PR Insider: The Intern Conundrum – To Pay or Not to Pay

Shawn Paul Wood
Shawn Paul Wood

When it comes to agencies hiring interns, something usually comes up in conversation while determining job qualifications: “To pay or not to pay.” Frankly, that should never be the question.

Students who choose to take on an internship do so with the understanding they are the ugly face at the bottom of the totem pole. They understand days of coffee filling and paper cuts await them, but they are happy to do it because the experience they will glean from being there serves a mutually beneficial purpose – the agency gets someone to do the banal tasks of PR, and the intern learns what it takes to make it in the world of communications.

Only now, they are being forced to deal with unpaid internships. Why is this even a conversation? Sure, the intern is able to use your prestigious logo as resume fodder, but let’s be honest: your logo doesn’t buy groceries. Your paycheck stubs do.

To wit, here are five simple reasons why paying interns makes “cents”:

1. Internships have become the new interview.

If you are paying interns, you incentivize them to stay already. You get a hard worker (most of the time) for a small hourly fee. Extra hands on deck to help with new business proposals, collating all those client documents, making media lists, and maybe even the perfunctory email pitch. For three months, the intern gets the hang of working as part of a team, so everyone gets to discover if team chemistry is a thing. If the intern stays, the transition process is not costly or time-consuming. More importantly, it saves time going through the interview process and dealing with the learning curve.

2. Paid internships attract better candidates.

Few things in agency life are worse than the intern or employee that doesn’t work out. The team is eager to have an extra set of hands and another brain during client think-tank meetings. And then, reality sets in when the new person has velociraptor arms and a brain that can’t diagram a complex sentence. Paying interns attracts better people for the position because they have a reason to work harder. Instead of spending their time looking for the next unpaid internship in three months, they are working toward keeping the position they already have.

3. They create free in-house brand advocacy.

Good agencies love using local communication schools as its storehouse for the next great employee. If you pay your interns, there is more of an opportunity for that positive mojo to get spilled in your direction. The intern brags to his or her college friends that your agency rocks because it pays interns and offers great tutelage. More and more people from that particular school want to apply at your agency. And the circle of life is born. Goodbye search-and-wait. Hello post-and-hire.

4. Unpaid internships are probably illegal.

The U.S. Department of Labor has established six guidelines under the Fair Labor Standards Act to help for-profit employers determine whether or not an internship program necessitates paying the federal minimum wage and overtime. In order to be unpaid, an internship must be an educational experience as close as possible to the one the intern would receive in college, and their work should not displace that of a regular employee. The employer should also gain no immediate advantage from the intern’s activities, and the program should benefit the intern first and foremost. Let’s be honest: today’s internship benefits the company because they are treated as an extra junior staff member. If that’s the case, pay them like one.

5. It undermines solid growth in public relations.

If your agency doesn’t do the right thing and pay interns, it is actually contributing to the downfall of the industry. Why? Because unpaid interns replace paid workers, which undermines trust, expertise, and other things that are crucial to good communications and client interaction. Agencies minimize risk and maximize reward with a paid internship program. The future employee gets more out of the opportunity with a big spotlight at the end of the tunnel. The current agency gets one as well with someone who actually gets it, wants it, and works hard for it. Like with any free agent, you pay people to be part of the team. We should pay our interns too.

Shawn Paul Wood is a 20-year veteran of traditional and digital public relations, as well as a former radio news director and on-air talent. He is currently CEO of Woodworks Communications in Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas. Follow Shawn: @shawnpaulwood

  • Bill Johnson

    There’s no conundrum. It’s the law. Pay them.