Public Relations “Unpaid Internships”

An unpaid internship, what is it? What does it serve to achieve? Ostensibly one would assume it is to help people with no experience gain experience. As it is practiced here in Ireland in our constantly evolving and developing PR industry I think what an internship actually is is a chance to exploit cheap labour and exploit the naïveté and hunger of young graduates.

Recently, having finished the taught part of my post graduate course I am now in that limbo between the taught section and the thesis submission deadline of my Masters. I was “lucky” enough to secure an “internship”. I was asked to do it for three months with the possibility of a job at the end of it. The remuneration would not even cover the cost of the LUAS back and forth from the job. I would learn “invaluable skills” and get “hands on” experience. This was not the crux of the internship offer though. I was assured that this three month trial period was not just to see if  I was suited to the organisation but more importantly if the organisation was suited to me. What type of industry are we in that a company will offer someone the opportunity to work pro gratis to see if the organisation is suited to the individual. Can you imagine if McDonalds applied this formula? “Well done! You are now a member of the McDonalds team but first we would like you to work for free for three months just to make sure that the organisation is suited to you?”

How has this situation come to pass? The recession has opened the door for employers to rape and pillage young graduates worse than the Vikings did!  All year we have had people of power from the industry come talk to us and telling us how we would have to cut our teeth by working for free. I always wanted to ask the question, “How long did you work for free yourself?” I never asked the question because I knew the answer. “Never”. Those in the positions of power assume that we, the Celtic Cubs, don’t know what real work is. We have lived the good life through the boom and, “sure a bit of hard work will do them good!” The fact of the matter remains that during the last recession no one was working for free. Those not getting paid were gone.

Those of a different viewpoint and ilk to me will point to a few carefully chosen examples of how they did this here, worked for peanuts there et cetera et cetera. What remains is that at no time have so many been asked to work for so little. Many of those in my Masters class are working for free. The consensus is the same. In an industry so concerned and reliant on image, one buzzword has emerged in recent times, that buzzword? Ethics.

Where does ethics fit in when certain people I know are being asked to work for up to six months with the false hope of a job at the end of it. We’d rather not listen to the condescending self righteous Obama-ism that there is nothing false about hope. Obama can get away with it, but a self important PR exec eschewing this does not work. You would think working for free would lead to a well paid position. In fact it does lead to a well paid position, that is if you think €20,000 a year is well paid for 50 hour weeks. Who do those offering these “internships” think will pay the rent? Sadly, they know who. Mommy and Daddy. Is it ethical to expect the Bank of Mommy and Daddy to support our “internship” after having paid for four five maybe six years of higher education. How ethical is that?

Those in industry often whine and lecture about how PR is not taken seriously, but how can they expect others to tale our industry seriously when we don’t take our own industry seriously. At this stage the practice is forcing candidates to seek employment in other areas and losing candidates of calibre to other industries and emigration. This will have a knock on effect for the future that will not be reliant on quality but a future reliant on exploitation for PR here in Ireland. Out of a combination of principle and necessity I have turned down the internships I was offered and continue to be offered. I am not alone in this case. Many I know are returning to summer jobs, returning to live with their families and even returning to their homelands across Europe. If the old adage states, “pay peanuts, get monkeys” is true what do you get if you don’t even pay?

We are free to work we should not work for free.

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6 thoughts on “Public Relations “Unpaid Internships”

  1. Agreed! Very well written piece. I am among many in this position at the same time working in another job and doing my final thesis on top of this. I worry everyday that my performance in the internship and my final grade will be jeopardised by all the juggling. There’s also only so much motivation one can have without feeling exploited.

    As I get myself more into debt over the summer and being tempted by the 200 a week temping wage filing bits of paper in another job, I leave you with this. Something should be done about this silenced exploitation. Unpaid interns should speak up even if it means losing that foot in the door for now.

    http://internsanonymous.co.uk/category/pr/

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  2. I agree Exploited, this is something I feel very strongly about. Thank you for making me aware of the interns anonymous website, its a real eye opener!

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  3. This was a great piece.

    The bit that you wrote that really rammed it home was this:

    I was “lucky” enough to secure an “internship”

    This concept of being lucky is nonsense in my opinion. We are lucky to be alive, not just to work. So the PR industry needs to sort this nonsense out.

    If someone is so lucky, they can just start their own business.

    Great feature.

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  4. Hi – would it be possible for you to mention my idea as submitted to the Government on their new website “Your ideas for freedom”?

    It is for interns to be paid the minimum wage, and the page is here:

    http://yourfreedom.hmg.gov.uk/cutting-business-and-third-sector-regulations/guarantee-the-minimum-wage-for-interns/idea-view

    It would be great if people could register (http://yourfreedom.hmg.gov.uk/join_form), rate the idea and comment.

    Many thanks!

    Louise

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  5. Hi Martyn, I’m a third year Public Relations student in New Zealand. I love your piece, however I disagree to a small extent. Yes we are asked to work for free to gain experience. BUT! I know a girl who is trying to get a job, she is a graduate from Waikato University (myself, I study at Wintec), yet she cannot get a job, because they are all asking for around two years experience. This year alone i have worked four days with the Event Management team on the ITM 400, V8 supercars event. I am currently writing articles for the NZ National Fieldays newspaper that is circulated during the Southern Hemispheres largest agricultural exhibiton. Then in three weeks time I have an Internship in a Boutique Public Relations company at Mount Maunganui. Im very eager to try everything I can, this will all compliment my CV when I am trying to get a job. Even though its not two years of experience, it will be more experience than some graduates and that for me is great. Please dont think I come from a well off family and are happy to live off them for free. I pay my own way in this world, I work part time and will be staying with family for the three week internship (paying board), while still paying rent. So I do think that companies that take on a lot of Interns to get some of the less important jobs done, are completely unrespectful and unethical. However if there is an opportunity to work alongside a well established business and the people are happy to offer me support during then I dont mind not getting paid for the experience. Hopefully it will pay itself off.
    Ayla Gwilliam

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