A recent article and survey on industry bible PR Week’s website exploring how agencies treat work experience placements appears to have caused plenty of debate after it revealed 71% of agencies ‘rarely or never’ pay work experience staff.
This was entirely at odds with a subsequent poll of agency staff in which over half believed that grads should receive remuneration for their work at an agency. Those who support the idea that grads should be unpaid, such as Cake MD Chris Wood, claim that there is no commercial benefit from taking on work experience placements and that the benefits are reaped largely by those on the placements. Others, however, such as Diffusion MD Daljit Bhurji, claim that agencies are simply “exploiting young people desperate to enter the PR industry.”
So who’s telling the truth? There certainly appears to be credence in both arguments. Indeed, a successful work placement at a good agency will, most likely, lead to a job in the industry. During placements, most agencies offer grads a fantastic insight into the world of PR, while giving them the opportunity to learn from professionals who, in the most part, are happy to take time to teach the basics and impart their knowledge of the PR industry.
In many ways it comes down to the basic tenets of supply and demand. PR is a hugely popular industry amongst those leaving university, yet compared to others is relatively small. The ratio of those seeking employment in PR to jobs available is always going to provide dismaying statistics for those trying to enter the profession. So, it follows that if there is a constant supply of grads, not only willing, but desperate to work for free, what businessman in his right mind would pay?
PR agencies are, after all, businesses and not charities. However, I feel there is a compelling argument as to why this is morally unfair and ultimately damaging for the industry. I say this because many agencies expect grads to work for months on end without any pay, and with no promise of a job at the end. In the PR Week survey, two agencies commented that four months without pay would be acceptable. But how many grads are actually in a financial position to support themselves for this kind of period without pay?
The lucky few will have parents or other family members who are happy to support them throughout this period. Yet there are many whose parents simply cannot afford or – after 20-odd years don’t want – to pay several thousand pounds to support their children for months on end. This means that, every year, grads who potentially have enthusiasm, skill and a great work ethic to offer find the PR industry to be, simply, a closed door. Ultimately, this leaves PR in danger of becoming considered an elitist industry that is hard to break into without the help of plenty of cash or a spot of nepotism.
And if the industry cannot look after its own reputation…