After years of controversy over unpaid internships, the picture for PR newbies is brightening as more agencies are vowing to pay their fledgling help.
The PR Council has announced that its members pledged to pay their interns in the United States at least minimum wage in their market.
The policy—which goes into effect Jan. 1, 2020—follows debate between those who call paying interns a matter of justice and those who point to the invaluable experience an intern gains.
“These interns are getting real-world experience,” says PR Council President Kim Sample. “They are working on client business as a part of a team—super-valuable experience. At the same time, they’re really contributing in meaningful ways. So they must be compensated.”
The debate has heated up in recent years. Spurred by the nonprofit Pay Our Interns, the U.S. Congress in March approved pay for its traditionally unpaid interns after public shaming, The Washington Post reported. The Wall Street Journal and others have weighed in, asking, “Are Unpaid Internships Exploiting Students?”
The association represents 110 top U.S. public relations firms, among them Edelman, FleishmanHillard and Ogilvy Public Relations.
“Properly shaped and managed internship experiences are critical to preparing young talent for future positions,” Gail Heimann, PRC board chair and Weber Shandwick president, said in a statement.
The decision drew praise from Tina McCorkindale, president and CEO of the Institute for Public Relations, as well as others in the industry.
“I applaud PR Council’s mandate, and I hope more industry leaders follow suit,” McCorkindale says. “I 100% agree that all internships should be paid. That was a clear recommendation in the ‘2018 Commission for PR Education’ report. PR agencies that don’t pay interns are violating the Fair Labor Standards Act.”
A National Labor Relations Board judge ruled in March that Amnesty International USA, the human rights group, broke the law by threatening a group of its unpaid interns who drafted a petition asking to be paid, Bloomberg reported. Amnesty International denied threatening the interns and vowed to appeal the ruling.
Testing the waters
Before initiating the policy, the PR Council surveyed members, Sample says. All 50 contacted were paying interns, and only one wasn’t paying minimum wage.
Sample, who waited tables to pay her way through college, says she could not have afforded an unpaid internship.
The latest decision should help improve diversity in the industry, she adds. “Often the most diverse talent can’t afford an unpaid internship,” she says.
Others have already made the decision to pay interns. Bill Corbett Jr., president of Corbett Public Relations, says the firm decided last year to pay interns after following the recent news on the issue.
“We recognize that interns provide valuable support and energy within our organizations,” he says. “We have found that there is a different mindset when interns are paid; they are more serious and feel more a part of the firm, even if it is for only a few months.”
Corbett adds that he has had both paid and unpaid internships, and he knows from experience what even a modest paycheck means.
Jonathan Rick of The Jonathan Rick Group agrees. By not paying interns, agencies “solidify social stratification. Which is to say, poor kids can’t afford to work for free,” he says. “If you don’t pay your interns, you cater to kids who don’t need the money.”
Rick says that when he came to Washington, D.C., he worked for a think tank. The pay was low, but it covered his rent. He knew someone, however, who had to leave an internship because of the low pay.
Intern duties vary
Responsibilities differ by agencies from fetching coffee to working as full-time employees, Rick says. “It’s not enough to say you get school credit,” he says. “Clients are paying agencies for the work that they do.”
Even with pay, PR interns are likely to continue regarding top intern pay in other industries with envy. Tech companies offer the highest-paying entry-level and internship spots, Glassdoor reported in May. Interns at Facebook earn a median monthly pay of $8,000.
Finance and consulting companies follow tech, as Capital One, Bank of America and J.P. Morgan offer median monthly base pay for interns above $5,500.
The PR Council’s survey turned up misconceptions among its members about internships. Many of them incorrectly thought colleges and universities wouldn’t allow students to earn college credit if they were paid.
The council worked with the Commission on Public Relations Education and other academic organizations, “and they all advocated for paid internships,” Sample says.
“We just saw this policy as a way to clear up that confusion,” she says. “Hopefully, everybody’s going to follow suit.”