Public relations intern policies

Yesterday I attended a lively fringe meeting at the Labour Party conference organised by the IPPR (Institute of Public Policy Research) on ‘Forgotten Youth? Jobs and skills for a new generation’. The speakers included Andy Burnham MP (Shadow Secretary of State for Education), Katja Hall from the CBI, Stephen Uden from Microsoft UK and former higher education minister David Lammy MP.

We covered a wide range of topics, but one of the liveliest moments was near the end when Andy Burnham spoke about his belief that we need to create more opportunities for ‘kids without connections’ to get proper work experience which amongst other things means legislating to force unscrupulous employers to pay interns. David Lammy questioned this by using the example of his Parliamentary office where he uses unpaid interns to provide vital experience to inner city young people from his constituency and saying he’d be unable to do this if he had to pay them. It was a longer argument, but that was the gist of it. I was one of several people in the audience who challenged David on this and David has said he now understands Andy’s point of view more clearly and is rethinking his position.

I think the issue of internships is vitally important to the public relations profession, but one that is very difficult for individual employers to solve on their own. One of the problems and reasons why legislation is required is an urgent need to create  a level playing field. If one company is paying its interns and is competing against one that doesn’t then you get a double whammy of not only the expense of paying someone, but the competitor also has the saving of not paying someone! Introducing legislation removes this competitive discrepancy and means everyone is competing on a level playing field.

It’s brilliant that the debate around internships has shifted considerably in the last few years and it is now considered by most ethical companies to morally reprehensible not to pay interns.

In my previous role as MD and co-founder of Wolfstar we made sure we had a decent policy in place that ensured we were as fair as possible. We didn’t always have it as when you’re starting a new company you don’t have the management capacity to do everything at once and quite simply it wasn’t at the top of our agenda. It was only when we realised that we we risked drifting from offering valuable work experience to people to exploiting them by allowing them to become unpaid interns that we decided to act. The policy we established was crystal clear – we were going to make sure we offered valuable work experience opportunities, but that we wouldn’t allow these to become unpaid interns.

Instead we ensured that we had a structured work experience programme that was clearly time limited as there comes a point when someone has been there so long that they are then actually working and providing value that should be paid for.

As well as the work experience programme we also started to support the public relations degree at Leeds Metropolitan University by giving a student a full year’s paid experience as an intern as part of their degree experience. The programme is now in its second year with Clare Siobhán Callery returning to Leeds Met to finish her degree (but continuing to work part time) and Filiz Ozakinci joining just as I left.

The policy we introduced was far from perfect and needs a lot of improvement, but won a lot of praise from students and academics because it’s still better than what a lot of companies do:

  • PR internship and work experience opportunities at Wolfstar Consultancy

    Wolfstar Consultancy invests in the future of the public relations profession and as such seeks to offer high-quality work experience to people who want to enter the industry. In a perfect world we would ensure that everyone doing work experience with us was paid a ‘living wage’. The commercial reality is that if we did this then we’d be able to offer far fewer people the opportunity to gain experience with us.

    Our guiding principle is to try and ensure that every opportunity is offered equally to all applicants:

  • Every application is judged equally on its merits.
  • We do not offer placements just to ‘people we know’.
  • We welcome applications for work experience from everyone, including older applicants looking to change career.
  • Wolfstar Consultancy’s guarantee to everyone doing work experience with us is:

  • You will receive reasonable expenses for the duration of the placement.
  • Your experience will include ‘real’ work that will help you to create a portfolio of your achievements.
  • We’ll always be clear upfront that you might also be expected to do more mundane administrative tasks as well.
  1. Internships at Wolfstar Consultancy are limited to a maximum of 12 days spread over up to three months. We normally prefer this to be one day a week. There are two reasons we don’t offer longer internships:

  2. We don’t think it’s fair for you to work any longer for us without being properly paid.
  3. It’s important to constantly give new people an opportunity to benefit from gaining experience.

That doesn’t mean we’ll just ask you to leave at the end of your internship because if you’ve made a valuable contribution and we have the funds to do so then we’ll want to pay you to continue.

Our policy of limiting the length of time that we offer work experience is one that costs us money as the team needs to constantly invest a significant amount of time in supporting new people, which we wouldn’t need to do if we simply kept the same people.

We also never look at utilising interns as way of ‘avoiding’ more people. They always provide extra capacity over and above we actually need. Many of Wolfstar Consultancy’s interns have gone on to work full-time for us. We believe that the best way to develop new talent is to ‘grow our own’.

If you’ve got views and thoughts on this subject then please let me know in the comments.

Disclaimer: I worked with Andy Burnham when he was campaigning to be elected leader of the Labour Party and developing his campaign against unpaid internships.