With the PR industry still overwhelmingly white and middle class, PRWeek and the PRCA have teamed up to launch a campaign to bring more young people from a broader range of backgrounds into the profession.
The scheme, branded PR Internships For All, calls on the UK’s top 25 agencies to take on interns from universities outside the Russell Group and to pay them at least the National Minimum Wage.
The campaign aims to establish the big agencies as industry champions of ethical internships and create a model of best practice for recruiting and training young people.
It is supported by equal opportunities charity Taylor Bennett Foundation and Intern Aware, which campaigns for fair, paid internships.
Speaking at the central London offices of GolinHarris at the campaign's launch earlier this month, PRCA director-general Francis Ingham said a survey conducted with Intern Aware found that 70 per cent of internships in public relations and communications are unpaid. In addition, PR agencies rarely hold internship programmes with universities outside the Russell Group.
"We are launching the Internships Challenge because we have seen no improvement in the diversity of the industry. One of the main culprits is internships, which recruit from a narrow band of universities that often depend on nepotism and which don’t pay. We must change for the better," he said. "A PR industry that fails to reflect the nation with which it is attempting to communicate faces extinction. We need to do something now to protect our future. "
Ruth Wyatt, brand editor of PRWeek, described the lack of diversity in PR as "an embarrassing stain on our industry’s reputation". "Part of this is about recruiting interns from a broader range of institutions. But that is not enough on its own. We have to end the disgraceful practice of unpaid internships that effectively bars anyone who doesn’t have wealthy parents to support them from entering the business."
Chris Hares, campaigns manager at Intern Aware, said it costs a minimum of £1,000 a month to live in London, where most of the internships are. "By not paying interns, you are saying that the qualification for working in PR is the ability to work for free," he argued.
The PR Internships For All initiative comes after 106 agencies and in-house teams promised to pay interns the National Minimum Wage following the interns campaign by the PRCA and PRWeek that started in 2011.
It follows mounting evidence that the industry’s recruitment processes create an institutional bias based on class and ethnicity. The 2013 PRWeek/PRCA Census revealed that 91 per cent of people in PR are white, compared with the 2011 Census when white people accounted for 92 per cent of the business.
Research by the CIPR showed that half of public relations interns still fail to receive at least the National Minimum Wage and that only 24 per cent classified themselves as from lower middle-class or working-class backgrounds.
The survey of 380 CIPR students, also showed that 24 per cent of interns were non-white, far higher than the 16 per cent share of non-white people in the UK as a whole.
However, when it comes to full-time employees, the CIPR findings were identical to the PRCA at just nine per cent for non-white. The inference must be that there are unseen obstacles preventing them from getting jobs in PR. CIPR president Stephen Waddington said: "The lack of fair pay for interns has wide-ranging repercussions. It reinforces a growing concern that employers who refuse to pay interns could be depriving the profession of the most promising talent. Not only is this morally questionable for an industry striving towards professionalism, but free labour has no place in any sustainable business model."
The new scheme was warmly welcomed by prospective intern Kerie Braithwaite, a 23-year-old mixed-race journalism graduate from Sydenham in south-east London. Her father works for a building company and her mother is disabled.
"I wrote nearly 200 applications for internships and received ten offers. All of them were to work for free. But I just cannot afford to do them. I didn’t mind at first, but now I see it for what it is. For people in my family the current intern system doesn’t work. It’s just not fair because even though we work hard and have the talent, we are excluded and that feels very wrong. This scheme will at least start to change that and give people like me a chance."
The agencies and interns will be eligible to be entered into the PRWeek/PRCA Internships Awards, which are taking place in summer 2015.
Agencies have been tasked with hiring a set number of interns within the next 12 months. Agencies with fewer than 100 employees will have to take on a minimum of three interns; a minimum of five for those with between 100 and 200 employees; and ten or more for agencies of more than 200 people.