PR industry short of talent because interns are ‘exploited by agencies’ rather than nurtured

While an internship should not be lollipops and pats on the back, many Singapore agencies simply treat young talent as a cost-saving measure rather than the industry leaders of tomorrow, writes Joseph Barratt of public relations agency Mutant Communications

There was a job post was going around last week from a PR agency looking for an intern. An intern who holds a university degree, has at least one-to-two years of experience, and – oh yeah – was keen enough to work unpaid.

To me, this says they are expected to work at an account executive level (with all the responsibilities and targets that come with it), but happy enough for the experience to do the job for free.

The ad was shared around our office – with responses ranging from hilarity to complete and utter dismay – and it got me thinking about the role of interns in Singapore. But before we go further, don’t worry, I am not advocating going soft on the incoming generation. But what I am advocating is giving them real development opportunities.

Although I’ve never actually worked agencies in Europe or United States, so perhaps I’m not qualified to comment on the standard as a comparison, it seems to me there are a few extremes at play in this market.

First, there are agencies that completely rely on interns to bulk out their workforce. I can even think of a number of smaller operations where half the company are practically interns. I’ve even had one of our former interns go on to another internship, after leaving us, proudly report back how they are one of the most senior people in the company and are running several client accounts all by themselves.

I know the quality of that particular person’s writing, time management and knowledge of the industry, and there is no way those clients were getting quality. That is not his fault, of course – he was only at the beginning of his career – but it speaks volumes about how the local intern wheel churns.

This intern thought he had an amazing opportunity because he was learning by being thrown in at the deep end. The thing is, being chucked into deep water is great if someone has taught you how to swim. However, drowning sucks. If you are six months into your career and dealing with things you’re not yet qualified to handle, your confidence is going to be rocked and the business has lost a great opportunity to develop someone with good potential. They drown, even if they don’t know they’re going to.

Fast-forward 12 months, the intern was back at our door seeking a job; leaving a mountain of stress, grief for clients and for himself in his wake. While this intern had learned things, he hadn’t actually developed the right skills to progress in his chosen profession. He was left treading water and it really was a waste of talent.

On the flipside of this, I’ve heard plenty of stories of interns at big agencies being used purely for media monitoring, which is then charged out at a fortune. They’re basically lining up workers factory-style to go through media clippings across Asia every day for six months.

This kind of work – alongside grabbing coffees, getting the boss’s lunch or doing data entry for months on end – is often seen as a ‘rite of passage’. But having talked with so many of these former interns, I think that’s bullshit. It’s an excuse to employ cheap – or often free –  labour for an expensive service. This benefits nobody.

An internship shouldn’t be sunshine and lollipops. Someone still needs to do those basic yet important jobs and earn their stripes by showing they can handle responsibilities. However, they need to be guided. There must be an element of development, learning and upskilling involved. It doesn’t mean it can’t be hard and that you as an employer can’t test their limits, but internships need leaders, not dictators.

And I’ve been there: I almost drowned in my first job. My boss was a total hard arse. I worked so hard, but yet I’ll never forget the look of disdain on his face every time I sent him my copy. “Ugh,” he would say, screwing up his face. “What the f**k is wrong with you?” It was brutal. But then, he would sit down and take the time to talk me through his edits.

Illustration by Jacu Amansec

He coached me through different approaches and explained why he wasn’t happy with what I had sent him. If I had a tough week, he’d take me for a beer. It was gruelling, I did long hours, and I would never describe it as ‘fun’, but I thrived and grew – and I left that place a thousand times better off than I went in. 

Compare that to the managing director of an agency I spoke to recently in Singapore, who hires five interns at any one point. They don’t interview them – or treat them like staff – and if they screw up they’re let go, and the next poor sod is hired. Apparently, this is “way more efficient”.

I am a firm believer of looking at interns as a long-term investment either for your company or at least for the industry as a whole. Some of our best team members began as interns and we have invested in their development.

It’s strange, isn’t it? Our industry is constantly complaining that good talent is hard to find, yet we seem to have no problem treating potential talent like shit and scaring away would-be superstars in droves.

Joseph Barratt is chief executive officer Singapore public relations agency Mutant Communications


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