This blog is provided by the IPR Center for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Dismantling the System
Within the past few years, systems of inequity and prejudice have been uncovered all around us. Modern movements towards equal opportunity and diversity have emerged globally, and it’s more important than ever that disparities are identified and addressed at the source. In a 2020 survey, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the U.S. public relations industry is 87.9% white. In order to understand and dismantle systems of inequity, preexisting barriers to entry in the PR industry must be analyzed.

While many organizations are making efforts towards inclusion, minority groups still face difficulty entering and advancing in the industry due to systematic discrimination, or deeply ingrained principles that unintentionally favor certain racial and ethnic groups. In the PR industry, a major systematic hurdle for minority groups is the popularity of unpaid internships. Many students of color have complicated financial situations that make it impossible for them to afford to take unpaid internships, which can be debilitating to their careers in the long run.

Experience and Opportunity
When reviewing entry-level job applications, most employers expect candidates to have experience from at least one internship; however, the ability to take an unpaid position is directly related to socioeconomics. Students who can afford these internships usually come from families who can provide supplemental income for them while they’re not receiving compensation.

A brief on the 2015-16 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study showed that more than four-out-of-10 undergraduate students came from low-income households, and students of color were disproportionately more likely to be low income than white students. Only 33% of white students were from low-income families compared to almost 60% of Black students and 53% of Hispanic/Latino students. This means that white students are statistically more likely to be able to afford unpaid internships than other racial and ethnic groups. So how are students of color supposed to gain industry experience if it’s financially unattainable? With paid internship positions being few and far between, students of color have a higher chance of not being selected for a PR program among the competitive pool of applicants, and, therefore, have difficulty finding a job in the future.

Additionally, since a significant number of students of color are disproportionately affected by poverty, many of them work jobs to support themselves and their family’s needs. Some families cannot financially provide for their children alone, meaning students would need to continue working a job throughout their unpaid positions. However, internships can require up to 40 hours of work per week, and if you factor a job into that equation, students may face exhaustion and the inability to devote enough time or attention to both tasks. More complications arise if the internship takes place during the busy school year and not over the summer. Paid internships are the best way for students of color to have the same opportunities as white students, especially as higher education in the U.S. becomes more demographically diverse and the percentage of undergraduate students from low-income households rises (it reached 43.1% in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Education).

Understanding Your Responsibilities
While unpaid internships are a systematic issue, employers also need to be aware of the legal risk involved in them. Under the Federal Labor Standards Act, “for-profit” employers must apply a seven-factor test used by federal appellate courts to determine whether or not the student is considered an intern or employee under the law. This is done by identifying the “primary beneficiary” of the relationship. Below is the list of factors, but a more detailed description can be found in the U.S. Department of Labor’s Fact Sheet.

Seven Factor Test:

1.) The intern and the employer clearly understand that there is no expectation of compensation.
2.) The internship provides training that would be similar to that which would be given in an educational environment.
3.) The internship is tied to the intern’s formal education program by integrated coursework or the receipt of academic credit.
4.) The internship accommodates the intern’s academic commitments by corresponding to the academic calendar.
5.) The internship’s duration is limited to the period in which the internship provides the intern with beneficial learning.
6.) The intern’s work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees while providing significant educational benefits to the intern.
7.) The intern and the employer understand that the internship is conducted without entitlement to a paid job at the conclusion of the internship.

Even if a student does satisfy all seven factors of the test, class credit must be available. PR firms also need to recognize that passing the seven-factor test doesn’t exempt them from their ethical responsibility to help facilitate equal opportunity in the industry.

Looking Forward
While it’s important to understand why unpaid internships are a roadblock for students of color, it’s even more vital that firms take action. Any company that isn’t paying its interns is inherently perpetuating the cycle of inequity in the PR field. Even offering interns minimum wage can make a huge difference in changing the makeup of our industry and positively impacting the lives of young, ambitious PR students. Firms must also consider broadening their screening processes for entry-level jobs so skills and potential are taken into account when past experience is lacking. The Harvard Business Review writes that having a diverse and inclusive team helps PR practitioners be more attuned to brand strategies and better understand how their campaigns are perceived by audiences. In that regard, paid internships can provide many benefits for organizations.

Kaila Marcus is currently a student at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Georgia. She will be graduating with summa cum laude honors in May 2021 with a BA in public relations and a New Media Certificate.

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Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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