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PR is winning the Content War

Coyne Public Relations
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.

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.


  • 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.”

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 03/11/2013 - 09:02 am.

    Articles Such As This

    Make me even more grateful for MPR and MinnPost: two reliable news sources that are less inclined to act as PR agents for big business and big-money conservative causes than most news sources.

  2. Submitted by John Edwards on 03/11/2013 - 12:01 pm.


    Looking at the donor lists for both, it is demonstrably clear that the people who consider MPR and MinnPost “reliable news sources” are the liberals that contribute massively to keep both functioning.

  3. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 03/11/2013 - 05:53 pm.

    Sometimes, inverting the PR message…

    …gets closer to the truth.

    (What I’m saying here does not apply to all companies nor all PR – just some.)

    PR is sometimes used to confuse the public in dissembling the actions or intentions of the corporate client.

    If your client has despoiled the environment, pitch it as totally, irrevocably committed to “green” – there is no one greener !! Example: “Clean Coal”, a marvelous oxymoron. Someone should have gotten a PR award for this one.

    Your auto manufacturing client has massive recalls due to safety defects which have led to numerous injuries and even deaths ? Your PR firm will bray that “Safety is Job One”.

    There are too many examples to list, but each is a gem. Maybe some other readers can chime in with their favorites.

    Since this kind of campaign often succeeds in confusing the public, or even swaying them to the view espoused by the PR, the corporate mindset starts believing that no matter how badly you treat your customers, you can always correct things with a smart PR campaign. Example: the Minnesota GOP, which now believes their problem is all about messaging, not substance.

  4. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 03/12/2013 - 09:55 am.

    The view from another PR pro’s eyes

    I’m a big consumer of news, and I mourn the passing of every news outlet that goes under, and shake my head every time a news staff is cut. But I also realize that public releations can — and is– being used as a positive influence on our society, and is not just a means to hoodwink an unsuspecting public, or to get people to buy something they don’t need.

    I briefly edited a small town newspaper, so I have some experience as a bona fide journalist. However, much of my career has been providing PR for the nonprofit health care field. I have worked for hospitals, HMOs, medical societies and health charities. I have pitched “clean energy” stories, medical breakthroughs, new health facilities.

    Most media outlets have long relied on us PR types as sources for story ideas, tips and sometimes context and background information. I like to think that both media outlet and the people who use it have benefited by this relationship. This morning, for example, I saw a CBS feature on a Nabisco PR contest to award the team that can build a robot that can open an Oreo cookie (without breaking) and remove the filling. It highlighted a couple of guys form the U of M. So a silly PR stunt from “Big Food” turns into an interesting challenge to America’s young robotics engineers, and in the process, I learn more about engineering.

    I’ll call that a win-win.

  5. Submitted by John Reinan on 03/12/2013 - 10:48 am.

    Great comment, Robert

    Thanks for that very pertinent example of how the “dark side” can shed light.

  6. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 03/12/2013 - 11:17 am.

    Whwn news rooms go dark…

    …and digital drones replace visible human forms in press rooms; processed robotics buzzing out copy-cat copy and headlines controlled by regulators; Centers processing information which are controlled by corporate or political sensitivities?

    Was it the last century when J-schools started warping into a sub-structure, a sub culture under communications departments? Bad omen?

    PR was once the bastard child of journalism…now it’s a recognized source of communication?

    Is PR to be the new Turbo-journalism energized by the marketplace?

    When does news become receptive, acceptable information…when the market sells the news appropriately?

    How soon before investigative journalists are indiscriminately labeled “whistle blowers” sentenced for crimes against the state or the corporation as investigative reporting becomes a dirty word among print seeking, job seeking reporters? Like today already?

    How many sources tell all the story or just part of the story; or tabloid the lighter, gentler and sell it as community journalism?

    Which or what is the real ‘alternative journalism’ that has the public titillated by tabloid rather than serious, critical perspectives?

    How long before we don’t even notice when news warps into “qualified” information sources, and becomes essentially, propaganda…will we even notice as news rooms go dark daily almost, before one realizes one cannot read-all-about-it anymore?

    The tabloid is in? Print media is out?

    Maybe in the future real news will rise again; a powerful alternative sold at the corner of Main Street, Anywhere, USA. A news rag. Call it the Agitator with a new theme…”When man bites ‘God’ we’ll write about it. When God bites man, we’ll get a second opinion.” Corporate, political gods, whomever…

    One can only dream…

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