Unpaid internships: no pay, no play?

This is an article by Hannah Corkish and Carys Samuel.
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Unpaid internships: a subject that is guaranteed to cause debate in any profession and particularly in the creative industries.

Richard Bilton presented 'Who Gets The Best Jobs' on BBC2

A recent BBC documentary exposed fashion PR agency Modus Publicity for its use of up to twenty unpaid interns, causing uproar and controversy amongst PR professionals and students alike.

The debate has been raging in the trade press and on social media site, Twitter, with divided opinions.

It’s tough at the bottom

With 70 applicants for every graduate job, students making the transition to the professional world face a tough challenge, and it’s becoming increasingly apparent that work experience is one of the only ways to stand out in a crowded market.

It is standard on most PR job descriptions to ask for experience and students without this will see their applications at the bottom of the pile. Unfortunately a varied, full portfolio and extensive CV is coming at a price – and it’s the students who are out of pocket.

Many students will complete placements whilst at university, giving up essential hours of study to work, usually for free. Whilst it could be argued that they’re not doing the job of a salaried employee, an intern will often be a valuable resource, bringing in new ideas and fresh creativity from a new perspective.

The young people taking the internships are individuals with such drive for their career that they’ll do anything from making the tea and photocopying, just to get their little toe – let alone their foot – in the door.

The legal situation

Although internships benefit the student as well the employer, there are certain grey areas that could mean these internships are breaking employment law. An internship isn’t strictly voluntary work and it is extremely rare that students undertaking unpaid work experience sign a contract outlining their role, working hours and length of employment.

The CIPR’s work placement charter (available to members only) sets out recommendations for employer best practice, and members should adhere to these guidelines, but there is still no concrete law governing the rights of interns.

An issue raised in the TV documentary is the question of the social backgrounds of interns, in particular those on long-term internships after graduation.

Many are young people from wealthy families who have the luxury of financial support whilst they complete unpaid jobs to expand their CV’s and make vital industry contacts.

A spotlight was thrown onto the Conservative party this week, with a fundraising event auctioning a two week placement at Tatler magazine for the princely sum of £4,000, and that’s just one example.

So does this mean that the Average Joe is disadvantaged without handouts from affluent parents? Or do they have to sacrifice their career to work in an unrelated job just so they can afford to live?

Many comments around the subject on Twitter addressed the issue of the costs that interns faced for travel to their place of work. Speaking to PR students, it seems that most wanted to go out and obtain placements but sometimes struggled to commit to more than a day a week because they needed to undertake paid part-time work to support their studies:

@gargiu: Good experience but was out of pocket due to costly train travel into London, about £20 daily peak

@themadancer: unpaid internships are unfair, especially in London where even basic transport is so expensive sadly internships are necessary in PR

It’s a catch-22 situation. Work part-time at a bar or restaurant and get an income but no industry experience. Or work unpaid at an organisation that will give you great experience and networking opportunities but leave you with precarious finances.

Hannah Corkish and Carys Samuel

Weighing up the pros and cons, interns do have some fantastic opportunities. They have the chance to build up important relationships with employers and clients, exposure to real-life projects and the building blocks to forge a successful career. Successful placements can often lead to full time employment if the intern impresses the employer and if nothing else they will leave with a good reference and extensive portfolio.

Our advice

Finally, some advice for fellow PR students: although placements are valuable and will open up new doors it’s important not to jeopardise your studies and/or financial situation.

If you have concerns, speak to your university or employer – there may be financial support available to help you continue your placement or internship. If travel is a problem, look for opportunities that you can do from your home. Write to publications, websites and agencies to ask about freelance work, start a blog, increase your online presence with sites like Twitter and LinkedIn. There are many opportunities if you look carefully enough.

Perseverance is key. Always show enthusiasm in whatever you do, ask questions and aim to talk to as many people as possible, but most importantly find something you enjoy.

For more information on CIPR recommendations regarding unpaid internships visit the CIPR website at www.cipr.co.uk


  1. I hold down a week end job, placements, university work and a social life, its a won’t rather than can’t in my opinion, as stated there are opportunities in all industries all that can open new doors and opportunities! We are taught through out our education to be able to research thoroughly, and it is proven to help you go along way in life.
    Contact the CIPR by all means for more information, yet most PR agencies associated with the CIPR do not pay interns.

  2. You will find that pretty much every industry requires some form of unpaid work experience these days, so personally I think it is a problem across the board.

    Unpaid internships are not always such a sacrifice, so long as the intern is getting something valuable out of it. To take an intern on to make the tea and do the photocopying is completely and utterly useless to the intern, this isn’t experience..it is a waste of time. Many professionals have used the phrase “you need to start with the rubbish jobs” but in a competitive job market where employers want the best of the best should the role of the intern not change ti ensure their time in the workplace is as valuable as possible?

    I think the problem lies with the preconceived role of interns, they are not there to do the photocopying nor make the tea, they are there to increase their experience in their chosen career path. Change the role of the intern and I think it would change the whole argument of the non-pay situation.

  3. Well said Natalie! Internships should not be viewed as free labour – they’re meant to be an educational and training experience.

    I think this issue also ties in with PR’s overall reputation. How an industry treats and values its new recruits says a lot about how they are valued by others. Breaking into the PR industry is expensive, elitist and unpredictable – much like PR’s reputation in general.

  4. Sophie McMaus says:

    A brilliant article – it highlights the ongoing issues within the PR industry, and it is evident that something needs to be done, and soon.

    Like most other PR students I have done the ‘mundane’ tasks whilst on placement on a day-to-day basis, something which I personally, don’t mind. It only becomes a problem when the employers don’t offer you any valuable experience whereby you can develop your skills, and add to your portfolio.

    This is the real downfall.

  5. Robert Minton-Taylor says:

    Subsequent to my published views on upaid interns in PR Week on 9 February, I have had some interesting feedback from several individuals and organisations, including the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, Europe’s largest human resources and development professional body.

    So let me just re-iterate where I stand on the subject of unpaid interns, so that there are no misunderstandings where I am coming from on this vexed issue.

    I know of many honourable agencies and in-house departments that we work with at Leeds Business School regionally, nationally and internationally who care and respect undergraduates.

    It’s a symbiotic relationship – the undergraduate is able to put the theory he or she has learnt on the university campus into practice in the workplace and the company who employs them gains by employing bright and enthusiastic young people who are eager to learn and to contribute to the firm’s success.

    I am not against undergraduates working for free for short periods to gain real live PR experience, especially in this recession – although I do expect companies to provide a contribution to travel and meal costs while they are on active duty with the organisation.

    The only exception I would make to this is if the student is working for a charity, but I have to say that even for the charities I have worked on a pro-bono basis I have been able to recover my expenses, so why can’t students to the same?

    But, and it’s a big BUT I do draw the line at graduates working for zero pay. Only graduates from upper and middle class families can do this in the UK.

    Those from lower income or single parent homes haven’t got a cat in hell’s chance of being able to afford to live and work for free. PR needs to embrace people from all socio-economic backgrounds.

    I have spent 44 years in the communications business. I have worked both as a board director at a major international agency and as a managing director of a regional UK PR agency and I have to tell you that it’s wrong and offensive for agencies to bill time to clients for work that graduates have done for which the graduate receives nil recompense.

    It’s morally wrong and frankly it’s tantamount to employing slave labour.

    If we really want to be seen as being professional then we have to practice the CSR that we preach.

    Paying people a nil salary for their contribution and worth they give is unprofessional.

    The CIPR code is fine up to a point, but I think it is interesting to reflect, as a fellow of this august organisation and one that was a former chairman of its Professional Practices Committee that it has, what appears to have, a rather defensive attitude on this issue. The CIPR’s public comment in PR Week was that “it was not in a position to amend its code of conduct on this issue. Instead, the body has responded to widespread interest in the issue by updating members on its work placement charter.”

    Fine words, but the Public Relations Consultant’s Association PRCA) has taken this a stage further by setting-up a Commission to look into of issue of broadening access to the PR industry. I have been invited by their chief executive, Francis Ingham, to play a role in working with the Commission to make recommendations on widening access to the PR industry for the “best talent within the UK, irrespective of background.”

    I’ll leave it to “Behind the Spin” readers to judge who they think is the more forward thinking and, dare I say it, the more innovative and proactive of these two professional bodies.

    Robert Minton-Taylor
    Associate Senior Lecturer
    Leeds Business School
    Leeds Metropolitan University
    E-mail: robert@minton-taylor.com
    Web: http://uk.linkedin.com/in/robertmintontaylor

  6. @Robert On behalf of all graduate students – thanks for sticking up for us!

    I’m really pleased to hear about PRSA’s commission. I particularly like their “best talent within the UK, irrespective of background” approach. Too many times I’ve seen a “come get’em while they’re cheap” attitude about hiring students and recent grads. (talk about bad PR) The alternative proposed is much more positive and will only strengthen the industry.

    I just hope the CIPR will follow suit.


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