Unpaid Internships

So the big talk this past week has been the New York Timesarticle about unpaid internships, Growth of Unpaid Internships May Be Illegal, Officials Say.  It has been the focus on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media outlets.  I have read about it multiple times on my Google Reader.  And the subject even came up in my Human Resources class.  The issue of unpaid internships has been a topic of debate for years, but leave it to the New York Times to create such pandemonium over the issue.

In November, I learned at the PRSSA National Conference in San Diego from Bey-Ling Sha, Ph.D., Associate Professor at San Diego State University that some unpaid internships are illegal.  She told us the criteria of legal unpaid internships: credit and non-profits.  However, I had interned at an agency and was unable to receive credit because I had only completed my freshman year, and it was a for-profit agency.

Do I regret interning for no money?  I was in New York City, which is not known for its affordable rent, food, or well, anything.  But I do not regret taking that internship.  I was able to immediately get my foot in the door with the industry.  On the first day they immediately had me pitching to the media.  I was treated like an assistant account executive.  One of the AAEs who started after me even asked me questions concerning some of the software and tools I was using.  Throughout the summer I pitched to the media (including some of the top newspapers and magazines in the country and bloggers), helped plan events, send out press kits, learned how to use software to make media lists, etc.  And I had only finished my freshman year.  I really could not have asked for a bigger opportunity.  Looking back, I do not regret this experience.

I do not think the government should be spending its time tracking down unpaid interns.  The students who choose to take unpaid internships are not forced to take the internship.  It is their choice.  The bigger agencies will not look twice at a freshman with little to no experience.  Students need to take these unpaid internships and get some experience under their belt before they can even consider applying for the larger places.  Internships, paid or unpaid, are already hard to get.  By not allowing unpaid internships at smaller companies who cannot afford to pay their interns, internships will be even scarcer.  The smaller companies and start-ups end up paying their interns through the time it takes to train them and grant them an experience they will not have elsewhere.  I understand that I was lucky enough to have an experience like I did and not all unpaid internships are like this.  However, every student needs to start somewhere.  The unpaid internships are simply an investment in the future for the employer and the student.

Law and PR

As I pursue my dual degree in Public Relations and Business Administration, I am required to take a business law class.  At first, I did not know what to expect.  I only knew 2 things about law: 1) My sister was in law school. 2) Public Relations and law have a close-knit relationship because often public relations professionals and lawyers cross paths.  However, I have been pleasantly surprised about how much I have enjoyed the class, and I feel that it will greatly enhance my future in public relations by being aware of legal issues.

PR professionals believe that they need to maintain good relations with lawyers in order to seek their professional help and advice.  Though some lawyers do not appreciate PR professionals? lack of knowledge about the law, they do respect their ability to act in a crisis.  However, when promoting a product or cause, employees in PR may be unaware of certain laws.  Additionally, ethics greatly comes into play when one is immersed in the field of Public Relations.  For example, if an employer tells you to write on a blog promoting the product or cause that you work for, do you do it?  If you report the wrong information and discover it later, do you change it, even if that means hurting a client?  The Public Relations Society of America has a Code of Ethics (http://www.prsa.org/aboutUs/ethics/preamble_en.html) to maintain their high ethical standards, but at times, professionals may ignore this document and run into trouble.  Additionally, many PR professionals do not know much about contracts, libel, slander, malpractice, or intellectual property.  That is where the relationship with lawyers may come in handy.

For example, a potential client approaches you and says he is starting a business to produce cookies and other baked goods.  He has a great recipe, but he needs the help of a professional to get his name out.  You agree to the terms and sign a contract.  However, a few weeks later you find out that he stole the recipe from Mrs. Fields and can no longer have his business.  In the meantime, you passed over another client to take him on.  Are you entitled to any damages?

In another case, you may find yourself ordering supplies to help your PR business.  You agree with a friend who sells office supplies that he will give you supplies on the 1st of every month.  You do not sign a contract ? after all, he is your friend!  You owe him $450 every month.  However, after three months of this business deal, he stops selling you the products, and you are now forced to pay $1000 for the same amount of supplies from another retailer.  Are you entitled to any damages?  (I actually just learned yesterday in my class that all contracts for the sale of goods that are over $500 must be in writing).

In another situation, your client is a restaurant and is quoted in a newspaper saying that its competitor not only does not clean the facility before cooking but uses various chemicals that are unhealthy without telling its customers.  However, your client knows this information is not true and says it anyway.  You think it is a crisis communication situation but really the competitor is planning its lawsuit against the restaurant, YOUR client!

These issues are three of many that PR professionals may not have much prior knowledge or experience with.    Many law issues may seem like situations that can just be handled by contacting the press and using crisis communications strategies, but in fact, they have the potential to turn into lawsuits if not handled properly.  The importance of communication and networking opportunities between lawyers and public relations professionals is just as important, if not more, than communication and networking between the media and public relations professionals.  A PR professional could easily lose his or her good reputation due to the unfortunate case of a law-breaking client.  Thank goodness for this law class!