Agony Uncle: Some PR firms are still exploiting interns - how can we get them to behave more ethically?

PRWeek's Agony Uncle answers questions on unpaid agency internships, what the industry is doing - and should do - to tackle the climate crisis, and how best to prepare university students for the world of PR work.

┬ęThinkstockPhotos
┬ęThinkstockPhotos

Play fair – fair pay

Q: I recently did an internship at a consultancy where at least 20 per cent of the workforce were interns. We were paid expenses, but nothing else. I didn't like to push the point as the firm was finding money tight, having recently lost a big client, and I found the internship useful and enjoyable. But is this ethical and is it common?

A: I very much hope the answer to both questions is NO. Not paying interns is bad for the industry as it helps firms that aren't profitable to survive instead of improve. It is also not fair, as only people with financial support from their family are likely to be able to afford to take up unpaid internships.

The PRCA has run a very good campaign to stop unpaid internships, but clearly there is still work to be done. It is certainly beyond me how some bosses can claim to believe in fairness and diversity and then not pay interns. A principle isn’t a principle until it costs you something.

Fight or flights

Q: The greatest threat to the world is climate change and yet the PR industry seems to do nothing other than run in-office recycling schemes or proclaim bravely they are going to ban plastic cutlery from their kitchens. Shouldn't the industry be leading from the front on such an important issue instead of flying all over the world to unnecessary conferences and jollies like Cannes?

A: The majority of the population and probably the overwhelming majority of PRWeek readers would agree that climate change is a very real problem and action needs to be taken. The debate is about what action and by when.

We live in a global economy and realistically we are unlikely to ever see an end to air travel. What we may see are flights powered by greener fuels – fuels developed and produced with money made via a healthy economy. We may also see a reduction in less-essential flights as NGO PR campaigns apply effective social pressure. The problem is deciding what is essential. One person's 'jolly' is another's 'vital networking and new-business-generating event'. 

Working life lessons

Q: I teach PR at a UK university. Attendance and punctuality are often poor, and more and more students are asking for extra time for exams and marked assignments. I worry about how well I'm preparing them for the world of PR work. Any thoughts?

A: There was no glorious age when students were up with the lark, punctual and reliable. When I went to university, 'attendance and punctuality' weren't words often heard on campus. Indeed, one of the perks of university was – and is – a chance to have a good time before the reality of working life kicks in. What does worry me is the number of students with no Saturday or holiday job experience. It is hard to be prepared for work if you have never worked. 

I also worry about the number of students asking for more time and extensions. It is right and good that universities are now more aware of people's educational needs and mental-health issues, but it is worrying that some students see this as a way to play the system. They will find clients, bosses and the media expect work to be delivered on time and spellchecked. But the reality is Socrates was moaning about students in 400BC and employers have always complained about students not being prepared for work.

Got a problem? Contact Trevor at agonyuncle@haymarket.com

Trevor Morris is the co-author of PR Today and Richmond University's professor of PR

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