Blaming the Intern


It is likely that most people will go into the professional world as an intern, or at least have internship experience at some point. This is an inevitable fact in any profession. I myself, have held several internships throughout the years.

I can’t help but notice the undeniable presence of “blaming the intern” in crisis communication. Seemingly a go-to tactic for organizations that have controversial mishaps while communicating.

This was brought to my attention by my roommate who gave a presentation about the PR fail surrounding the Asiana Airlines flight 214 crash last July. In the aftermath of the crash, the NTSB released the names of the pilots to the KTVU news station. The problem was that they were fake names. Not only were they fake, they were offensively racist. “Sum Ting Wong,” “Ho Lee Fuk,” “Wi Tu Lo” and “Bang Ding Ow” were the names given to the media by NTSB. Remarkably KTVU, in a major failure of oversight, reported the names on live television. Long story short, the NTSB blamed the offensive “joke” on a summer intern.

This story sparked some inspiration, so I did a little research and found that it is not a rare occurrence to blame an intern when communication errors take place.

Here are some other famous instances of blaming the intern for PR faux pas:

  • During the 2008 presidential election, a website was created for “McCain Family Recipes.” Essentially supposed to be a cookbook to make the public feel “at home” with John McCain and family. Problems arose when the recipes listed were directly copied from Food Network recipes. Needless to say, goodbye intern.
  • Habitat, a furnishings retailer based out of London, blamed and fired an intern after trying to use the election protests in Iran as a promotional vehicle on twitter in 2009.
  • In May 2011, when Allure magazine sent out an emails to the blogosphere urging them to “say something nice, or don’t say anything at all” they blamed the intern for not understanding editorial policies.

Their are countless examples of interns becoming scapegoats, especially when it comes to social media.

So what is it about the intern?

I mean, they are the obvious scapegoat material – unpaid, expendable, temporary. But I can’t help but wonder if all these mishaps were actually the fault of the intern.

There are several possibilities to why this takes place. The organizations may be giving to much freedom and responsibility to under experienced employees (interns), they may be asking their interns to take part in risky communication with the knowledge that they have a scapegoat, or the intern isn’t actually involved but they divert blame in order to protect the organization as a whole.

I’m sure that the reasons behind blaming interns changes on a situational basis. In terms of the NTSB blunder, I can’t imagine a scenario that would contradict an intern being at fault. In what world would any intern do something like that though? Maybe they were disgruntled. Maybe they were under the influence. Whatever the reason, it was poor form.

The moral of the story… Tread lightly if you’re an intern.

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