Most public relations firms in SoCal and around the country want to have interns, but many of these PR firms don’t even understand what an intern really is. An intern, by law (federal law, not some law I made up just for fun), is a college student who receives training in a specific field, such as public relations. An intern is not – repeat, is NOT – a gopher, a photocopier, a coffee-maker, a personal assistant, a babysitter, or a slave.
Others have already written about this, but – clearly – some folks are still not getting it. So, let me make things even simpler for you: Any organization wishing to hire an intern needs to remember the three Cs:
Cash. You can pay your interns. Gasp! What a concept! But, yes, if your organization can pay a college student at least minimum wage, this is the simplest way to make sure that you are not breaking the law. Paying the intern puts that student into a regular employer-employee relationship with your organization, with its accompanying protections for things like insurance.
Credit. If you are not paying your intern, then that student must be receiving college credit for working with your organization. And please, people, understand that YOU are not in a position to offer college credit (yes, fix those ignorant ads on craigslist). Only colleges can offer college credit (hence the name). Different universities have different rules about how much academic credit they will give for internships, as well as about which students qualify academically to receive such credit.
Community Nonprofit. If you cannot pay the intern, and if the student cannot get academic credit from a university, then your organization must be a registered 501c3 nonprofit. To hire an intern in this case, you must make sure that the intern undergoes the same training as any other volunteer for your organization. I highly doubt that any public relations firms qualify for this category – just because your company had no net profits last quarter does not make you a 501c3 nonprofit!
So, that sums it up. You can have more than one of these three Cs in the internship, but you must have at least one, or you will be in violation of the law.
As for all you SoCal PR firms out there that have interns working (often full-time) in your offices, without pay, and without college credit (either because they don’t qualify academically for it or they have already graduated) – I just hope that you have a really good lawyer on retainer.
Bey-Ling Sha, Ph.D., APR, is an associate professor of public relations in the School of Journalism & Media Studies at San Diego State University, where she coordinates the public relations internship program.