PR leaders commit to ending unpaid internships

A group of executives and educators want to stop a practice they call exploitative and particularly burdensome to BIPOC.

Bruce MacLellan4

A group of leaders in the public relations industry have authored an open letter voicing their opposition to unpaid internships.

The group is led by Bruce MacLellan, CEO of Proof Strategies and chair of Humber College’s public relations program advisory committee. MacLellan has previously expressed his opposition to unpaid internships and further denounced the practice as “exploitative” in an interview with strategy.

“This is a barrier for entry for people who are coming from disadvantaged economic backgrounds,” explains MacLellan. “We want to build awareness that it’s fundamentally unfair to not pay an intern, and that it’s creating barriers to access for all people to consider a career in public relations.”

In addition to MacLellan, the letter has eleven signatories: Bianca Boyd, COO of Edelman Canada; Sarah Crabbe, president of Agnostic; Maxine McDonald, senior director at Media Profile; Sarah Stewart-Browne, president at North Strategic; Richard Ellis, CEO of Ellis Strategy Group; Eileen Toby, president of Bespeak Communications; Rob Manne, founder of Inflective; Terry Flynn, associate professor at McMaster University; Patricia Pytel, manager of captial communications at Metrolinx; Michelle Lomack, communications director at Rogers Communications; and Ted Bravakis, CEO of Bravacomm.

The letter – the full text of which can be found at the bottom of this story – targets two key audiences, MacLellan says: the public relations agencies themselves, as well as their clients.

“Our request is that clients start asking their agencies if they pay their interns. Otherwise, they shouldn’t be sourcing business to places where it will end up creating an exploitation of labour,” MacLellan says.

MacLellan notes that the issue is a “serious” one in the public relations industry in particular, pointing to an examination of internships taken by Humber College students in 2019 that found approximately half of internships were unpaid. While that means nearly half of internships do pay, the other half are split between those that offer small honorariums – “maybe enough to cover a person’s transit pass” – or nothing whatsoever.

By authoring the letter, the group is hoping to build awareness of the “unethical” practice that MacLellan says is also unique to Canada.

“In the U.S. and the U.K., it’s unheard of to not pay an intern in public relations, but Canada has been slow to change,” he says. “There are some agencies that basically build it into their business model.”

Consensus has been building on the issue, MacLellan says. In 2020, the Canadian Public Relations Society board passed a resolution condemning the practice, and the Canadian Council of Public Relations Firms have included a clause in their code of ethics that members must agree to pay their interns.

“There is a growing consensus,” he says. “But unfortunately, there’s still a lot of employers who haven’t gotten the message.”

Open letter to the PR industry and its clients

Dear colleague,

We write today to bring forward a matter of vital importance to the equity and fairness of the public relations profession—the immediate need to end the practice of unpaid internships in the public relations industry.

Since October 2019, the Public Advisory Committee (PAC) of the Humber College Bachelor of Public Relations program has called for an end to unpaid internships by December 2021. As members of this PAC, we send this letter to enlist your support and take action against this practice. We are in contact with other schools and know we are not alone in our position.

Like many professions, internships are an essential part of public relations education, and many employers in our field have supported them for decades. In Ontario, students typically require 420 internship hours to graduate – the equivalent of 14 weeks of full-time work.

But not paying interns is exploitive. We know the practice creates barriers to entry for students who want an education but cannot afford it. And the practice unfairly hurts students from racialized communities. Recent events have highlighted systemic racism faced by Canadian members of BIPOC communities, and not paying interns is a prime example.

Unfortunately, while unpaid work is generally illegal, most provinces allow it if the internship is tied to a college or university program. The rationale is usually along the lines that employers are “doing students a favour” by providing them experience or helping them meet their graduation requirements. But it is a regrettable decision to decide not to pay young people for their work. It goes against basic workplace practices. In what other instance do we hold people accountable for their workplace performance without providing any monetary compensation?

By comparison, Canada lags the U.S. and U.K. in offering unpaid internships. But there is a growing awareness in the Canadian public relations sector that not paying interns is unfair, and there are promising signs of change:

• The Canadian Council of Public Relations Firms has made offering paid internships a condition of membership since 2015, enshrining the practice in its code of ethics.

• On July 29, 2020, the Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS) Board voted to approve a motion to support the Humber PAC position to eliminate unpaid internships in the Canadian public relations industry by December 2021. This year, CPRS plans to issue a statement condemning the practice.

• On September 8, 2020, a Humber College student joined with our Committee chair to publish a column in The Globe and Mail that outlined the unfairness of unpaid internships.

• In March 2021, the National Summit on Anti-Racism in PR & Communications Management saw more than 600 concerned practitioners in attendance. Many agencies and organizations created and have started implementing their plans to attract and
support BIPOC public relations practitioners.

While these are all promising steps in the right direction, we know that a concerted, industry-wide effort is required to make a lasting and meaningful change over the long term.

We appeal to you as business leaders, fellow practitioners and educators and ask you to join the growing number of voices in our profession calling for an end to unpaid internships by the close of 2021. This pledge includes committing to paying PR interns an hourly wage that meets or exceeds minimum wage or an equivalent honorarium.

For organizations hiring public relations agencies, we ask that you screen agencies and consider partnering with firms only if they pay interns. Use your influence for good.

The pandemic is a challenging time to be in business. Many of us are experiencing financial pressures. Students are even more affected, as their sources of income have dropped substantially or evaporated. Many students rely on loans, bursaries and food banks to get by.

An unpaid internship on top of these financial pressures is a burden many of them cannot bear.

We can and must do better for our future practitioners and leaders.