The concept of internships is a good one. From the beginning internships have been a great way for public relations students (and most other students for that matter) to learn how to apply the theory and practices studied in the classroom to real-life situations. And while experience isn’t all there is to sound public relations education, it remains a critical component.
In fact “The Professional Bond,” a recent report by the Commission on Public Relations Education, continues to characterize supervised work experience as an essential part of good public relations education.
Good internships require that interns be doing work that is of value to organizations. Without this, internships have little value for the intern or the organization.
Earlier this year PRSA issued a set of guidelines for the ethical use of interns clarifying its position that it is ethically wrong to employ interns who add real value to an organization or employer without compensating them for their work. However, as a recent Reuters’ story about older interns shows, some organizations still aren’t playing by the rules.
The Reuters piece details the story of Elizabeth Romanaux, a 55-year-old former media relations manager who is now interning with a PR firm in New Jersey. Adding insight into the growing use of free labor across many industries (not just public relations), Romanaux is humble in accepting her new position low on the agency totem pole. “You have to suck it up sometimes and do what a 17-year-old would happily do and be happy about it,” she said.
For those thinking that Romanaux’s story is an anomaly, think again. As professional recruiter Liz Ryan told Reuters, she is getting 20 to 30 requests per month from mid-career professionals seeking help in securing internships.
All of which presents many new opportunities and potential ethical challenges for public relations.
My colleague Francis McDonald wrote an excellent post for PRSAY earlier this year analyzing the value of PR interns to organizations and the value of the internship experience to students. He also points out the requirement that internships should be beneficial to both students and organizations and that the placement must meet established legal and ethical standards. As Francis noted, PRSA is not alone in its stance on this growing issue. Several other industry trade groups — including the UK’s CIPR and PRCA — have followed suit with similar best practice guidelines regarding the ethical use of interns.
While a slow economy and a high unemployment rate may shift the age of those looking for work from younger to older, PRSA’s ethical perspective is that it doesn’t matter if interns are age 20, 40, 60 or older. If interns do valuable work for organizations, they should be compensated, whether monetarily or via college credit.
Leaving aside arguments about whether unpaid interns have a negative or positive effect on the economy, most of the time you get what you pay for in life. As a faculty member I’ve supervised student internships for 20 years and can tell you from personal observation interns who aren’t compensated aren’t always as likely to give their work their top commitment. Organizations unwilling to make an investment in interns aren’t likely to get the best that their interns can provide. The result of uncompensated internships is that neither organizations nor interns are well served.
But there is an outcome that goes beyond the economic impact, quality of work/commitment issues and the ethical problems that go with uncompensated internships. Organizations that don’t pay for work degrade the value of public relations, and that doesn’t benefit anyone.
Steve Iseman, Ph.D., APR, Fellow PRSA, is a member of the PRSA Board of Directors. Follow him on Twitter: @Dr_Iseman