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PR Must Remain Vigilant Advocate for Interns’ Rights

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. That seems to be the case with the burgeoning debate in the U.S. and UK over the ethical use of interns.

When PRSA released its intern guidelines in early February, we had no idea we’d be on the leading edge of what has become a full-fledged, global call to action to abolish the use of unpaid interns.

What started with a BBC expose of the fashion PR industry’s pervasive use of unpaid interns has spread to mainstream notice in the U.S. Just last weekend, New York Times op-ed contributor Ross Perlin wrote a scathing attack of American college’s complicit role in “helping companies skirt a nebulous area of labor law” by working hand-in-hand with businesses seeking cheap skilled labor.

Mr. Perlin cites the public relations profession as one of many industries that routinely hires unpaid interns. PRSA has made clear its belief that it is unethical for PR firms to not provide some type of compensation for interns, whether monetary or via college credit.

This is in line with some of the industry’s leading thinkers. Writing in a recent editorial, PRWeek editor Danny Rogers said “unpaid interns do [the public relations] industry a disservice.” We couldn’t agree more. In fact, I said as much when I wrote about this subject in my last PRSAY post.

As the debate heats up in the U.S., it’s reached an apex in the UK. Just this week, UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg found himself in hot water after it was reported his father helped him find unpaid work in the UK civil service prior to his ascension in government. This comes after Clegg blasted politicians and businesses that “employ staff for free and those who get ­placements through wealthy parents,” the Daily Mirror reports.

Responses from students to that post were not so much torn on whether to pursue paid or unpaid internship opportunities as to the risk of how “payment/no payment for services” translates beyond the need to pay bills and eat. Britney Gulledge, a PR undergraduate at Hampton University, commented that, “As the guidelines are today, it would put those who have no outside financial commitments in a better opportunity than those who have to continue to make money. This could translate on paper to a future employer as a lack of drive or ambition, but it could simply be the lack of opportunity.”

The sentiment from others reflects the difference between paid and unpaid internships as simply a mindset. Those who are paid tend to be more committed and more professional, noted Lizzy Caston, a 15-year veteran in the PR industry. “It’s the paycheck that makes the difference,” she wrote.

Some students find they did not put as much effort in the unpaid internship because being paid means being rewarded and the work performed was valued, especially in the development of portfolio material.

While momentum gains to terminate the use of unpaid interns, we must not allow this to become a witch hunt. Remember, PRSA’s guidelines do not call for an outright ban on the use of unpaid interns; rather, we advise PR professionals to seek formal payment of interns, or develop creative means for compensation and reciprocation, rather than rely on the status quo.

It seems a stretch, therefore, for Mr. Perlin to argue that all forms of for-credit unpaid internships should be terminated.  Of greater focus should be the quality of professional experience and acumen these arrangements provide and the direct role that plays in an intern’s ability to obtain fulfilling, post-graduate work.

We have a responsibility to prepare the next generation of professionals for more prosperous career prospects than ours. This can be accomplished by instilling the same level of ethical values across a company’s hiring practices, whether for internships, full-time or part-time positions.

This is the time to reform the public relations profession’s concept of the ethical use of paid and unpaid interns. If there’s truth in “you get what you pay for,” we’re at risk of setting an unfair hiring precedent for future generations of industry leaders.

Update (April 11): You can read more PRSA commentary on the ethical use of interns in a published letter to the editor of The New York Times.

Francis C. McDonald, Ph.D., APR, is a member of the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS) and was the lead author of PRSA’s Professional Standard Advisory PS-17: Ethical Use of Interns. He previously wrote about PRSA’s stance on the ethical use of interns in a PRSAY post titled, “Paid or Unpaid, Time to Evaluate PR’s Use of Interns.”

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Francis McDonald


  • As a PR student I support the position stated in this article, however, one must take note that when an internship offers college credit, it is the student who pays for the credit tuition, thus ultimately paying for an internship.

  • Although this article has many strong points, I believe an unpaid internship shows drive and dedication, and that you are really willing to work to learn – the foundation of the internship. It is a fair trade to me. I have had two unpaid internships (that have been equally beneficial as my paid internship) while working part time to put myself through school. It is possible and they have taught me a lot about what hard work is all about – they have taught me life lessons that I would happily learn over and over again.

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