Public Relations

The Intern Agency Scandal - Are PR agencies riding roughshod over interns?

By Robert Minton-Taylor |

August 31, 2012 | 6 min read

I have spent the best part of nearly 50 years in public relations and journalism. I find it deeply ironic, as a former managing director of a PR agency, that consultancies and in-house departments that boast about their CSR credentials and make a big deal that their clients have introduced fairer employment practices for workers in third world countries are still riding roughshod over interns.

According to research from the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA) only 28% of interns working in PR receive the minimum wage. That’s cynical and morally reprehensible, especially when some agencies are (as I have found) charging out students’ time to clients. It’s also possibly illegal under current UK employment legislation.

I am currently a senior lecturer in the School of Marketing, Public Relations and Communication at Leeds Metropolitan University responsible for upwards of 150 undergraduate and postgraduate students on short-term placements (internships) in industry and commerce.

Robert Minton-Taylor

There is simply NO excuse for not paying students a wage and/or subsistence. Sure undergraduates learn on the job - but so do we all. Interns add real value to a business.

If concerns like Vauxhall, VW Group, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, GlaxoSmithKline, John Lewis, Disney, City of York Council, Leeds Bradford International Airport recognise the enthusiasm, diligence, and sheer verve and capability that PR students on a PR degree course can bring are worth investing in, why can’t agencies?

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By not paying students anything the PR industry is also depriving impoverished young people, especially from black and ethnic minority (BME) communities and single parent families, the opportunity to work in our industry because they simply cannot afford to take on unpaid jobs.

To my mind the only two possible exceptions to not paying a wage are (1) charities (but even here many executives working for charities can claw back their expenses) and (2) agencies taking on interns a day a week over a period of a few weeks or a period of two or three weeks with a structured work programme that incorporates real learning outcomes.

However, there are some good agencies out there that do play by the ‘rules’. Agencies such as Turn Key in Leeds and Grayling in Manchester either pay a wage and/or in return for offering properly constituted and supervised PR work contribute to subsistence and transport costs to and from the workplace. So bravo to them!

For year out interns agencies in Leeds and Manchester, that I am aware of, also pay a decent living wage to year out interns. They understand the true benefit of internships, both for them and the student. They recognise that students’ enthusiasm, dynamism and ability to bring new ideas to them, especially in the social media stakes, are major pluses. And that’s why initiatives such as Two Birds One Stone, a youth focused creative agency, staffed by Leeds Met students and graduates with the support of Ptarmigan PR and Magpie Comms works so well.

And therein may lay the answer for universities like ours, a leader in the field of marketing, public relations and journalism teaching. We need to continue to encourage, as we have done, greater engagement with the PR and marketing industry with work-based programmes and mentoring schemes where experienced practitioners are linked up with aspiring students.

As a 64-year old even I recognise that students can produce stunning award-winning work. Work which, if truth be known, I privately wish I had been able to achieve in my teens and early 20s. If I can keep myself refreshed by such aspiring talent then so can you.

Unfortunately, PR in the UK is still populated by white middle class practitioners (I'm one of them) and frankly it’s high time we begin to make the difference by encouraging BME executives into the profession if we want PR to truly represent the wider community it serves.

There are initiatives afoot to change the landscape. Earlier this year I was fortunate enough to be invited by Francis Ingham, director general, PRCA to take part in a commission whose aim was to “widen access to the PR industry for the best talent, irrespective of background.” So the picture for interns will change for the better.

Can I leave you with a final thought? From next month (September 2012) university fees treble to over £8000+ a year and accommodation costs of £450+ a month. All have to paid for. If students are working for free how on earth are they going to pay for their studies and accommodation?

I am continuing to research the whole issue of payment for interns and would be interested in hearing The Drum readers’ views on (i) whether interns should be paid, and (ii) what conditions should be in place to ensure that interns get a worthwhile skills-based experience in the workplace.

You can reach me at r.minton-taylor@leedsmet.ac.uk.

Robert Minton-Taylor is senior lecturer at the School of Marketing, Public Relations & Communications at Leeds Metropolitan University.

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