Fresh graduates looking for a start in PR are coming up against a maddening contradiction - employers expect them to have industry experience, but getting that experience can be nearly as difficult as getting their first real job. There's a significant, and growing, shortage of PR employers willing to take on interns, and among those who do offer work placements, there's wild variation in the type of work and the quality of the experience that's available.
'PR is regarded as an exciting career choice, and with so many graduates from non-PR courses competing for jobs, if graduates don't have the work experience, they'll find it a lot harder to get a foot in the door,' says University of Central Lancashire senior lecturer and PR course leader Julia Jahansoozi.
Students on PR degree courses backed by the IPR are the lucky ones; their lecturers help line up placements, and have contracts with employers to ensure that both parties benefit from the experience.
Striking a training balance
But when placements go wrong - when an intern is shown little more than how to photocopy and make coffee - students feel cheated, and the PR industry risks disillusioning those who could have gone on to become its brightest stars. 'It's very important that you can give them proper training, whether they're here for two weeks or six months,' says McCann Erickson PR managing director Claire Oliver. She usually takes on two or three interns a year for a few months each, mainly from Leeds and Bournemouth universities.
Candidates are chosen after a thorough selection process, including an interview.
'We're really quite prescriptive about what a placement is going to do during that time, whether it's two weeks or three months,' says Oliver.
A 'buddy' or mentor is assigned to the intern and they are expected to attend photo calls and staff and sometimes client meetings. Interns do hands-on PR work about 75 per cent of the time and admin tasks for the rest.
At pharma firm AstraZeneca, head of UK comms Sally Sykes says that although preparing for and supervising interns is time-consuming, it pays off: 'We see it as not just an extra pair of hands but an investment in their development and we get something back.'
Sykes' department hosts two interns a year for the entire year, plus others who ask for a few weeks' work experience in their holidays. 'They're given their own projects, but are very closely monitored.' Interns join in staff meetings and team-building exercises, and are encouraged to generate ideas for new projects.
The importance of having on-the-job experience before getting that first PR job is illustrated in the PRCA best-practice guide to hiring graduates.
It says a student's work experience - or lack of it - should be a factor in deciding whether to give an interview.
Rachel McDonald, PR executive at TIGI, the products sold by Toni & Guy hairdressers, credits her three short internships with helping her get a start in PR. McDonald, 22, says it took her eight months to get the job despite a degree in PR and Management.
Not everyone is so lucky. English graduate Richard Bold, 23, ended up broke and rethinking a career in PR after he answered an online ad for a three-month work experience placement at a London PR firm. One of seven interns in the office, he was assigned to a staff member who was to be his guide and quickly given responsibility for selling in stories to publications.
'It was well-organised and there were interesting clients,' he says. 'We did all the admin, a lot of the calling and compiling information and trying to sell in.'
But Bold, who slept on friends' sofas throughout the placement, says he believes that the agency was simply short of staff. It paid some but not all tube fares and while the chance of a paid job at the end of the placement was clearly implied, the only paid work on offer - and only to two of the interns - was £100 a week to compile cuttings books. The experience has put him off aggressively pursuing a PR career: 'The whole experience certainly hasn't promoted the PR industry to me.'
The question of payment is a contentious one, and there's huge disparity between what different interns receive. National Council for Work Experience director Liz Rhodes says payment should be at least the minimum wage, even for short-term placements. This is £3.80 per hour for 18 to 21-year-olds and £4.50 an hour for people aged 22 and over.
Jahansoozi's students commonly get between £8,000 and £12,000 a year in the North West and £13,000 to £17,000 in London. At McCann Erickson, interns on placements for a couple of weeks have their travel costs covered; those in for several months get a small salary on top. Sykes pays her interns between £14,000 and £16,000 a year.
But the expectation of payment - not just the minimum wage - is putting some PR departments off having interns at all. Westminster City Council head of comms Alex Aiken says he frequently has PR students from US colleges on board, for four-day weeks over three or four months. They usually write for the borough magazine or staff newspaper, are given some media or event work to complete under supervision and carry out general office tasks.
'But among the British there's less understanding that a work placement is an opportunity to build your skills and can be used in future job interviews,' he says. 'Their pay expectations tend to be unrealistic - one asked for the annual equivalent of £20,000.'
The question of a fair day's pay for a fair day's work experience is one of those being scrutinised by the IPR, which is working on a Work Placement Charter for the industry. The charter, recommended in last year's DTI-sponsored study Unlocking the Potential of Public Relations, will also include the duties appropriate for interns to perform, the importance of having an assigned mentor and what an induction programme should be like. IPR head of education and training Alan Rawel says this should create more consistency between the type of work experience that students on the same course are able to get.
Employers continue to say that students graduate from university with little understanding of the world of work. But if employers want to recruit graduates with the skills they say they do, then they have to provide the opportunities.
Sarah Atta, 22, answered an ad at her university's mini job centre for a 48-week placement at Tameside Metropolitan Borough council last year. She had already completed two weeks of shadowing a press officer at Preston Council and had decided that she would like her internship to be within a council.
The Tameside placement was the first one she applied for. Atta was paid £10,000 for the year and was kept on for an extra two months. Now that she is back at university, she does freelance work for the borough.
'When I first got there, I was doing administration tasks and writing copy for the internal magazine and the external newsletter for the first couple of months,' she says. 'But as I became more confident I was given different portfolio areas to look after and I was able to choose what I would write up as news stories or press releases.'
An additional element to Atta's role was to watch for potential news stories and announcements about sport, libraries, youth services and the arts.
'I was given a lot of responsibility and once I got into it I was allowed to do my job how I wanted to,' she says. 'It was very challenging because I was also handling media inquiries and putting together the council's A to Z, plus doing all the proofing and liaising with the printers.
'I did everything I was expecting to do and more, really. I knew I was going to be writing copy, but I was amazed at the frequency, and for the time I was there I really was a press officer.'
Atta says the balance between supervision and responsibility was ideal; she had monthly meetings with her assigned mentor at the council and the head of communications to discuss how it was all going. And everyone she worked with was willing to help her and answer her questions.
Furthermore, the council helped her create a portfolio of work to demonstrate the jobs she had done during her placement. Atta hopes to graduate in May with a degree in PR from the University of Central Lancashire.
'It made me realise that it's exactly what I want to do, and I definitely think it'll help me get a job. Not just in a council but anywhere I go,' she adds.
Tracey Young, 23, was looking for a full-time job when she was invited to an interview for a three-month placement with consultancy Colette Hill Associates (CHA).
She graduated from Leeds University in 2002, had completed three months' work experience in a Midlands agency and was registered with recruitment agency Graduate Appointments for work.
'I thought three months' experience would be enough to get on to the first rung of the ladder. But while I was getting interviews, I wasn't getting the jobs. I'd been advised to do a London placement and was considering my options when the recruitment agency contacted me and asked if I would be interested in applying for a CHA internship,' she says.
Young's placement included payment of £150 a week.
'In my first week I was writing press releases and dealing with journalists. I wasn't thrown in at the deep end and the staff were very supportive. I was given the opportunity to meet clients, attend brainstorms and new business pitches and generally be fully involved in the process. There was always someone I could ask if I had any questions, but they put a lot of trust in me so it was a very nice balance. As a result, it really improved my confidence,' she says.
Three weeks into the placement, CHA offered Young a permanent position as an account executive, which she accepted.
Young got her first internship by approaching the agency directly. 'I think this is probably the best way as it's important to keep in mind that recruitment agencies don't charge the individual for finding them a position, but they will charge the employer,' she says. 'As a result, a lot of employers won't contact recruitment consultancies for this purpose. However, those interested in doing work experience shouldn't rule out the possibility that recruitment agencies will have insider knowledge on these positions.'