Does the Growth of PR ‘Threaten Democracy?’

Excuse us for the inflammatory headline courtesy of Guardian UK’s media commentator Roy Greenslade–but it certainly got our attention.

We agree with Michael Ramah of Porter Novelli when he reassures us that any report of an “impending meltdown” within the public relations industry is nothing but a bunch of noise—didn’t we tell you in August that the business is doing “just fine, thanks?”

Now here’s the key question: Is the PR field growing too large and influential for its own good?

The Guardian piece is far too short and lacking in specifics to truly facilitate an in-depth conversation on the topic, but we’d like to think it leads back to our piece about “brand journalism” and the role of a PR discipline blessed with growing influence in an increasingly fractured media world. Greenslade is primarily concerned with a series of studies showing that the numerical advantage PR pros hold over journalists continues to grow. In the United States, studies find the current ratio to be 4:1—and some authors advocate government subsidies to help keep the journalism profession viable.

Greenslade’s argument is that, as PR pros continue to outnumber journalists, the public will be deprived of a crucial filter (the press) that serves to hold the feet of politicians, businessmen, and publicists to the fire.

In other words, a world dominated by PR operations will have no place for objective reporting. Every message that the public receives will be “sponsored” by someone trying to sell us something—be it a product, a service, a candidate or a legislative act. We will be awash in marketing content with no clear voices to light the way through the fog.

We can’t deny the value of a free press or dispute the fact that traditional journalism is becoming a less and less lucrative pursuit. Some would probably tell you that the day Greenslade fears has already arrived–many viewers, for example, see some sort of political agenda in every single news broadcast, and public trust in “the press” has reached all-time lows.

Why is this, though? We’ll blame it on expansion. As the number of media outlets grows, the audience splinters, and the act of reaching desired eyes grows more and more challenging–unless one has a significant source of capital to help push content out and make sure that someone notices it.

Is PR to blame for the declining stature of the journalist? Are we nearing the end of truly informative content with no paid sponsors? Or is traditional journalism a business that has failed to perform its primary function and now seeks to shift the blame?

@PatrickCoffee Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.