Do you pay your company’s interns? Does it matter to anyone outside of your company? Not really. It’s your decision, as long as you’re following legal guidelines.
However, what does matter is the way you address your audience when a comment about your decision to pay (or not pay) an intern becomes a public “disgrace,” according to recent articles.
Recently, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and multi-million-dollar author of Lean In, posted a Facebook request for an unpaid intern. Facing backlash, she then tried to remove or mediate the post.
Why the fuss? Readers’ comments generally followed this bent: If Sandberg is swimming in money (lots of it, to the recent tune of $91 million), and is a strong proponent of women having lots of help in the career/family juggle and also getting pay that’s up to par, she needs to pay up – including her interns. The description of the now-famous “Wanted” post included a need for design and editorial skills, a high level of organizational skills, social media “chops” and a multi-month commitment for an intern without pay.
She later commented to readers on Facebook that it was her own request and desire to send the post, that she’s seeking to find an unpaid “volunteer” with the Lean In Foundation and she’s asking everyone reading to essentially chill out and “take a deep breath.”
Ouch. There’s so much going on here to sink your chops into.
3 Better Reputation Management Tips for an Internship Post
Issue 1: Responding to a charged-up audience in a tone that sounds haughty and could be perceived as belittling only stirs the social media pot.
Better way: Respond by directing social media viewers to an exciting slideshow or video of what cool tasks the position might really entail. Respond with a video message explaining the merits of the opportunity – and clarify that no matter if it’s a volunteer position or an internship, there’s a great deal of invaluable experience here to be gained.
Issue 2: What the social media audience heard from Sandberg was “everyone else is doing it, so we can, too.” The original “internship” post quickly became a request for a volunteer, accompanied by a message from Sandberg that many organizations utilize volunteers in the nonprofit sector.
Better way: Show audiences on your website how important the impact of volunteer contributions are to your organization. Demonstrate that, many times, these turn into powerful (and well-paid positions), and that volunteers/interns make a lasting impact while they learn. Let Sandberg explain in video format any of her own past unpaid positions, and what she gleaned from them.
Issue 3: No one officially acknowledged the decision to not pay, though everyone knows there’s enough in the account balance to pay an intern a stipend of some sort. This has now become the elephant in the room and it happens to be carrying a Prada bag.
Better way: Go where the audience is. Acknowledge the reasoning for the unpaid position openly and talk about potential down the road for pay if the intern is the right fit and all goes well. Talk about the educational value of internships. Ideally, interns are not free labor ⎼ the company is investing time and resources into educating them and providing real-world experience in return for their efforts. It wouldn’t hurt to respond to readers’ thoughts about living on one’s own in New York City without pay. Internships without pay may have merit in many ways, but they’re also becoming a new hallmark of elitism, which is certainly not lost on Sandberg’s Lean In audience.
Whether or not you pay interns isn’t the issue. The lesson here is that there are proactive ways to handle a backlash should one come your way, and there are better ways to successfully manage your reputation.
Note: If your “wanted” list today includes a laugh at no cost, check out this YouTube clip of Bruno Mars playing Devin, the Pandora Radio Intern on "Saturday Night Live." Enjoy. (Was Devin the Intern paid, or not? At any rate, it’s pretty darn funny.)
By Jason Mudd, APR
Jason Mudd, APR, is the CEO of Axia Public Relations and an Emmy-Award-winning accredited public relations practitioner, speaker, author and entrepreneur. His public relations portfolio includes work for established national brands such as American Airlines, Dave & Buster’s, Florida Blue, H&R Block, Hilton, HP, Miller Lite, New York Life, Pizza Hut, Ray Charles and Verizon and emerging brands like Brightway Insurance, Pragmatic Works and It Works! Global.