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PR is winning the Content War

PR people are getting out their message at a time when the traditional media are less able to provide a counterweight.

Coyne Public Relations won the Arts, Entertainment & Media Campaign of the Year for Del Monte Foods/Meow Mix Cat Food's commercial featuring CeeLo Green.
Coyne Public Relations

Journalism’s top award, the Pulitzer Prize, gets a lot of attention when the winners are announced each year. But perhaps people should be paying more attention to public relations awards.

Because the people winning them are providing an ever-increasing share of what you read, see and download.

I was at the PR Week awards in New York City last week, the industry’s top competition. The agency I work for, Fast Horse, was a finalist for a couple of them. I put on a tuxedo and sat in a ballroom with hundreds of smart people who are very good at what they do. And what they’re good at is getting out their message at a time when the traditional media are less and less able to provide a counterweight.

Don’t take my word for it. Pro Publica, a nonprofit news organization, and the Columbia Journalism Review published a long article juxtaposing the rise of public relations with the decline of journalism. In it, journalists and academics laid out the facts showing how public relations is winning the battle for control of consumer content.

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  • During the last decade, revenue of PR organizations nearly tripled while revenue of news organizations was cut in half.
  • Over roughly the same period, employment in the PR business grew by 30 percent while the number of paid journalists dropped by more 25 percent.
  • Thirty years ago, there was about one PR person for every journalist. Today, PR pros outnumber journalists by better than a 3-to-1 ratio.

“The muscles of journalism are weakening and the muscles of public relations are bulking up — as if they were on steroids,” New York Times investigative reporter David Barstow told the authors.

But the story is more than just numbers. The change to digital communication has allowed corporations and organizations to bypass the traditional media gatekeepers and tell their story directly to the public in a way they never could before.

Do you get emails from political candidates you’ve given money to? Have you supported a cause on Facebook? Shared a photo about a product or an event? These are just a few examples of direct PR-driven communication.

If you’re looking for a recipe, are you more likely to find it in the newspaper food section — or to visit or one of the hundreds of food industry-sponsored sites eager to provide you with useful and entertaining cooking content?

The PR campaigns that were honored last week included traditional media relations — successfully pitching stories that were reported in print and broadcast outlets. But far more prominent were non-traditional aspects of public relations: Facebook and Twitter campaigns, interactive games and contests, digital apps, documentary videos, mobile offers and more.

Public relations professionals are in the business of telling their clients’ stories. Today, they have more tools than ever to do it. Meanwhile, a decade after the Internet revolution took hold in earnest, the traditional media are still struggling to remain relevant and make a profit in a media world turned upside down.

“The race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong,” Damon Runyon once wrote. “But that’s the way to bet.”