Dorothy Crenshaw June 27, 2011 | 07:34:46

Are There Just Too Many PR People?

PR people have taken a beating in the past few weeks. Currently, it’s due to our increasing numbers. A recent example, among many, is a May piece in The Economist subtitled “Flacks Outnumber Hacks.” It compares PR professionals to “urban foxes” and calls us “slime-slingers,” among other things, while, oddly, positioning bloggers as the new guardians of the truth.

Then there’s the comically passionate jeremiad from TechCrunch that declares war on all of PR-land. Again. Likening PR to “a weed growing out of control,” it singles out Facebook’s team as the “worst of the worst” when it comes to “slimeballishness.” It’s basically a rant against Facebook, but at least it negates the bloggers-as-truth-tellers argument.

Aside from the gratuitous resentment that nearly jumps off the screen, I have to wonder. Are there too many PR people? And if there are, does it mean we’re using our influence to distort the truth?

Unlike, say, lawyers, who are being churned out by schools in greater numbers than the demand for their services, PR is growing organically. One reason is the rise of social media. Others include the globalization of business, the news cycle, and the general maturation of the industry. So, maybe the barbs flung our way are just sour grapes.

Yet a far more thoughtful piece co-published by ProPublica and The Columbia Journalism Review gets to the heart of the issue. In the article, New York Times reporter David Barstow warns against the “platoons of PR people” that threaten to overwhelm shrinking numbers of journalists. “The muscles of journalism are weakening,” he says, while those of PR are “bulking up…as if on steroids.” The piece details how well-financed corporate and government interests are positioned to influence, or even dominate, the news. It cites the 24/7 news cycle and pressure to be first as additional factors leading PR to “fill the vacuum.”

It’s hard to argue with the trend lines. And given the growth of soft money, front groups that obscure their real origins, and the burgeoning lobbying industry, transparency is a huge concern.

But I’m not sure that growing numbers of PR pros, particularly in the non-political arena, can be equated with greater efficacy, whether for better or evil. When industries grow, mediocrity often flourishes. I can’t help but think that, while public relations is underappreciated in many corporate settings, we’re given far too much credit in exposés like these.

At the end of the day, I love reading blogs and articles that take on our industry. That’s because I hope it means there’s still a balance, and that the uneasy symbiosis between PR pros and journalists will continue, with neither side gaining too much strength, getting too smug, or believing our own PR.

4 thoughts on “Are There Just Too Many PR People?

  1. One of the ironies about the growth of PR is that many new entrants into the industry have been ex-reporters. So, you’d think that would have a positive effect on quality of work, especially content, as well as standards like transparency. Judging by the recent Facebook-Burson-Google mess, I’m not sure that’s the case.

  2. As someone who edits several websites and blogs, it seems that 1) If judged by the number of press releases churned out, there are indeed far too many PR people. 2) There are too many BAD PR people sending out said press releases while at the same time failing to respond to media e-mails and phone calls in a timely manner, inquiries that would usually lead to a surefire placement.
    Too many faux-news pushers, not enough relationship builders. If I need a press release, I’ll go find it. I can’t remember the last time I used one that was e-mailed to me, yet I get 100+ a day.

  3. With journalist time at an even greater premium, it makes sense for companies to escalate in the competition for that time, but the law of diminishing returns likely took over long ago. I wonder if Facebook and other forms of self publishing (completely transparent direct communication with customers and others) are funneling time away from the pursuit of journalist attention. Could social media be the dark matter that keeps the journalism/PR galaxy from collapsing into a supernova?

    1. That’s probably a fair assumption, although I might still guess that working journalists get more PR pitches than ever. But with so much of that going into email ‘pitching’ (if you can call it that), a good portion may be invisible, or behind a spam filter. But whatever it is, let’s hope the center can hold.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *