PRSA Advises on Ethical Use of PR Interns

PRSA recently submitted some guidelines on the ethical use of PR interns. The following is a copy of the blog post on PRSAY from February 10, 2011.

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

Posted by Francis McDonald in February 10th 2011  

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.

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