Interview: Ben Lyons

The co-founder of Intern Aware tells Andy Hillier how the campaign group expanded from his bedroom to the mainstream and put unpaid internships firmly on the political agenda

Ben Lyons is the co-founder of Intern Aware, which began with a Facebook group and went on to achieve national recognition
Ben Lyons is the co-founder of Intern Aware, which began with a Facebook group and went on to achieve national recognition

It is only four years since Ben Lyons and a friend set up a Facebook page calling for the end of unpaid internships, but they have put the issue firmly on the political agenda and many high-profile companies have stopped using unpaid interns.

Lyons was studying history at Oxford University when he and Gus Baker, a student at Bristol University, first decided to take action. "I was really angry to see bright, hard-working friends of mine being told that they that had to work for months on end for free," he says.

"We set up a Facebook group calling for interns to be paid the minimum wage, and the group expanded very quickly. I realised it was a problem across the country and the established institutions weren't doing anything about it."

The two initially ran what came to be known as Intern Aware from their bedrooms without any budget, but now the campaigning group has one full-time member of staff - paid for by grant-making trusts - and the co-founders continue to fit their involvement around other jobs.

Lyons, 24, who won the Sheila McKechnie Campaigner of the Year Award in 2013 and now works in PR, says the group faced scepticism at first. "A lot of people in power didn't view this as an issue," he says. "We would face arguments such as 'people should be grateful for the opportunity' from those who did not realise that some people could not afford to do internships."

The group soon realised that the best way to change attitudes was to raise awareness in the media. Its work was helped in 2011 when it was revealed that some MPs were not paying their interns.

Lyons says it has been quite selective in its approaches to the media. Instead of sending out mass press releases, it has favoured pitching articles at particular media outlets and building relationships with journalists. For example, in 2011 it worked with the Financial Times on an article about how the bank HSBC offered internships only to the sons and daughters of executives.

In fact, Lyons questions the use of the mass press release. "Press releases haven't been the best approach, especially when you're a new organisation," he says. "There's only a select number of journalists who will open your emails."

The group has also worked hard to secure cross-party political support for the campaign and to ensure all the main political parties have a stance on unpaid internships. But he says it can be difficult to strike the right balance when working with politicians. "You need to build working relationships with politicians but, in terms of motivating supporters, it can be best to have antagonistic relationships with the bad guys," he says.

Technology has been very important to the group. It uses Twitter and Facebook to keep followers informed about the latest developments and initiatives. It also uses the online petition website to put pressure on employers to change their policies. For example, the British Film Institute replaced its unpaid internship scheme with a paid one after an Intern Aware online campaign attracted about 2,000 responses.

Lyons says: "Intern Aware couldn't have existed 10 years ago because we couldn't have run an organisation without a budget and without having that ability to reach a lot people. Social media is very good at lowering the barrier for campaigners and good at getting people to take action."

So what advice would he offer to charity campaigners? "I would say be focused - don't just attend lots of empty meetings or produce lots of content just for the sake of it," he says. "Try to attract the broadest range of supporters, and not only your natural supporters. And be brave - taking risks often pays off."

Lyons is also a fan of using humour in campaigns, where appropriate. Recent slogans have included "Unpaid internships are pants", which it used to call for an end of unpaid internships at the fashion and underwear brand Calvin Klein, and the "The Devil pays nada" - used for a broader fashion industry campaign.

He says: "Campaigns should be fun for supporters. You want it to be enjoyable. People can agree with a campaign without it being over-serious."

2011: Consultant, Fishburn
2010: Co-director, Intern Aware
2010: Intern, Center for American Progress
2009: Intern, APCO Worldwide
2008: BA in History, Oxford University

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