It is generally accepted by the UK PR community that unpaid PR internships are A Bad Thing. Both industry bodies, the CIPR and PRCA, have guidelines around internships (which talk in great detail about why unpaid internships are A Bad Thing) and both are forceful in their views around pay – interns must be paid or there may be consequences for your membership of both professional bodies.

CIPR guidelines here.

PRCA guidelines here.

Yet, there still seems to be some confusion around the legalities of unpaid interns in PR because unpaid PR internships are still regularly advertised. To clear things up, here’s our handy guide to what’s legal and what’s not.

What is an internship?
What the law says:
Internships are sometimes called work placements or work experience. These terms have no legal status on their own. The rights they have depend on their employment status and whether they’re classed as:

If an intern does regular paid work for an employer, they may qualify as an employee and be eligible for employment rights.

What we say:
‘Internship’ is a really broad term which PR firms and in-house comms teams use to describe a work experience placement.  It’s a rather American term which has been adopted in the UK over the last fifteen years and is typically considered a work placement by an undergraduate or graduate (rather than work experience, which is often seen as a couple of weeks getting experience or shadowing during school years).  The vast majority of PR interns would be classed under the legal definition of a worker.

Some people think that under a month of work is not an internship, it is work experience and therefore you could not pay if you don’t want to.  It’s not.  Under the law, every day of work is a day that needs paying.  Simple.

Should interns be paid?
What the law says:
An intern is entitled to the National Minimum Wage if they count as a worker.

Employers can’t avoid paying the National Minimum Wage if it’s due by:

  • saying or stating that it doesn’t apply
  • making a written agreement saying someone isn’t a worker or that they’re a volunteer

What we say:
Well that’s pretty clear isn’t it?  Someone comes and does some work for you and no matter what you call them, you owe them a wage.  No ifs and buts.  Interns are entitled to pay. (We made that bit bold so you couldn’t miss it).

How about if we call it ‘shadowing’?
What the law says:
The employer doesn’t have to pay the minimum wage if an internship only involves shadowing an employee, ie no work is carried out by the intern and they are only observing.

What we say:
You can’t just say an intern is ‘shadowing’ if they are actually doing work, and that means ANY work including answering phones and stuffing envelopes.  If they are genuinely just following someone around the office then that is shadowing and you don’t have to pay but we’d argue that they won’t be getting much out of that kind of experience, and neither would the company so it’s a pretty pointless thing to do.

But we pay travel and expenses, that counts as pay, right?
What the law says:
An intern is entitled to the National Minimum Wage if they count as a worker.

What we say:
It’s still clear.  If someone works for you they are a worker and you have to stump up the cash and pay them a wage.  Travel and expenses do not cut it.  You must pay interns a legal wage. If you want to pay travel and expenses on top of a wage go right ahead – interns will love you for it.

What about charities?
What the law says:
Workers aren’t entitled to the minimum wage if both of the following apply:

  • they’re working for a charity, voluntary organisation, associated fund raising body or a statutory body
  • they don’t get paid, except for limited benefits (eg reasonable travel or lunch expenses)

What we say:
Charities can be a bit sneaky about using this bit of law. Charities generally have two groups of people working for them – workers and volunteers.  Workers get paid a wage just as an employee of any other company would do.  Volunteers do not get paid and give their time for free, often as a contribution to the charity.  So, yes, legally charities can call their interns ‘volunteers’ and not pay them at all, or only pay them travel and expenses.  Ethically though, this is a bit questionable and we would argue that if someone is working alongside ‘workers’ rather than ‘volunteers’ they should be paid. If they are in paid work elsewhere and are genuinely donating their spare time to help a charity either directly or through brilliant organisations like Bright One, then that’s cool.  But if someone is actually working for a charity, which means an expectation of turning up for certain hours and delivering pieces of work alongside other workers then that’s not so cool and we think they should be paid.

Our advice to anyone looking to get charity PR experience is to only accept a paid placement and if you can’t find one, volunteer for Bright One where you can get charity experience while working in a paid job elsewhere.  Or, volunteer directly to a charity you care about but make it clear that you will have to work elsewhere to earn enough money to live and so your contribution to them will be limited and probably outside of normal working hours.

You can read more about Bright One’s work here.


What about student placements and school work experience placements?
What the law says:
Students required to do an internship for less than one year as part of a UK-based further or higher education course aren’t entitled to the National Minimum Wage.

Work experience students of compulsory school age, ie under 16, aren’t entitled to the minimum wage.

What we say:
We accept that school children want to get some work experience and it’s an important part of preparing them for life after school.  As they’re in full time education and are not having to support themselves financially it can be argued that the placements are more for their benefit that the companies’ so fair enough, a couple of weeks of unpaid experience is fine.

PR degrees with an industrial placement are generally for a whole year so those fall under the ‘worker’ category and should be paid.  We’ve not come across student placements for less than a year as part of a PR course but we would hope that if there are any, and if the student is contributing to the running of the company, that they would be paid.

What should you do if you know a PR employer has unpaid interns working for them?

Companies can be fined for non payment of interns (and forced to actually pay the intern).

– You can report them to the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.
– You can report CIPR members to the CIPR.
– You can report PRCA members to the PRCA.

For further information and campaigns against unpaid interns in all industries, check out Intern Aware and Graduate Fog.





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