What’s Wrong with Unpaid PR Internships: A Lot

Pile of various U.S. dollar bills
For some college students, taking an unpaid internship is not feasible. (Image- Karolina Grabowska via Pexels)

In a perfect world, students would complete a paid internship in their junior or senior year of college and then receive a full-time offer from the employer they have been working for. But that’s not always the case for students majoring in public relations. In several cases, PR internships are unpaid.

While it’s true that unpaid internships are in decline across the United States, COVID-19 has forced PR employers to lay off their employees and cut costs due to cancelled events, campaigns, and more challenges — resulting in an increased demand for unpaid interns.

It’s easy to assume that students are not forced to take an unpaid internship. But when it comes to the PR industry, sometimes you have to, especially since an internship is typically required to graduate.

And while it’s great to get real-world experience through an internship, experience itself doesn’t help students pay for rent, groceries, or student loans. Working for “experience” is a privilege that the average young American college student, especially those who are of color and/or are living in high-cost cities, cannot afford.

When I was a senior at Temple University in Philadelphia, I was determined to land my dream internship only to find out it was unpaid and across the city. I didn’t have a car and while I could have spent a painful $20 each way, twice a week, to Uber there, I would’ve had to practically starve that semester. Luckily, I was fortunate enough to get another offer for a paid internship.

The fact is, unpaid internships actually give an unfair advantage to PR students from a privileged background. The result is a constant cycle that allows wealthier students to capitalize on opportunities that others simply cannot afford.

On top of this, students who come from privileged or wealthy backgrounds may find it easier to land paid PR internships through effortlessly achieved connections. This just adds to the negative cycle. Underprivileged students who don’t have as many automatic connections and can’t afford to accept an unpaid PR internship are forced to find unrelated full-time jobs or other ways of generating income. As a result, the student misses out on PR-specific internships and networking opportunities.

Now is the time all PR students should build diverse networks. We should not have to worry about working 40-hour shifts, staying on top of full-time coursework, staying involved in different clubs or student organizations, and working at an unpaid internship on top of it all.

Wanting a paid internship doesn’t mean students think they should just have things handed to them. It’s important to remember that when many PR students graduate from college, they are often trapped in a low salary position because they might lack the experience they were not privileged enough to gain. This only makes it harder for these new PR professionals to both scale up and be financially stable.

PR organizations need to improve their diversity initiatives and foster more commitment to supporting students as they take on crucial professional development opportunities, often at their own financial expense. Instead of covering lunches on Fridays, or providing subway cards and travel expenses, employers need to pay their PR interns actual money. It’s the ethical thing to do.

The PR Council, an association representing 110 top U.S. PR firms, is setting a great example for the industry. In June 2019, the PR Council created a policy that requires its member firms to pay their interns. As people learned more about privilege and the racial wealth gap in America this summer, I am hopeful that other organizations will follow suit.

The competition is real. But so are the struggles that many students studying public relations face. I urge PRSSA members to share internship opportunities with their fellow peers who come from a diverse background. Whether they are Black or POC, whether they are disabled or cannot afford a car, you are making a difference by including and supporting them. I also suggest looking into PR and communications training programs that help reduce barriers for lower-income students and minorities. If you can’t find any, advocate for them. And lastly, continue to educate yourself. Unless we understand how privilege works and learn how to effectively uplift underprivileged students, we won’t inspire real change.

Use your voice to help ensure paid internships are the norm and not the exception. With all of your hard work, you deserve it.

Haniya Shariff, PRSSA 2020-2021 vice president of diversity and inclusionHaniya N. Shariff is the PRSSA 2020-2021 vice president of diversity and inclusion. A recent graduate of the Klein College of Media and Communication at Temple University, she hopes to build interpersonal networks and create diversity and inclusion initiatives in the healthcare and hospital PR industries. Follow her on Twitter @HaniyaShariff and connect with her on LinkedIn.

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