There’s no debate: Not ...


By Chris Owen, Director, Hoffman Europe

We recently had a call with a potential PR intern, as part of a series of chats we’re having for new agency hires for the year ahead.

He was positive, clearly had a flair for writing, had a great balance between ambition and desire to learn his PR chops, and would definitely fit the culture here at The Hoffman Agency.

As we finished up the call, there was the usual “any other questions?” from us, which brought the reply: “is it a paid internship?”

Turns out, a few of the chats he’d been having were for unpaid PR internships.

It’s an old debate

Now, I’m writing this at the tail-end of 2020 — and didn’t realise the discussion about paying interns was still a thing, let alone some PR agencies (he didn’t name them), still expecting what is essentially free labour. It’s just not ethical.

The internship candidate said a couple of PR agencies had sold the idea that they were offering him experience for his CV — which is just bullshit. You’d not get a roofer round to fix your gutters, then say you’re not going to pay them, but will leave a lovely Google review.

person seeking paid internship

Unpaid internships reinforcing diversity problems

Outside of pure exploitation, there are wider issues caused by unpaid PR internships — issues that have become endemic and are taking significant (essential) work to address.

If you can afford to work for free, in London (most likely — although the same rule applies regionally), then you’ve intrinsically got the financial means to live ‘comfortably’ while not being paid. Rent, food, going out a few times a month, a degree of disposable income — you’re probably looking at needing over a grand a month, minimum. This isn’t small change.

This type of financial reserve (especially if you’re looking at a three-month placement) demands a well-off background. Either that or a bank loan, which is essentially borrowing against future earnings and doesn’t help matters either.

If only those with support from the ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’ can get their foot in the door with a PR agency, it merely reinforces the concentrated white middle-class demographic of the industry. There are a lot of organisations doing great work in addressing this imbalance, but their cause isn’t helped by agencies exploiting PR interns who can afford to live, while working for free.

The need for diverse thinkers

The other resulting issue that this brings is a narrow diversity of culture, behaviour and thinking. PR isn’t going to be able to reflect the society within which it works, if the majority of entrants into the industry come from homes with an Aga.

In 2021, of all years, asking PR interns to work for free – perhaps knowing the supply-and-demand model is skewed in agencies’ favour (as Mark has written previously – in 2017!), given the groundswell of talent – is perhaps even more unprofessional and unethical as ever.

There have been huge strides made in recent years, with industry bodies being a big part of this, but the fact that a PR intern still double-checks shows that there’s still exploitation under the radar.

It’s usually accepted that no-one likes naming-and-shaming, but every now and then maybe there’s exceptions to the rule.


  • DudeStro

    Well, I have to say . . . there was a time when I would’ve worked for a few Quid and all the Pints I could down after work until closing time — just to get me bloody foot in the door. Yep – and after a few weeks of that, the Boss would’ve either sacked me or the Pounds would’ve poured into my pockets because it would’ve saved the agency.

    Your point is valid. But non-payment still occurs — and not just in the UK.

    The approach should be value-based: both for the candidate and the agency.

    1) There *is* a responsibility for the agency to provide long-term training and employee value to the marketplace. i.e., Teach the person the right way, and help them develop a service-orientation that will assist clients, fellow workers, and the industry — and perhaps move the intern up;
    2) Learnin’ and earnin’ — will an intern feel valued if they’re toiling for nothing? Teach them correctly, then reward them for the work.
    3) Mistakes help people learn — and increase their long-term value. Help that intern stand up, stand out, make a mistake or two, and grow. Someone did it for you.
    4) And there should be value in the profession. Ideas, service, job passion, and delivery all are useful. And at times, can be a real spark for a client or a Team.

    Value what people can do. And show them how to value customers. You’ll make a difference if you do.

    Then again . . . I’ll value a couple Pints next time I’m in London. Your shout.

    I’m out.

    • Lou Hoffman

      A key issue you raise is that “the approach should be value-based: both for the candidate and the agency”, and it’s the two-way nature that is the most important. It should be a value exchange, not something simply taken by the powerbroker. An intern brings value to the company and should be rewarded for doing so; and in return for this payment, the intern must bring their A game and show they deserve the opportunity. If both sides sign up to the exchange – everyone wins.

      The other element within this is the need to help the intern grow; it’s self-defeating to exploit someone who is keen, eager to learn, and wanting to experience as much as possible before deciding how to develop. Intern-churn might be cheap, but it’s somewhat undermines the bigger opportunity of nurturing talent and have it grow within the business.

      Chris Owen


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