PR internships: a question of value

Through recent conversations and LinkedIn/web browsing, I've noticed a couple of instances of unpaid internships in and across the communications industry, which I think warrants some friendly discussion and debate.

I know that internships, paid or unpaid, are an investment in the future.

I was fortunate to be able to do a number of unpaid internships and volunteer roles when I was studying, and the skills and connections I cultivated have been invaluable. At the time, I thought to myself: "If you've got skills on your CV, no one's interested in how much you were paid to gain them."

However, I was lucky to be in a position where I could take on unpaid work - because not everyone is.

I know that AUT's School of Communication Studies takes a positive stance on internships, encouraging all agencies that seek out student interns to pay them at least minimum wage. That's a step in the right direction. We've taken on several AUT interns in the past three years, and have paid them above minimum wage because we value their time, effort and skills.

We're currently working with a client to engage a few students to work at a major symposium being held later this year, to support social media and interview activity. You can bet your bottom dollar that those students will be compensated financially for their time, plus references and connections.

And it's not all about the students building up their skill set; there's a degree of self-interest to the equation because I know that people work harder when they feel like their contribution is valued, which means a better outcome for me as an account manager and for my clients too. Win-win-win.

If you are getting an intern to perform work that you would otherwise be paying someone to do, what reason is there to expect that intern to work for free? To my mind, it's about value.

If you don't value your time, why would anyone else?

The question of paid vs unpaid internships is not without its complexities. Some students will be happy to take on unpaid work if it means getting a foot in the door and that all-important reference. Others know the value of the experience but simply can't afford to perform unpaid work when there's rent to pay and student loans to service.

Typically speaking, more well-off students end up with better industry experience through unpaid internships, while those from less well-off backgrounds are left with little experience and fewer connections: guess who's going to get the job if those two groups come up against each other in an interview setting?

There's a growing movement within other creative industries to stamp out unpaid work too: the design sector for example, is rallying behind the call for 'No Spec'work and I think the PR sector could learn a thing or two from that concept.

The health and reputation of the PR industry

There's been an ongoing debate bubbling under the surface of the PR industry for a few years now, about how to elevate the value of the profession in front of clients and the wider community. I spent a full year research and writing about the perception and reputation of PR for my Master's degree, so I know that it's not a challenge that can be addressed overnight.

However, I would ask what kind of message are we sending to communications students and young graduates if they aren't being paid for their work early on in their career? Are they going to go on to champion the value of their profession to clients, and push for a role at the decision-making table, if in their formative career period they worked long hours for no monetary recognition?

I can of course appreciate that some organisations simply can't afford to pay interns - and that's fair enough. Commercial realities are just that, reality. However, if a role can't be fairly remunerated, then there's even more of a need for the role to be well-structured, with a clear (and ideally short) timeframe, and shared understanding between intern and employer about what training, skills and outcomes the intern can expect at the end of the arrangement.

If a role isn't being remunerated, it is deemed to be a training position or vocational placement for the intern, which requires someone from the agency or business to take time out to help the intern build skills and so on. The minute the intern takes on duties that the businesses can 'turn a dollar' from, they've stepped into employment relationship territory and that should be reflected in the arrangement.

So, I'd ask agencies offering unpaid internships whether they are still charging their clients for the work the interns do, because that's the critical difference. Many of the interns I've come across work extremely hard on assignments, and will soak up every possible opportunity to learn something new, help out a colleague and contribute fresh ideas.

The value of the PR industry

You wouldn't expect a lawyer, surgeon or architect to give away their time and expertise away for free, unless it was in a pro bono situation, would you? Of course not, because it would devalue their professions.

Imagine then, what the PR and communications industry could do if we valued the time and contribution of our youngest professionals, and instilled in them the importance of valuing the same things in themselves.

Let's not devalue the work of those who will lead the PR sector in the not-so-distant future.

Let's embrace the value students and young professionals can offer and send a clear signal about the value of PR to the audiences we serve.