Are unpaid agency internships still a viable option in 2017?

Rubenstein Public Relations' Gerry Casanova and Hotwire's Barbara Bates face off over whether interns should be paid.

Gerry Casanova (L) and Barbara Bates
Gerry Casanova (L) and Barbara Bates

Gerry Casanova
SVP and director of client services, Rubenstein Public Relations

Internships are an integral part of the college experience, offering students a rich supplement to their classroom learning and invaluable exposure to the working world. 

Lucky for students interested in a public relations career, internship opportunities abound at PR agencies and in-house departments across the country. Though many of these internships are unpaid, the practical on-the-job experience they provide is unquestionably worthwhile.

Many college public relations programs award course credit for time spent working in a professional setting. Our firm hosts upwards of 20 interns each year, and while none receive a paycheck, what they do get is truly immersive training in a variety of agency functions, from compiling media lists and client reports, to researching topics and vendors, tracking news, writing press releases, and coordinating events. Importantly, skills such as these really stand out on a resume – hence students with internship experience have a competitive edge as they enter the job market. 

For some, an internship provides an eye-opening window on work-life inside a busy office. What better place to learn how to work with a boss and a diverse group of people, while also learning how to multi-task, meet deadlines, dress appropriately, and commute to a job? Priceless!

Another benefit to interning, whether paid and unpaid, is that it offers students a chance to test-drive a job or two and gauge what type of work suits them best. After all, working in a staid corporate setting can be vastly different from the creative, frenzied agency world. 

Campus career counselors strongly advise students to start building their professional network well before graduation day, and internships are a great way to do just that. Unpaid interns who demonstrate commitment and talent stand to receive quite a good return on their investment. Some host companies actually recruit from their intern pool, while others happily provide letters of recommendation and referrals to potential employers.

An unpaid internship is not a compromise. It is a precious opportunity to learn, grow, and prepare for a great career.

Barbara Bates, CEO, Hotwire North America
The founder and former CEO of Eastwick Communications

The fact that we’re still having a debate about whether we should or shouldn’t pay interns in 2017 should be what is really concerning here. From the very beginning of Hotwire, and at Eastwick, we have always paid our interns. Why? Because it’s not only the right thing to do but because of the many positive benefits that come from this.

Incentivize performance: Research from the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that paid internships are more likely to lead to a job offer and a higher salary than internships that didn’t pay. Our experience at Hotwire shows that paying interns makes them feel like a valued member of the team. We believe that’s why so many of our interns stay on at Hotwire, and even go onto win awards for their work – Kate O’Donnell in our U.K. office was awarded Best Intern by PRWeek last year, so we’re clearly doing something right!

Improve diversity: With the high cost of living in the busiest PR cities like New York, San Francisco, London, and more, if interns aren’t getting paid, then how are young people going to afford to get into the industry? By not paying its interns, PR companies put themselves in a spiral of self-selection of candidates from well-off families whose parents can afford to support them. Ensuring that candidates from all socioeconomic backgrounds feel that they can afford to enter the industry is important if we’re going to address the big diversity issues in our industry. Paying interns a decent wage is a huge part of that to start the change from the ground up.

Company reputation: Given the industry’s already ropey reputation for the switch-and-bait where actual work is done by the least junior team members, clients would be even more concerned about this if they thought that the work was being done by people who weren’t even paid to do it! Companies like Hotwire are working hard to restore the industry’s reputation – showing that we care about delivering quality communications programs for our clients that deliver real business results – and treating everyone across our business with respect is crucial to that.

So all I’d say in summary is that if a company isn’t paying its interns, start now

PRWeek’s View: The cost of living in the cities where most internships are available is simply too high for most aspiring young PR professionals to afford to live there without pay. Agencies should pay their interns, or at least provide them with significant reimbursement.

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