An inspiring story about getting on and getting ahead in public relations
It’s tough starting out in the media business as Steph Harland explains. It’s a story of ambition, tenacity, slave internships, and supportive parents.
By Steph Harland
It didn’t take me very long to decide I didn’t want to go to university.
I was 18, I was impatient, and I wanted to kick start a career in the music industry as soon as I could.
How could spending the next three years of my life at university, working towards getting a degree, with no guarantees that it would land me a job in the industry I desired, be worth it?
No matter how many people argued the benefits of university, and the risks I’d be taking by not going, the maths just didn’t add up for me.
I made the move from Newcastle to London to start my first unpaid internship at a leading music public relations agency.
Internships drive inequality
Unpaid internships are essentially slave labour.
Thankfully they seem to be dying out because they’re illegal but they continue to be the route into a job for young people.
Some companies do give you approximately £30 a week towards your travel card, but this is nothing compared to the cost of London living.
They immediately rule out any candidates without relatively wealthy parents that can cough up your rent money.
Interns should be hired on their passion, talent and worth ethic; family wealth should have absolutely nothing to do with it.
I couldn’t have taken on my unpaid internships without the help of my parents, and I’m forever grateful to them for supporting me and believing in me enough to do so.
First step on the ladder was broken
I spent seven months at my first internship, and I actually learnt the most from ear-wigging on my team’s phone conversations or trying to listen in on meetings.
My actual daily tasks were mundane and repetitive.
Please don’t get me wrong, I was more than happy to roll my sleeves up and do the dirty work 90% of the time, as long as the other 10% of the time was filled with interesting experiences that I could learn from, that made working for free worthwhile.
But I realized that no, I wasn’t gradually given bigger, more fulfilling tasks to do, and I wasn’t included in any meetings or brainstorms no matter how often I’d hint to my manager that I’d love to be part of that.
I needed experiences that would inspire me and motivate me. I needed to gain heaps of wisdom that I could take away with me onto my next chapter.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t finding that there. So, after seven months, off I went to my second unpaid internship.
Paying £1,000 per month for experience
My second unpaid internship was at a world famous record label. It was certainly a much better experience than my first, with a friendlier team in a nicer environment.
But my problem remained; I wasn’t learning or experiencing anything significant enough to warrant the sacrifice of moving to London, where my parents paying my bills was my only option.
Maybe I was naïve or a little too optimistic, but when my parents were paying more than £1,000 a month to support me, I couldn’t justify staying there for longer whilst not gaining too much in return.
I reached my limit with my second unpaid internship after three months. I’d been working for free for almost a year at this point, gaining some knowledge under my belt, albeit not as much as I’d anticipated.
Moving back to the future
I returned to Newcastle with a reasonable CV to hand to work on plan B. I wouldn’t call it a failure, and I don’t have any regrets; I might not have felt satisfied or fulfilled with my unpaid work, but little did I know, it would certainly lead to great things in the future.
After a year or so at working with a local music events company in Newcastle, I secured another internship in London, this time at MTV UK in the Marketing/Social Media team.
The big difference initially with this was that it was a paid internship. I got paid actual money every month for working full-time.
I realised just how different this internship was compared to my previous ones. Interns were treated as equals and there wasn’t so much of a hierarchy.
My ideas and opinions were encouraged, I was included in all meetings and events, and I even got flown to Glasgow to work at the 2014 MTV EMAs.
In the year I spent there, I learnt so much in terms of marketing and social media, mainly due to working in such an ambitious, innovative and creative team, whose goal is always to think big, and then think bigger again.
Starting my own business
The knowledge I picked up during my time at MTV is priceless and has now led me to start a social media marketing business in Newcastle.
I’ve always wanted to start my own business, and after leaving MTV, I realised after four years of working in different areas of the music and media industries, I now have the know-how and the skills to make that a reality.
I joined forces with my brother who founded a web design company called DigiPro Media, back in 2012.
We’ve recently expanded DigiPro into a creative agency that now offers a full range of social media marketing services, as well as photography and video services on top of the existing web design and graphic design.
We’re now a team of four and have just signed for a new office within the North East creative hub of Hoults Yard in Newcastle. It’s a very exciting prospect to be a part of, with some big plans currently in motion.
You’ve got to start somewhere
There are some positives to unpaid internships.
Being thrown into the deep end of fulltime office life at 18 definitely helped me to adapt to certain situations quicker, whilst also allowing me to get ahead of the game in a sense, whilst the majority of people my age were just starting university.
But, mainly, having two unpaid internships at well respected companies on my CV certainly helped me secure an interview and then luckily a job at MTV.
Although they are rightly deemed as unfair, it does demonstrate to future employers your commitment and passion due to the fact you’re willing to work for free to get into the industry you desire.
If I’m honest, unpaid internships were ultimately the starting block that has led me to the position I’m in now at just 22 years old.
Three lessons for starting out
If you’re considering taking on an internship to fast-track your career, I’d definitely recommend it, but here’s a few things to consider before you do:
#1 Seek internships with a purpose
Look for paid internships if you want but if you do take on an unpaid internship, make sure it’s worth it. You’re sacrificing a lot to work unpaid, they owe it to you to teach you as much as they can, give you great experiences and most of all, treat you like a human being.
#2 Move on when you stop learning
Don’t stay longer than you have to. I now realise that whether I’d stayed for two months or 20 months, this wouldn’t have affected much. It still goes on your CV and you learn just about the same.
#3 Think about your end goal
Always have your end goal in mind. Don’t get too comfortable somewhere if it’s not leading you to where you want to be or giving you the experiences you’re after.
Whether you’re chasing happiness, money or other things, it doesn’t mean you’re failing by going to work for a lesser known company or even starting your own business up. If it means you’ll get what you want out of life, then do it.