like Rowe's, there is a graduate working unpaid for months on end, with the promise of a paid position dangled in front of them to justify the lack of salary.

PRWeek has been contacted by numerous young people currently working unpaid within the industry. Some have gone on to find paid work but others, such as one 22-year-old London-based graduate (see above), have completed months of unpaid labour without so much as a sniff of a permanent, salaried position.

Horror stories

Lauren O'Connor, 23, a press officer for Totally UK, can identify. Before landing her current role, she interned with an international PR agency, joining with the promise that three months' unpaid work would lead to a permanent position.

'After three months I was told my writing wasn't good enough so I should work another month, then would be given a paid job. A month went by, and I was then told the agency was waiting on new clients before taking me on. The agency then took on another intern and I thought this very suspicious so began looking for alternative work,' she says. O'Connor found another internship that came with lunch and expenses paid, and has now secured a full-time, salaried position.

Most PR agency heads and in-house comms directors would agree that in theory, an intern should be paid for their labour if they are genuinely contributing to the business, or have a real chance of landing a job after a limited period of unpaid work.

However, the proliferation of unpaid work going on within the industry suggests not all practise what they preach. But despite the number of interns coming forward to speak to PRWeek about their unpaid work experiences, not one agency head or comms boss was willing to justify long-term unpaid internships to PRWeek.

Legal status

Legally the situation surrounding whether interns should be paid is unclear. A report released by think-tank ippr in August argued not paying interns was almost certainly breaking the law. The report, Why Interns Need a Fair Wage, argues that under the National Minimum Wage Act 1998, all interns are entitled to be paid minimum wage, but that employers mistakenly think as long as both parties are aware no payment will be made, the position could be classed as 'voluntary'. The ippr argues that interns are usually expected to perform functions that paid staff members fulfil, and are therefore not 'volunteers'. But Jonathan Mansfield, a partner at employment lawyers Thomas Mansfield, says the position is unclear legally. 'It depends on the particular arrangements,' he says.

Getting away with it

One key issue is that as long as young people are willing to work for free, there is no incentive for agencies or in-house teams to pay them.

The competition for an entry-level position is exceptionally fierce and it appears many graduates seeking a job in PR have the means to work unpaid, be that through savings or parental support, and will happily work for free to get a foot in the door.

This means, as the ippr points out, that those who cannot afford to work for nothing are at an immediate disadvantage. As one London-based intern, who asked to remain anonymous, says: 'There are unpaid internships out there because agencies can get away with it. If I had asked for money with the placement I am currently doing, I am guessing that I would not have been picked. There are people interested in the same role who would have done it for free.' Longer-term, it follows that the PR industry may become irrevocably closed off to those who are not from wealthy backgrounds, with the financial support to work for free.

Setting an example

It is not all bad news. Many PR agencies, including some very high-profile ones, are leading by example. 10 Yetis pays all interns, and Chime Communications has a series of policies in place ranging from two-week placements where expenses are paid, to longer, paid internships.

Adrian Brady, CEO of Eulogy, has just offered a permanent position to recent intern Ollie Pink (see above). While Pink's original internship was not salaried, the company paid his expenses and Brady says: 'We try to take on people with potential and now have three people at the agency who interned with us and are now employed full time.'

He adds Eulogy would not allow an intern to work unpaid for a long period of time, and offers training and support in return for their efforts.

'Internships are an integral part of the PR industry,' says Francis Ingham, director general of the PRCA. 'They provide a crucial stepping stone, and an ability to see and test the reality of PR life.'

He points out that a reduced intake of graduates by PR agencies in the past two years has led to an inevitable supply and demand issue but says: 'This does not mean we need to endorse the "cannon fodder" attitude.' Ingham hopes to work closer with universities in the future to help bridge the gap between university and employment.

The CIPR's best practice charter states that all work placements must be subject to national minimum wage, unless they are part of a university course or a volunteer role.

However, the document notes: 'There is anecdotal evidence that PR internships are frequently unpaid. PR remains a popular and therefore highly competitive career for graduates, but that does not mean that employers should take advantage of this to exploit interns.'

INTERNSHIPS: THE BAD

Recent graduate John Franklin is happy with his lot, having recently landed a job as junior account executive at Peretti Communications, a London-based lifestyle agency.

But before joining Peretti he spent six months working unpaid at a different PR firm and describes his role at the beginning as 'the stereotypical office dogsbody, making coffee, photocopying, answering phones'. During the six months he was able to become more involved in projects, pitches and campaigns, but says: 'The structure and teaching was not comprehensive from more senior employees so frequently I was left to my own devices. Without openly stating the fact, it was made clear throughout that a job was not a likely prospect. There was work that needed to be done, but the company was not willing to pay for it.'

Franklin then joined Peretti as an intern before interviewing for a permanent position. 'I think I found somewhere that I fit. The clients are right, the people are right and the company feels right for me,' he says.

Franklin is one of the lucky ones.One 22-year-old graduate based in London already has 21 weeks of internships at some well-known PR agencies behind her. None of these were paid positions, although some did pay 'some expenses and travel'. She is no closer to finding a job. 'I have applied for more than 100 jobs and am desperate for paid work,' she says. 'I was asked to stay at one agency for a little pay, but it was not right for me.' And she says she is not alone: 'There is so much demand right now. I have sent so many applications for account executive positions where the agency says "your CV is great, come in and intern with us". But I could be there for months unpaid.'

Anecdotally, the world of fashion PR seems to be one of the more cutthroat, as many interns contacting PRWeek were working or had worked for fashion brands or agencies.

'My first internship was for a fashion brand where I was the only one generating leads,' one intern says. 'I was told there would be a job after a month, but that was a lie. I also ended up working at the designer's shop during my lunch break.'

INTERNSHIPS: THE GOOD

International fashion marketing graduate Harpreet Chohan is currently on a three-month internship in corporate PR at Harrods. This most recent role adds to internships with brands many graduates would kill to have on their CVs - Dolce and Gabbana, Reebok and BHS.

None of Chohan's positions to date have been paid, other than expenses and travel, but she is resolute that money could not buy what she has gained: 'I have definitely benefited; the experience that I have gained with all of these companies has given me an insight into the industry and helped me find the right path for my career.'

Chohan, 23, graduated from the University of Manchester with a first-class degree in July this year. She admits she would like to find paid work, but also says, having worked since she graduated, that a break would not be unwelcome: 'I am quite eager to get a job, but I accept that it will happen when it happens.' She does not have to fund her unpaid work with a weekend or evening job, saying: 'I am fortunate to have really good support from my parents.'

Ollie Pink, 22, also has nothing but good things to say about his experience of internships. Before graduating from his law degree, he saved up his money so he would have enough to fund six months of unpaid work in the PR industry. 'Although I was studying law, it wasn't for me and I had heard about PR from friends who were studying it,' he says. Pink researched agencies and decided to target Eulogy for a placement. 'I was looking for a medium-sized agency with a mix of consumer and b2b clients, and Eulogy fitted the bill,' he says. 'I also saw that it had been named a PRWeek best agency to work for, so I sent a few emails - probably a few too many - until I heard back.'

Pink began his unpaid internship in May and by late July had been offered a full-time paid position on the agency's graduate trainee scheme. He is aware of his good fortune: 'I have friends who are still interning and it is not easy to find a job, especially this year. I think it's a case of being quite cheeky, emailing people at agencies you really want to work for, then when you get there, really showing off.'

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