To pay or not to pay?

September 23rd, 2009 by Chris Bull


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…

About Chris Bull

Account Exec for Staniforth PR, based in the TBWA\ Building in Whitfield Street, London. Areas of interest include politics, the car industry and sport.

6 Responses to “To pay or not to pay?”

  1. Nigel Sarbutts Says:

    I think there is a slight mixing of terminology here. We regard work experience as a short-term (generally 1 or 2 weeks) arrangement where the flow of benefits is broadly in favour of the graduate, ie they are doing this to learn and bolster their employability by demonstrating that they have a) experienced a consultancy from the inside and b) can demonstrate some gumption and commitment to their chosen career path. On this basis we pay more than enough to cover travel and subsistence costs and offer a structured programme of support and guidance whereby they end up with materials to add to their portfolio at the end. We get some leg-work done ans see potential future employees at close quarters. This seems to us to be a balanced arrangement.

    Anything above a month is a short or fixed term contract and should be salaried as such and the employee comes to work ready to commit as professionally as they are able within their experience and their efforts will be judged on that basis.

    And a final word to any grads reading this: do yourself a favour and apply for jobs directly. Going through a recruitment agent at this level simply makes you considerably more expensive to employ than the many, many other grads trying to get a start on a career.

  2. Chris Bull Says:

    Thanks for the comment Nigel. I think that anything under a month is reasonable, especially if expences are covered. I think the real issue is when grads are expected to work for months on end, and in some cases are used to bolster up account teams.

  3. Alex Clough Says:

    Forcing PR companies to pay every intern would destroy a key process in finding young, talented graduates. Every agency would lower the number of internship places they offer, which in turn would mean less grads getting the opportunity to shine.

    I agree with Nigel that anything longer than 4-6 weeks is unreasonable and at the end of this period, they should either be replaced or offered a position.

    I was an intern brought into the business after proving my worth, as were a significant number of the best PRs I know. It is the responsibility of individual PR companies to ensure they have a programme in place that highlights the best (and worst) interns, but does not abuse their willingness to work.

    I manage interns as part of my role, and ensure that regardless of whether they are good enough to be considered for a full time position, they gain value from their experience and can strengthen their CV as a result.

    Do this over a reasonable length of time, and the majority of concerns over monetary remuneration goes out the window. They are getting enough for their time already.

  4. Sarah Hartley Says:

    Interesting to see this from a PR point of view as exactly the same arguments rage in journalism. I found the belief expressed in the post that the intern was the only party to benefit from the arrangement rather baffling and a bit worrying.
    Surely they bring something to the company, or else why bother with them, whatever they cost?
    I look at what the individual can bring to a placement or internship – it could be a specialism in an area not well-catered for or perhaps a particular skill or passion that will compliment the full-time team. It would be shocking to think these young people are there just fill up quotas or provide cheap or unpaid labour just becuase their chosen areer path is deemed popular.

  5. Kate O Says:

    I didn’t do any work experience, but I guess the job I do now is sort of work experience if you like. I’ve always wondered how much insight grads/interns can gain into a job if they are only there for a couple of weeks anyway. I suppose it shows enthusiasm but I love learning about the ins and outs of a company so I don’t think that route would have worked for me.

    I don’t think it is fair to expect anyone to work for free for more than a month, most people in this situation don’t want to earn a wage for greed just to get by and have the basics. There is no way I would even want to ask my parents to support me financially

  6. Andrea Says:

    In North America (Canada and the US at least) there is no such thing as unpaid internships for insurance reasons. Everyone is paid.

    That has the downside, however, of there being fewer of them…

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