Yes, Our PR Firm Is Running a Sweat Shop

Julian Vogel, a managing director for the London-based fashion PR firm Modus Publicity, was recently interviewed by the BBC program, “Who Gets The Best Jobs.” It didn’t go well.

When the interviewer challenged Mr. Vogel about his company’s practice of using unpaid interns, he stalled, backtracked, and stammered – but he failed to offer an answer that satisfactorily dismissed the defensible charge. As a result, he looked guilty, tacitly accepting the inference that his firm is running a high-end sweat shop.
(Fast forward to ~6:00)

The reporter asked Mr. Vogel, “If 20 of your 70 staff are working here for free, presumably that’s quite key to the way you’re profitable as well, is it?”

First Mr. Vogel asked the reporter to clarify the question (the reporter did).

Then, he tried to backtrack, saying the interns weren’t doing proper jobs (as he had said they were moments earlier), but rather “support” jobs.
Finally, he stammered:

“I think, I think that ummm, I think that it’s ummmm, how would I, how would I answer that, I never really thought of it, I never really thought about it like that.”

Here are at least three places he went wrong:

1. He Looked Defensive: Any time you look defensive, you look guilty. The key to answering damning questions well is to maintain the tone of, “Thank you so much for asking me that tough question! I can’t wait to answer it.”
2. Didn’t Rebut the Charge: If you allow the accusation to stand unanswered, you’re guilty in the court of public opinion.
3. Didn’t Widen His Answer: Mr. Vogel should have widened his answer from the link between profitability and free labor to internships themselves, saying something such as:

“Well, of course internships are intended to benefit both the employer and the intern – and that’s exactly what’s happening at Modus. It’s absolutely critical that internships benefit the intern in important ways – and that’s why we expose them to various parts of the business. We want them to have as much experience as possible, so that they have the best chance at being hired full-time, either here or at another firm.”

What’s striking in this piece is that the interns actually offered a much better defense of unpaid internships than Mr. Vogel, one saying, “Actually, this is very good for me,” and another saying, “If you’re prepared to put in the hard work, it pays off eventually.”

Clients regularly tell me that they’re fine during interviews as long as they “prepare” for every possible question. That’s a dangerous approach, as they can’t possibly anticipate every potential question. Instead, they should learn the proper technique for answering killer questions. This one should have been easy.

Hat tip to Insignia Talks (for the original story) and The PR Coach (for Tweeting it)
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