Published on January 12th, 2016 | by Aakriti Kaushik


Interning with a PR start-up: the good, the bad and the ugly

As an in-house professional I’ve had the chance to come across several “award-winning” PR agencies promising to assist start-up businesses. Affordability and flexibility are their keywords for winning client pitches. What would interning with these start-ups be like? I assume that for a start-up within the PR business it’d be even more crucial to employ staff who not only understand the nuances of their company culture but are also skilled to deliver results for their own start-up clients. With the clients’ dreams of turning their business into global giants to match the likes of Google and FaceBook, the start-up PR agency will need to find the appropriate balance between client expectations and budgets. Which, in all honesty, is the hardest part. And, if you happen to be the MD of a start-up PR agency, it may become even harder when mostly it’s “limited budget” on offer.

In early 2009, at the peak of the economic downturn, I had the opportunity to work with a B2B tech start-up agency based in London as Account Manager within a team of three people. I was also involved in recruiting interns and graduates looking for their first PR role. With the social scene not as evolved back in the day it was difficult to vet candidates on the basis of their online presence alone. However, most of the interviewees I met were of the highest calibre and showed so much promise for growing the agency that it was hard to dismiss their enthusiasm and passion. As a start-up it seemed unfair for the agency to only offer them the minimum wage or travel expenses when they were worth so much more. But, thankfully, the founder was wise enough to lay out specific reward and recognition plans for outstanding performers.

That, I hear, isn’t the case with most start-up agencies though. The practice of unpaid internships was addressed in the UK with the PRCA launching intern guidelines in 2011. However, with the rapid growth of the start-up culture since, there could possibly be new agencies on the scene who aren’t able to afford paid interns? But, due to the sheer small size of the business the candidate may be presented with a unique opportunity to learn so much more as compared to a reputed large firm? Debatable, I know.

The candidate perspective

The good: One of the biggest and the most important benefit for a student or young graduate to intern with a startup could be the hands-on learning experience and training. I’ve known candidates who are fast-paced and quick learners to be attracted by the opportunity, even sometimes unpaid, to show their skills at not only the day-to-day PR activities but also assisting in other areas of business development.

The bad: I’ve also heard numerous accounts of candidates whose modi operandi is to somehow get their initial break as a stepping stone to make their way to a larger organisation. Nothing wrong with the strategy, however, these candidates have no special interest in the growth of the start up that employs them. They are there to “extract” as much, be it training or networking, and are out of sight as soon as another opportunity comes up.

The ugly: This is where the agency plays the role of the extractor, not letting go of any opportunity to make the candidate work unsociable hours, in return for career growth promise, but zero pay. Personally, I’ve recently come across some shocking tactics where a couple of Indian start-ups needing interns for writing and social media work were asking the prospective candidates to publish four posts a week without expecting any remuneration for three months. Which means absolutely nothing except for a byline for forty eight pieces of unique content!

The agency perspective:

The good: This bit is largely dependent on the quality of the candidate that the agency will opt to employ. Millennials do have immense potential and can achieve outstanding results when steered with the right mentoring and coaching. Some of the larger PR agencies are still missing out by not getting involved in degree courses, but a few new start-ups have started to recognise the benefits of introducing graduate schemes and mentoring programmes for young professionals. By employing candidates who are high performers, taking an active interest in every aspect of the business, the start-ups are rewarded with excellent ideas that result in overall growth.

The bad: Investing time and resource in a candidate who is only there for selfish interests affects the owners’ confidence and the amount of time they would be willing to spend on vetting future candidates. Also, a lot of the ground work has to be handled by the owner until a suitable intern comes on board and that affects other aspects of client activity.

The ugly: Sabotaging clients to launch their own business is an extreme example of the worst that can happen to a start-up as a result of employing the wrong intern. This is pretty rare and unheard of, since the candidate in question will need some experience and skills to launch his/her own start-up but it isn’t impossible.


Ritesh Shete

In addition to the above, I spoke to Ritesh Shete, Publicist and Communications professional based in India, to share his views on the subject:

“It is an interesting topic. Working for a start-up agency (or any business) is always a gamble. What matters is if an individual has understood what kind of gamble he is playing and the intensity. I am using the word “gamble” since, in India, I have seen and witnessed different types of entrepreneurs. I categorise them mainly as :

1 Hungry Entrepreneurs: Who are aware and know how to “Sustain” the business once started

2 Content Entrepreneurs: Who start a business because they want to prove they can be an entrepreneur, and later on “Stagnate” themselves, rather be content in life

Hence, the gamble is about analysing and understanding whether a candidate / intern chooses to work with hungry entrepreneurs OR content entrepreneurs. This is the first step, critical yet tricky to handle.

Once he/she decides to join either of the above mentioned categories of entrepreneurs, they have to deal with different work cultures. It is important to understand the difference between the work cultures too. This is even more critical because to a student it offers a first glimpse of the corporate world. Like how a baby imbibes the most when it is growing up, the student also perceives and forms an impression on the basis of this work culture.

Dealing with different work cultures brings along with it set of advantages and challenges.

Advantages of working in a start-up launched by an hungry entrepreneur

  • Fast paced corporate life
  • Steep learning curve
  • The opportunity to be more involved in brainstorms with business leaders
  • First hand interaction with young and savvy entrepreneurs
  • Live the “Wow” moments, where the start-up has achieved a break-even status

Disadvantages of working in a start-up launched by an hungry entrepreneur

  • Fast paced corporate life at times fails to lay the foundation of detailed understanding of the correct processes for a student
  • The intern can develop some misconceptions on how an entrepreneur is leading the company and question it
  • Unable to cope with the sheer amount of work, resulting in loss of confidence

Advantages of working in a start-up launched by an content entrepreneur

  • Learn and build a good foundation of concepts, since they do not have a highly energetic and fast paced work culture
  • Process driven approach
  • Develop habits like eye for detail, with clarity of concepts

Disadvantages of working in a start-up launched by an content entrepreneur

  • Basic learning , no hands on experience in new businesses, owing to slight conservative culture
  • Limited interaction with industry leaders

Depending on the start-up and the kind of industries they cater to, the above advantages and disadvantages can change. It depends on how the intern makes a decision.On the other hand, companies have to understand how they can offer a good blend of learning for a student who is going to be a part of their organisation for a brief period. Mind you, it matters a lot as it builds the company’s reputation in the market. My two cents will be that a student should analyse and experiment with a minimum of two internships to understand where he/she fits in.”

Are you a start-up agency who has employed interns? Are you a graduate who’s had the experience of a great/not-so-great internship with a start-up? We’d love to hear your thoughts about what you think is the right balance that benefits both interns and start-ups. 


Additional reading:

5 reasons to intern with a start-up 

The Intern Agency scandal – are PR agencies riding roughshod over interns?

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About the Author

EMEA PR Manager for a global electronics distribution business. Passionate about helping PR students, which is why @PRBuddy. Ex journalist. Tweet @aakritik

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