Interns and exploitation continued

Internships exploitation in PR is obviously not only a widespread problem but one which provokes some strong feelings.

The blog was a bit taken aback when students at RMIT started to unload on the system and was rather more taken aback when horror stories started to roll in. As readers will have noticed the blog does not provide a comments section partly because of lack of time to moderate it and partly because, while writing for the online newsletter crikey , the blog became aware of the combination of vitriol and insanity among many of those who felt compelled to post reactions. But working in an industry full of resourceful people comments came from many who used old-fashioned email to give their views.

Vicki Bamford, UTS lecturer, confirmed that like RMIT they too worked hard to screen internships and protect students. She says: “We have the same problem at UTS and are trying to keep a keen eye on student experiences by checking internships before they start and midway through via conversations with the student’s to raise ethical issues.  We are better placed to manage internships that come into the university and are circulated on our noticeboards because we raise the Fair Work Act when discussing timeframes, paid or unpaid and mentoring with organisations which approach us. This helps but it doesn’t fix the problem.  Many students pick up internships via online websites such as pedestrian and concrete playground and these internships do not always follow the Fair Work Act protocols.” Both organisations’ websites are worth a visit just to see what is on offer.

Sally Davis, a vastly experienced practitioner who has worked in the public and private sectors as well as being a consultant and an RMIT lecturer confirmed that she was aware of large consultancies employing unpaid interns for long periods – including consultancies which pride themselves on their PRIA membership.

And another PR practitioner said that she had worked in PR for many years and but accepted a job for an upmarket magazine which seems to be very profitable. The magazine apparently uses many ‘interns’ (writers and photographers from PR and journalism backgrounds). There are no written agreements for them and they can work unpaid for as long as they like – usually part-time over a period of a few months. The ‘interns’ are generally students and the employer argues that they are being helped “to get a foot in the door”.

So far so good, or not rather, but the practitioner told the blog that when the summer university holidays began her hours were cut back completely and that she could start back again after the long university vacation. As the practitioner told the blog – the reason was that the employer had enough interns to cover the work so why did they need to pay someone. “So effectively, the interns who accepted unpaid work experience put me out of a job. I tried to explain this to some of them who just thought my comments were sour grapes… poor things, they really believed that this unpaid work might lead to something permanent. It won’t. There will always be another young intern busting to get some unpaid work experience and make a name for themselves. Interns be warned,” the practitioner said.

Of course the blog, while having strong views on the employer, also wonders about the naivety of some of the students. It’s a tough world but if you are that naïve it will just get tougher. They should have listened to the bitter experience of the person they replaced.

Meanwhile RMIT is pursuing the issue and new PRIA President, Mike Watson, has told the blog the PRIA has been looking at the issue and will provide some more guidance.

And by the way, on another note altogether, Curtin University is undertaking another survey of the state of the industry in Australia. There were no questions about interns but perhaps in the next one there might be, even if that causes some problems in what is a longitudinal study. Dr Katharina Wolf and Nigel de Bussy are currently running stage three of their State of PR in Australia study, with the aim to capture the development of the industry over time.

Dr Wolf says: “For the findings to be meaningful, we are keen to hear back from PR professionals (in all their shapes and sizes) from around the country.” If you would like to participate go to the survey link