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Head to Head: Should the industry eliminate unpaid internships?

In this series, Mumbrella invites the industry's senior PR professionals to share their opposing views on the industry's biggest issues. This week, Ogilvy PR's Graham White goes head to head with Neon Black's Soraya Calavassy on whether or not there is room for unpaid internships in the PR and comms industry.

Hiring the right young talent is a regular battle for the PR and communications industry.

In order to combat the problem, Ogilvy PR’s group managing director of technology and business, Graham White, believes the industry needs to start focusing on paid opportunities for graduates.

On the flip side, Neon Black’s Soraya Calavassy says experience is key, and paid or unpaid internships are the best way to secure new talent.

Yes, argues, Graham White, group managing director technology and business, Ogilvy Public Relations:

“Ogilvy PR believes unpaid internships outside approved university course work do not have a place in today’s environment. Instead, the industry should be focused on providing structured paid opportunities to graduates and others keen to better understand or work in communications.

White says there is no place for unpaid internships in the PR and comms industry

“For example, an important part of our diversity and inclusion program is the partnership Ogilvy PR has with CareerTrackers, a national non‑profit organisation supporting the long‑term career aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander university students.

“The goal is to prepare students for success at university in their chosen profession. To do this, we are providing each intern a paid opportunity to learn by doing, and get exposed to the type of work we do. The long-term aim is to help convert these interns into full time employees upon completion of their university degree.

“We wholeheartedly believe it’s important to drive change in the industry, so programs like CareerTrackers demonstrate a desire to change old pre-set views on internships.

“Outside CareerTrackers, we provide students on approved university degrees with short-term unpaid internships as part of their course work. We do this in compliance with the Fair Work Ombudsman and believe it’s important for the industry to continue to provide these opportunities. The duration of the internship is normally a couple of weeks, the intern selects the hours they work and the role is primarily observational. The student is the main beneficiary of the arrangement to better correlate theory with practice. These should be the only internship programs that remain.”

No, argues, Soraya Calavassy, co-founder, Neon Black:

“There is no doubt experience is golden for those looking to forge a career path in the PR industry. Internships, paid or unpaid, are a breeding ground for some of the best emerging talent. Creating a blanket ban on unpaid internships and eliminating the opportunity for people to learn and make an informed career decision isn’t the way forward.

“Often people are lured into PR by the perceived ‘glamour’. The truth is the industry is vastly different, and university courses do not appropriately prepare students for the gritty, but rewarding, reality.

“Internships act as an eye-opening insider’s view into the world of communications. An internship can help develop valuable skills. It can also prove somebody is on the right career path, or cause them to reconsider their goals.

Calavassy says “internships, paid or unpaid, are a breeding ground for some of the best emerging talent”

“While we shouldn’t eliminate all unpaid internships, regulation is required with a clear exchange of value between both parties. At Neon Black, not only do we only work with interns who gain university credits in exchange for their time, we have a structured 12-week program with clear outcomes.

“Unpaid internships shouldn’t be considered a rite-of-passage, but they can absolutely be a foot in the door. As a minimum standard, interns should walk away with mentorship, a network of contacts, a portfolio of writing and a glimpse into the inner workings of a PR agency.

“Unpaid interns have a great deal to gain provided they are respected, not exploited, aren’t promised a role at the internship’s conclusion, or made to work as an account coordinator with no remuneration.

“Personally, interns who show their tenacity, drive, passion, and willingness to learn are the people I have recommended for roles and, where possible, hired myself.

“Eliminating unpaid internships will only disadvantage the next generation of PR professionals. However, given so many agencies have a ‘use-and-abuse’ mentality, there must be an industry wide conversation and a line drawn in the sand at this behaviour.”

  • As told to Abigail Dawson. If you’re a senior PR professional who would like to take part in a future Head to Head, please email abigail@mumbrella.com.au
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