Tag Archives: work experience

Unpaid work experience in PR. Should we just be grateful?

4 Feb

It’s been happening for years but this week a storm has been brewing over the issue of unpaid internships in the PR industry. Following the airing of a BBC2 programme Who Gets the Best Jobs?, people in the industry have declared their disgust at the day-to-day practice of employing hoards of unpaid interns. Though I sigh with relief that people are responding in this way, I am surprised that this has never been an issue before. Or maybe it has?

In 2004 I moved to London to complete a Masters degree in Fashion Journalism. I was desperate to crack into the fashion/PR world and was prepared to do (almost) anything to get my name out there. Coming from a fairly small town in South Wales I had no contacts in the industry and was literally starting from scratch. So, I bombarded numerous PR agencies and fashion magazines with my CV begging them for work experience. And it paid off.

A number of magazines and PR agencies agreed to give me work experience – all unpaid of course. Competition for each placement was incredibly fierce and I got the distinct impression that I should just be ‘grateful’ for the opportunity, and I was. At the majority of my work placements, interns were expected to work full-time (and more) and be available for any other ad hoc requests. Some placements would insist on a minimum time slot of six months – quite a commitment when you’re not getting paid – whereas others were really non-committal and left you wondering what value you were getting.

There’s no denying how valuable work experience can be: you get direct exposure to the industry; real-life-on-the-job training; you make contacts and can decide if it really is what you want. But, an unpaid full-time placement screams exploitation. At one of my placements there was a team of 5-6 interns who literally ran the fashion cupboard. We kept the wheels turning and if you’ve ever worked in fashion you’ll understand what that really means.

According to PR Week, Julian Vogel of Modus Publicity (the man behind the controversy) admitted that by not paying [interns], ‘I do worry sometimes that it does favour the slightly better off’. Well, yes! It absolutely does. I spent about 18 months completing various full-time work experience placements. All of which were unpaid. At the same time I was studying for my Masters degree. I didn’t have the luxury of the ‘bank of mum and dad’ so I worked in shops/cinema so that I could afford to eat. And eventually, it was the money situation that forced me to throw my hands in the air and admit defeat. Just as I felt I was making headway.

It felt like the end of the world at the time but it was a happy ending for me. Though, I do wonder what the ratio of PR success stories to failures is.

So, what does this mean for the PR industry? For the sake of free labour are we exclusive? Maybe. So, what are we going to do about it?