Five Things You Can't Expect from an Unpaid InternAhh, the PR internship.

That much-maligned rite of passage for anyone hoping to make their way in the communications world.

It’s a bit like that inevitable bin-dunking you get on your first day of junior school (just me, then?) or learning to drive: Painful and a bit degrading at the same time.

But hopefully you emerge from the whole sorry mess a better, more enlightened person (or, alternatively, a snivelling shadow of your former self).

Those bewildering weeks spent shackled to the photocopier, the tea-making, the media-list compiling, the general skivvying – and without being paid – that’s all a massive favor, isn’t it?

No, not on the intern’s part, silly! It’s an act of kindness from PR agencies, giving career-thirsty twentysomethings extremely valuable lessons in the workings of the illustrious communications industry (and hot beverage-making too, of course).

If anything, these interns should be paying PR agencies for such an enlightening induction into public relations, right?


My cheeky’ness aside, unpaid internships can potentially be harmful to your business. At the very least, you’re probably not going to get the very best. And they could prove detrimental to your business.

Unpaid Interns Can’t Do it All

Here are five things you can’t expect from an unpaid intern.

  1. That they get out of bed on time. We aren’t all morning people. It takes a wildly irritating alarm clock and the comforting reassurance that Starbucks will be open to deal me out a triple shot latte to get me out of bed on time each morning – and I love my job. If you’re not paying someone to get to work on time every day, chances are they won’t. And while punctuality may seem a bit nit-picky, rocking through the office door at 9:15 just isn’t cool – it massively de-motivates everyone in the team. Hitting the ground running at 9 o’clock sharp is crucial if you want to maintain a professional working environment.
  2. That they give it their all. Okay, so your new intern might start out all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but anyone who seriously expects them to arrive with a smile on their face, ready to bust a gut every morning when they’re not getting a dime in return, probably needs their head examining. If you’re not offering your intern money or job stability for their efforts, you can’t really get shirty when they dedicate some of their working hours to finding someone else who will. Or to Whatsapping their mates, or playing Candy Crush. When you’re paying your interns, it’s not an unreasonable expectation they’ll put a decent amount of effort in. The result? You’ve got someone who’s genuinely adding value to your business rather than sitting twiddling their thumbs. Go you!
  3. That they’re going to be a team player. Your intern might be as altruistic as Robin Hood, but working day-in day-out with people who are getting paid when they’re not earning a cent isn’t really going to make them feel like part of the team, is it? No matter how much they smile and laugh when you give them another media list to compile, chances are on the inside they’re resenting you something rotten. When everyone’s hard work is being recognized and remunerated fairly, it’s more likely they’ll feel more team-spirited and you’ll be free of office bad vibes.
  4. That they’ll hit the ground running. Having an ‘extra pair of hands’ around the office it might be, but an intern is another person to manage (this is particularly true if they haven’t been through the company’s full selection process). I think I’ve banged on enough about how paying your interns will encourage them to work harder for you. It’s inevitable any intern will cost you dear in management time – why not invest this time in someone who is bringing actual value to your business rather than someone who doesn’t feel like they owe you anything?
  5. That they’ll be the best of the best. Unpaid internships make the whole PR industry silly and elitist. Sorry, but they do. Effectively they say “You can only work for me if you (or your parents) are willing to fork out for food.” Which is nearly as absurd as saying “You can only work for me if your surname begins with Q and your dad’s called Nigel.” You’re shooting yourself and your business in the foot because – as we all know –  being rich or influential doesn’t make one good at managing public reputation. Justin Bieber is walking proof of this. Give your interns enough to live off and you’re likely to attract the talented ones, not the ones whose mummy and daddy own a stately home in the countryside and will let them crash at their city center penthouse rent-free.

So hopefully I’ve hammered home my point here. Not paying your interns is tempting, for sure, but it’ll ultimately damage your business and prevent you from finding those hidden gems who could prove to be your best next hire.

What are your thoughts? Are you pro or con paid internships?

Hannah Stacey

Hannah is an account manager at integrated B2B marketing agency TopLine Communications. She really likes social media, small business, and pictures of angry cats. Baked beans, action films and inexplicably warm chairs? Not so much.

View all posts by Hannah Stacey