PR Interns and Work Experience

PR Week April 2014 PR Internships
There’s a lot of talk recently about PR internships. This month’s PR Week used a comic-style story (above) to hit the message home and just today, the CIPR released a statement calling for internships in the industry to be more fair and prove their effectiveness.

There are a lot of issues that may or may not apply here in Northern Ireland, unpaid internships (which I’ve rarely seen), internships in large agencies (of which we don’t have many), internships in the voluntary sector (normally advertised as volunteering) and equality for ethnic groups and social-mobility (the ability to afford to work unpaid, which is a societal problem in general) and something I’ve blogged about before.

The one issue that does hit home for me is the effectiveness of such a role. I didn’t partake in the university “year-out” here, known as the industrial placement, most of which were paid on some level. My reasons were two-fold. Firstly, I was looking to graduate at the peak of the economic boom. Jobs were everywhere but the industry was also booming and I wanted to get ahead of my competitors and work my way up a year early. Secondly, based on the experience of others including those who worked in universities to support students through their placement year, I didn’t think it would be that advantageous. This was soon proven when employers starting asking for one year’s experience “not including placement year” when advertising for entry level positions.

I’m sure it’s a slap in the face to those who did really work their bums off in their placement year, and given the usual under-funding and all-hands-on-deck approach in most Communications/PR teams, an extra body with half a brain cell will not normally be allowed to just sit and surf the internet all day. They will work. But my initial experiences in temporary paid roles did unfortunately mirror the PR internship bad news stories across the water.

Alastair McCapra, CIPR Chief Executive stated today;

“Internships should offer a route to gain practical experience and provide equal opportunities for new entrants of all backgrounds.”

Now paying for an entry-level employee in an agency may overcome the opportunities for all issue, but gaining practical experience is something else entirely. I did learn certain things during one particular six-month stint, including how to write a radio script, how to manually do media monitoring for clients and how an art department interprets a client brief.

Unfortunately though I spent the bulk of my time in a strange celeb personal assistant scenario where my daily tasks ranged from organising the itinerary for a family trip to Disneyland, sourcing an American sauce for export after return from said trip, Christmas gift shopping, buying wedding gifts online, designing weekly after-school and child minder rotas, and doing the lunch runs for very particular sandwich fillings that were wrong more often than they were right.

Oh and arranging the fruit bowl for the Board room. That’s a very important job.

In a way now, I don’t begrudge these tasks, they taught me valuable lessons about the importance of being part of a team, no matter the part you play and ensuring that it is never above me to do the most basic (or grubby) of administrative tasks if that’s what it takes to get a job done.

But I do begrudge having to take so many of these types of short-term, low-paid roles in order to really gain the experience I needed. I didn’t even draft a press release until 2 years after I graduated. My skills were being wasted and, worse still, time was ticking on for me to discover if in fact I was cut out for the job I had invested so much time and money training myself to do.

So I went in-house, where I found you were given more responsibility and more creative opportunity, because you weren’t a dogsbody, you were another person, you had a brain, you had training and you could give anything a go if it helped get the work done.

I can’t speak for the PR agencies here, or indeed any of the local businesses who invest in the work placement schemes here, but I do hope that they see both sides of the story – not just what a person can do for you, but what you can do for them.