The PR/intern debate isn’t about money says Stephen Waddington, MD of Speed

Recent debate in mainstream and PR media have prompted agency and in-house bosses to review the terms under which they offer work placements to undergraduate and recent graduates. That can only be a good thing. But work placement schemes wouldn’t be necessary if there was a proper route for graduates into the PR and communications profession. The entry point and skill set is ill-defined and so placements bridge the gap between academia and agency or in-house employment.

Here’s the issue: the PR industry isn’t a profession with the rigour of a minimum skill set and a continuous professional development scheme. At best, it’s an emerging profession and agencies and in-house teams set the entry bar according to their own needs.

The CIPR operates a continuous professional development scheme. Members earn points across a variety of skill areas with the goal of becoming a chartered practitioner. Approximately 10 per cent of the 9,500 members participate at any one time. The scheme isn’t mandatory, but it’s a good start towards professional development.

At Speed we operate a graduate scheme. We’ve had 70 applications for two roles this year. Many weren’t personalised in anyway whatsoever, several contained basic spelling and grammatical errors, and three were received after the deadline passed. Graduates need to help themselves first and foremost. According to Sarah Stimson, a PR recruiter and course director of the Taylor Bennett Foundation internship programme, an understanding of the media, written English and office etiquette are the three core skills that graduates most often lack.

Taylor Bennett runs a 10-week internship programme in a bid to directly to address the need for greater diversity. Graduates receive a weekly allowance and mix of hands-on and desk-based coaching. Motivated students have plenty of ways of getting noticed and better equipping themselves for employment post-university and those that distinguish themselves via blogs, guest posts or social media are snapped up quickly by employers.

Agencies and in-house communications teams that offer intern positions are frequently slated for offering poor remuneration. Payment ranges from nothing to a salary and expenses. We are right to lambast poor practice. There should be basic standards that accord with the law. But while outing poor practice makes for great headlines, it fails to tackle the real issue.

Managing work placements for an agency or in-house team isn’t trivial; candidates require near constant supervision. The Habitat hash tag-jacking case study shows what can go wrong.

Agencies and in-house teams face a stack of pressures and preparing graduates for future employment is way down the list. Without professional standards, recruitment is an imperfect market characterised by an over supply of ill-equipped graduates. Ultimately, however, work placements would not have the significance that they do in the PR industry if there wasn’t such a discrepancy between university education and agency or in-house life.

Formal placement schemes as part of a degree course are one solution, but basic standards must apply. Apprenticeships are another, and Taylor Bennett has a novel approach. This issue will not be solved until PR and communications becomes a profession.

Stephen Waddington (@wadds) is the managing director of PR agency Speed Communications.

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