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Paid or Unpaid, Time to Evaluate PR’s Use of Interns

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With the aggregate global economy slowly puttering along, and nearly 30 percent unemployment for recent college graduates, the American business community finds itself at a defining moment: on one side is a group of entrenched employees, many of whom have weathered the worst of mass layoffs, salary freezes and furloughs and are determined to hold onto their jobs.

On the other side is a continuously building wave of recent college grads, eager to supplant last year’s batch of the best and brightest in the public relations industry. Chomping at the bit, many are willing to do whatever it takes to secure that coveted first job — including, working for no pay and long hours, often doing the same level of work as a paid, full-time colleague.

Meet the modern PR intern. Long a linchpin of the public relations profession, today’s interns face a fiercely-competitive employment marketplace; one that is entrenched in a bog of high unemployment and stagnating salaries the likes of which the United States hasn’t experienced in nearly 80 years.

With this in mind, PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS) developed a set of guidelines, recommendations and best practices regarding the ethical use of paid and unpaid interns by public relations firms, businesses, government agencies and other organizations. It’s all part of Professional Standards Advisory PS-17: Ethical Use of Interns.

PRSA believes it to be ethically wrong to employ anyone who adds real value to an agency or employer without compensating them for their work — whether that compensation is monetary or in the form of educational credits. If billable work is being performed by an intern, he or she deserves some form of legal compensation.

We are not alone in our stance. In Britain, a similar debate is raging, and many of our UK-based industry peers concur with PRSA’s stance. According to a recent PRWeek (UK) article, the UK’s Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA) is examining potential recommendations on the subject for its members, while the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) has established a series of best practices and recommendations on the use of interns.

All of which comes on the heels of a scathing BBC expose into the use of unpaid interns, and subsequent editorial from PRWeek (UK) editor Danny Rogers, in which he said, “unpaid interns do [the public relations] industry a disservice.

The time is now to reform our profession’s concept of the ethical use of paid and unpaid interns. We need a frank discussion to assess whether our industry’s internship opportunities are truly adding the value that recent grads need to prosper.

As PRSA explored this issue, it became apparent that there are clearly legal, but most importantly, numerous ethical concerns beyond the obvious of whether a person should be paid for work performed.

The primary question for employers is: “Does the position being offered meet the legal standard set in federal and state law?” Similarly, students must ponder whether an internship will be a significant career builder, as opposed to just a mindless activity that provides little to no immediate academic or work experience, with no guaranteed compensation.

In other words: Paid or unpaid, does the internship offer significant value to both the student and employer? If not, what can and should be done to make the opportunity more equitable for all sides?

Should your organization be looking for guidance, I offer these thoughts to consider: First, employing anyone who is adding value to your company without fair compensation is ethically wrong. Second, the field of public relations exists because it includes a diversity of voices that increases value, discovers new ideas and builds mutually-beneficial relationships among organizations and their constituent publics.

Unpaid internships that do not offer at least a minimum of educational credits are a disservice to our profession’s value and our responsibility to ensure young professionals’ success. We must ask ourselves whether we are setting an unfair hiring precedent for future generations of industry leaders.

I invite you to review PRSA’s new guidelines on the ethical use of interns for further insight and best practices. And please weigh in with your thoughts in the comments below.

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.


PRSA updates guidelines on ethical use of interns

About the author

Francis McDonald


  • As a public relations student finishing my last semester of college, this subject is something I think about a lot. I have a lot of mixed feelings on unpaid internships and to be honest I’ve been applying for way more unpaid internships for after graduation than I have for real jobs. Unfortuntately, the jobs just aren’t there. Every job board I look at is filled with positions requiring at least 1-2 years experience and the dreaded phrase ” those with only internship experience need not apply.” If noone will hire us, what are us recent grads supposed to do? I’d like to think that by taking an unpaid position after college I am working toward a permanent position within the company I’m interning for. Obviously, there are no guarantees but that is what I’m hoping for. If we get rid of unpaid internships, internships will become even more competitive and students will have even less of a chance to get professional experience. I think it isn’t so much a matter of whether or not we should have unpaid internships, I think it’s a matter of companies being honest with interns if they have no intention of hiring them after the summer or tell an intern during an interview they will be getting hands on experience when in fact the intern ends up sitting at their desk all day begging for work. Most students are so eager to get their resume builders that they’ll take anything. Employers need to be aware of that and ensure that even if interns aren’t getting paid they are getting something out of it ( writing samples, portfolio builders, etc).

  • I am very torn on this. As a CIPR member – and member of the Professional Practices Committee – I always advise employers that they should pay if it is anything more than a couple of weeks’ work experience. It is the right thing to do. Some employers have interns working for three months or more (I have heard of nine months) on no pay.

    But as a university lecturer, if students ask me if they should take an internship, I always advise them to do so. It is genuinely valuable.

  • Great article, Francis! You bring up an especially valid point about why internships must offer significant value to both the student and employer to provide relevance. If only one party is benefitting, then the internship goes completely against the idea of building mutually beneficial relationships that the PR industry is so dependent upon.

    As a current PR intern at SmileyHanchulak, I am very thankful for the opportunities and guidance the team members have provided for me. I understand the value of such an experience, and I don’t take a single lesson for granted–a lesson learned is always knowledge earned. On the other hand, I also understand that adding value to the team is essential. Again, a mutually beneficial relationship is always favorable in the world of PR, so I always strive to go above-and-beyond what is requested of me.

    Brittany Macchiarola

  • Good article. Glad to see the PRSA and agencies address this. As someone with 15+ years in the industry, I hire staff, freelancers and interns on a regular basis. My experience has shown me over and over again that paid internships are the way to go – both for the intern and the employer. Here’s why: For students, the difference between paid and unpaid internships often seems to be the difference in mentality – those paid seem to be more committed and more professional, they tend to stay longer rather than suddenly quitting when something better comes along. It’s the paycheck that often makes the difference. It allows for a tighter “social contract” between intern and employer on what is expected of each party. My experience has shown the paycheck makes it more professional for everyone.

    For employers, I’ve found paid internships draw a more cream of the crop applicant pool. That’s not to say, I believe there are times for unpaid internships and room for people with less experience. Charity events, certain non-profit projects, and other areas that need labor for a finite amount of time and where interns need experience are perfect for unpaid internships. Unpaid internships bring the level of professionalism at firms down to me. I know there are good

    Unfortunately our industry, especially during these volatile economic times, is rife with unpaid interns in what should be freelance or staff positions. I worked with a firm recently that had several senior partners, a few mid-range production employees and many unpaid interns. Unpaid interns were asked to do all sorts of tasks way beyond their skills and professional experience by harried production staff and partners with little guidance and no set internship program. This is an education for students – baptism by fire. But guess what? The work suffered to the point where it jeopardized projects and client relations. In fact, I don’t even call my paid interns, interns. It does them a much bigger service to show they have a title, have received pay, and are professional.

    Lesson, you often get what you pay for.

    There’s a saying in marketing: Don’t give it away for free. Why? It devalues the product or service from both the consumer and the producer. Working and not paying interns sends a message that the work isn’t worth paying for and the service isn’t worth that much. It also teaches those starting out to undervalue themselves.

    There’s also another MAJOR issue not addressed in this article – the legality of paid vs. unpaid internships. Federal and many state agencies make very clear distinctions, especially regarding for profit entities – probably one of the major drivers for the new PRSA ethics standards. If you profit on the work of interns, if your interns are working on producing client based work, you must pay them. And the BOL has been cracking down. You can read an excellent article in the NY Times about it here:

    My take remains simple: Paid internships are professional. Unpaid internships are not.

  • Thanks for your excellent comment and perspective, Lizzy. Just to quickly touch on your point about the issue of the legality of paid versus unpaid internships … In the full Professional Standards Advisory (PSA) on this issue, PRSA did address this issue. On pages 1 and 2 of the PSA (see here:, the authors of PRSA’s new industry guidelines on the ethical use of interns address the myriad federal and state laws and regulations surrounding the employment of interns.

    Thanks again for taking the time to offer your own perspective and commentary, particularly given your role hiring and using interns.

    Keith Trivitt
    Associate Director of Public Relations

  • As a PR teacher, I agree with your main point and think this deserves a thorough discussion in the industry. PRSA may, however, want to distinguish between corporate and agency employers versus nonprofit organizations, especially smaller ones. Many of our students do internships with community-level nonprofits. If forced to choose between paying interns and simply not offering internships, I think I know what many of these nonprofits would choose to do, especially in these days of shrinking donations and extremely tight budgets.

    This situation is not unique to public relations. One of my children is a physical therapist. During her graduate work, she was required to do a series of six clinicals, ranging from two to six weeks (full time), and never received any compensation for her hard work. My other daughter majored in elementary education and was required to do a semester-long student teaching assignment with no compensation.

  • As a young professional who completed two unpaid internships in college, I know first-hand how valuable experience can be. These two opportunities helped equip me with the skills needed to attain a full-time position and allowed me to explore different industries while I decided what career path I wanted to pursue. In addition, I learned how to apply lessons learned in the classroom to a practical setting, developing my critical thinking ability and exposing me to real-world business situations.

    While these opportunities ultimately helped achieve a full-time position, I won’t pretend that I didn’t have my concerns about unpaid internships. Education costs keep rising, and we are constantly being told to be fiscally responsible. So, how does working for no pay fit into this equation? That depends. For me, it meant taking out a bit more in loans to help cover expenses. It meant getting a second job working odd hours to make ends meet. It meant not much free time but a lot of experience – and a great example of how persistent I when working toward my goals.

    From a company standpoint, especially when it comes to small businesses and nonprofits, I imagine it would be difficult to leave room in an already tight budget for interns. It’s a risk since the individuals likely don’t have much other professional experience, and you don’t know what caliber of work they will actually provide. Unpaid internships sound perfect because the most the company will lose is time from a supervisor, and in all likelihood, the interns will contribute to the success of the business.

    My apprehension about unpaid internships is this:
    As we move forward, are unpaid internships going to become expected before individuals are ever given an opportunity to work for pay? Will a domino effect make it nearly impossible to attain entry-level positions directly out of college? Where will we draw the line?

    I don’t know what the right answer is, or if there even is one. I just hope it will clearer by the time I start hiring.

    Sara Grasmon
    Marketing/Community Relations
    Hagerstown Suns

  • Dave — In developing this PSA, we researched the US Department of Labor’s Fair Labor Standards Act to at least explore what the law says about profit vs. non-profit organizations. Look at the information on FLSA Section 14(c) Advisor at as guidance. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    Quentin: We developed this PSA as guidance to assist not only employers, but students to determine how the internship opportunity can provide the best fit for them. There are laws articulating the legal issues, however, there is that “gray” area where the law does not necessarily address clearly. Sure, students benefit from the internship experience because that adds to their ability to get jobs. We can’t over emphasize how attaining a mutually beneficial relationship between an intern and the employer is important. Both have to develop realistic expectations and outcomes so the experience will be valuable, regardless of the compensation.

    This PSA will hopefully assist both the intern and employer with a foundation as they work out the details of what the experience will entail, both the legal and ethical perspectives. Based on some of the comments we’re receiving since the PSA was posted, I believe we will discover other aspects of the issue we can address. Many thanks for your comments.

    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.

  • I’m a PR graduate student who’s currently working two unpaid internships. In the past, I’ve received compensation for my work, so this was a new venture for me. The difference now is that I’m actively seeking portfolio pieces and solid accomplishments in order to better leverage myself when I graduate; I’m finding it nearly impossible to secure even a junior level position, even after more than five internships and combined years of work experience.

    I think unpaid internships depend on what the intern is seeking. I specifically declined academic credit for compensation in my internships, because I didn’t want to pay tuition for an unpaid internship. I do believe that companies that don’t offer any compensation at all are putting Band-Aids on bullet wounds: substituting unpaid interns for positions that should be full-time and paid.

    My advice would be to use your best judgment; talk to mentors and professors if you believe you’re being undervalued. Oftentimes, the contacts, experience and resources gained from unpaid internships can be worth it– but make sure that both you and the company are benefiting from the experience.

    Elizabeth M. Holtan
    PR Master’s Candidate ’11
    S.I. Newhouse School
    Syracuse University

  • Elizabeth — Your comments are appreciated. Your experiences provide great wisdom for students and employers as well. The more we hear from others like you can one day make a difference, one I trust will lead to interns getting paid for the valuable work they provide for their employers and to the public relations profession. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    Francis C. McDonald, Ph.D., APR,
    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.

  • The solution to this issue is simple: Universities should require that interns be paid. Not easy but the best way.

  • I feel that this article was relevant to the issues that I had to deal with my junior year in college. As a public relations major, I had to find a internship that met the requirements, but I also needed a paid one.
    I wanted to benefit from my internship in more ways then one, including exposure and financially. I have found that with having both a paid and unpaid the workload was the same but I found that I did not put as much effort in the unpaid because I knew that I wasn’t really being rewarded.
    If more companies

  • I completely agree with the Professional Standard Advisory PS-17: Ethical Use of Interns.

    As a college senior and former intern at WDIV Local News Detroit, ii received class credits for completing an internship during the summer of 2009.

    Each intern is able to gain from their experience applying themselves in a field of their choice. Every intern deserves credit for their work, whether physical money or course credit from a university.

    A company that is willing to hire someone should definitely have something to offer their “intern” in return, if not class credit, salary, or pay a position would definitely suffice : )

  • I feel that this article was relevant to the issues that I had to deal with my junior year in college. As a public relations major, I had to find a internship that met the requirements, but I also needed a paid one.

    I wanted to benefit from my internship in more ways then one, including exposure and financially. I have found that with having both a paid and unpaid the workload was the same but I found that I did not put as much effort in the unpaid because I knew that I wasn’t really being rewarded and did not have anything to show for it such as material for my portfolio.

    If more companies and businesses follow the guidelines that are in the FLSA, not only will they benefit but also the intern that they hire and they both can become useful resources for each other.

  • In my response to this article, and having experienced first hand the disadvantages of an unpaid internship, I feel that it is a good idea to enforce the FSLA guidelines. Students view internships as an opportunity to potentially land a job that complements your experience, and to serve as a stepping stone within the inside network of the company. Based on my experience working for a Public Relations department at Bauer Publishing, I was assisting publicists with press releases, and material that was actually used and published and was compensated with academic credits. I honestly learned a great deal, and walked away with an amazing experience, but the overall commute, time, and work was not properly rewarded.

    Depending on the internship and your overall contribution to the company, their should definitely be guidelines determining whether you should receive monetary compensation. PR Interns generally perform a lot of the tasks that professional PR agents do on a daily basis, and although the experience is a checklist on your resume, interns deserve a little bit more.

  • “The intern does not displace a regular employee, but works under the close supervision of existing staff.”

    I agree with the premise of the PSA. It is unacceptable to rob an intern of their time and refuse to compensate them. If a position is available and pay is not, an apprenticeship is an appropriate title rather than internship. Internships do not promise employment upon completion, which is unfortunate. The requirements of an internship should be less demanding and the experience should focus heavily on teaching. It’s pertinent to demonstrate, profess, and acknowledge core competencies to an intern for comprehension.

    Thanks for the consideration and effort to help facilitate change for us students. I’m looking forward to penetrating the field and getting paid for my skills and abilities.

  • The topic of unpaid vs. paid internships has been a hot debate amongst students and I am happy to see it resonate outside of the collegiate realm and into the business world. I am currently a senior Public Relations major, and it is drilled into our heads that experience is most valuable. On the search for experience at any cost, many students will do an internship without any immediate gratification.
    I have three internships thus far, two unpaid and one paid. The only time I felt at ease with the amount of work I gave for free was when I worked for a non-profit. It was a great experience and satisfied my need for volunteerism. Aside from that experience, I believe it is unethical to use students who create the product that makes your company money and not pay them for the same work as an employee.
    It is a struggle to find a paid-internship which increases the struggle to balance school, work, and an unpaid time commitment; while still having the same financial constraints. 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 employee as a lack of drive or ambition, but it could simply be the lack of opportunity.

  • As a May ‘11 candidate for my undergraduate degree, this article touches on points that are extremely relevant to my life. I have had a paid internship previously, but it was difficult to come by. Now, when I scan through all of the requirements listed to apply for positions, I realize how truly important experience is. Whereas before, I balked at the idea of an unpaid internship, I am now actively seeking any position that will grant me the experience I need to secure a full time position in the field of PR.

    I believe that interns should be compensated, but how do I balance this belief and wanting to do what I deem necessary in order to reach my ultimate goal? Hopefully, employers that I have in the future will keep these ethical concerns in mind and not take advantage of my desire to succeed.

    Amanda Olson
    PR Undergraduate May ’11 Candidate
    Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communication
    Hampton University

  • I agree with the commentar Elizabeth Holtan. That unpaid internships really depend on what that intern is looking for. I too would turn down a unpaid internship if I still have to pay tuition at my college campus to get academic credit for the internship. An paid or upaid internship is really want the intern gets out of it, you get as much out of it as you put in.

    So, No I don’t think we should get rid of unpaid internships. But i do think that the persons seeking an internship should discuss the pros and cons of it being paid or unpaid with a mentor or advisor to make sure they are making the right decision. Also, making sure that the company is not abusing there time and working skills.

    If the Intern is learning a valueable lesson from an unpaid internship why get rid of them. Unpaid internships like several commentars said is an oppurtunity for recent grads and people trying to get some experience in the field a chance.

  • I agree with the sentiments Lindsay Bailey shared. Like so many other expected May 2011 grads, I have realized that “real life” will be here in just a few short months. In my case, this new found reality comes with the need for a job, an internship, or additional education. Upon the advice of several professional mentors and family friends, I have decided to forego my graduate level education for the time being, in order to get more on-the-job experience. I currently find myself seeking jobs, and being offered internships or other temporary positions, with only the possibility for advancement within the company.

    Having had both paid and unpaid internship experiences, I was very fortunate to find value in both. As an unpaid intern I was able to gain several samples for my portfolio, as well as skills that would later help me land other internship opportunities. The company I worked with was very forthright in all of their intentions, and I knew that there was no guarantee for me to be re-hired. As it turns out, I was asked to come back to work with the same company the following summer, in a much greater capacity (but still in an unpaid position), and my experience then was even more beneficial than it had been the first time.

    I feel that internships are a necessary part of the educational experience, because they (should) give the intern a chance to further explore the work world they may have only seen through someone else’s experiences, for the past four years. At my university, is a required that all graduates complete an internship. In many ways such a requirement is a built-in “way finder.” I have heard so many people say they learned so much more about what they did and did not want to do from their internship experiences. Do I think that if interns are doing the same work as other paid employees that they too should get paid…absolutely! The reality is, if left to choose between a great opportunity that is unpaid and no experience at all, many would still opt for the unpaid position. Making the most of the experiences gained and opportunities that arise is about as good as it gets these days.

  • After experiencing being on both sides of having a paid and unpaid internship, I have many mixed views but can also see the valid point that it should be a necessity for interns to have a mutual agreement about compensation in some form. Interns typically provide a backbone for companies to accomplish the tasks that could not be completed in a timely manner if not for their help. In many cases, interns have even provided work and ideas for a company that can evolve into huge projects and even bring in substantial revenue. Unfortuntely, I feel like lots of these interns are not even given the chance to hang on as full-time employees. While I feel like the vast majority of interns should be monetarily compensated, I completely agree with the post above in that if they are not being paid, they at least need to be honestly informed whether the job can become permanent or not. As long as the intern knows what they are getting into, then all is fair.

  • I believe it is easier for an employer to know the intentions of an unpaid intern vs. a paid one. They understand they are looking for people who have experience but without an internship there is no way to gain the experience. So, in a sense they are helping the intern and if they produce good work, and the intern believes that is the environment and company/organization that want to pursue, there should be no problems.

    What does not make sense is a company that hires interns for a company objective, such as giving back to the community or demonstrating their leadership role in society rather than actually cares about the intern. A company’s intentions are demonstrated by what tasks the company gives the intern.

  • As a college student I feel that internships should be paid or college credits should be offered. If an intern is contributing to the company, then their work should be compensated. Unpaid internships do not pay bills and they can conflict with jobs.
    I’m about to graduate and I am having trouble finding jobs. Like Lindsay stated above, most opportunities for college graduates are unpaid opportunities. I’m glad that this is a conflicting issue that has been brought to employers and the PR industry.

  • As a PR student, I have thought a great deal about this topic. I’ve been applying to internships- both paid and unpaid- but I struggle a lot with the idea of taking an unpaid internship. I agree with most of the students and many of the practitioners above. I love the industry and I am seeking experience, portfolio pieces and mentorship in the internships that I sign up for, but I have bills to pay too. Some sort of compensation should be provided for interns, and college credit doesn’t really help, especially in the summer. For students receiving college credit for a summer internship, enrollment is still mandatory which means I have to pay the university to be in the 1, 2 or 3 credit hours I receive from the internship.

    One option that may be helpful is offering housing. If a student has to relocate for the position, it often becomes a conflict of paying for an apartment at school and near the internship, which is very taxing on the pocket book.

    I also agree with comments above stating that “cream of the crop” students may not apply for the unpaid internships. Many of the most dedicated, hardworking and talented students (all qualities that employers are looking for) are that way because they have learned to stand on their own two feet financially. Those students cannot afford an unpaid internship.

  • As a PR student in North East Ohio, I see a great deal of value in both paid and unpaid internships in my own experience.

    Having had one of each I can say that both offer a great deal of experience but the Paid internships are usually less about the learning experience and more about the organization cheaply paying someone to do the work they need done. If experiential learning is your goal it might actually be better to go with an unpaid internship. While paid internships look great as work experience on a resume, the learning experience in an unpaid internship can very possibly be more beneficial.

  • I saw the update and the PRSA response to the New York Times editorial. The PRSA is wrong on this. Unless it’s for a nonprofit, unpaid internships are illegal, college credit or not. Read the FSLA!

  • Unpaid internships can be beneficial if A: the experience will significantly help the career field he or she wants to go into B: if the costs does not out way the benefits. 

    But if a student is having to move to a different city for less than a year, find housing, work for college credit, then compensation should be given in the form of housing or an hourly wage. If students’ parents can’t offer support the other option is taking out extra student loans which does not seem work it. 

    What really irritates me are the main stream corporations or government agencies who expect students to work full time hours in some of the most expensive cities in the world without monetary compensation. Even then we are not guaranteed a job.  

    Legally, companies should have to give interns compensation. At least pay for the internship credits students are charged with or offer a housing stipend or give us a meal card! 

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