The Media is Missing the Real Story on PR

I have to admit, I can be a bit of a crank when it comes to how the mainstream media covers PR. It either verges on a near fascination with celebrity publicists — one minor faction of the broader and fast-growing public relations industry — or the belief that PR can easily be wrapped up into a report on the general advertising industry.

Quick and easy, right?

So I’m always a bit bemused when I read articles with headlines like “When Publicists Say ‘Shh!’,” which ran in the April 18 edition of the Sunday New York Times. What followed was a series of clichéd examples from celebrity publicists of how they either act as mouthpieces for their clients or do everything they can to tell them to “shut up” when thinking about oversharing online.

Granted, the article was in the Sunday Styles section, so I guess I shouldn’t have expected too much in the way of actual insight. But at the very least, I was hoping for a more nuanced and strategic business discussion about the realities of reputation management for celebrities in the digital age.

Or, better yet, how about a cover story (in any newspaper or national business magazine) about corporate and executive reputation management in the digital age? That would actually be a valuable story to read.

Alas, The Times piece was mostly fluff, continuing a long line of mainstream media fluff pieces on publicity and publicists. From a glowing piece on celebrity publicist Kelly Bush’s surprising decision not to duck reporters’ calls (oh my gosh!) to the infamous Sunday Times profile of Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley social gadfly and media relations guru Brooke Hammerling — complete with its awful headline (“Spinning the Web: P.R. in Silicon Valley”) and equally ridiculous cover art of a BlackBerry ensnared in a spider’s web — the mainstream media has shown little interest in seriously covering public relations.

And that’s a damn shame.

Because the facts are clear as day that PR is leading a strong recovery in the general marketing services industry. I’ve written about this before, but let’s elaborate on the stats a bit more:

  • According to communications analyst firm Veronis Suhler Stevenson, annual spending in the U.S. on PR services (already at $4 billion) is expected to grow 55 percent (to $8.3 billion) from 2009 to 2013.
  • Despite a crushing recession and general retraction of client business, PR spending in the U.S. increased in both 2008 and 2009, at 4 percent and 3 percent respectively. Contrast that with sharp declines in U.S. advertising spending, down 8 percent in 2009 (though it was up 6.5 percent in 2010).
  • PR will be key to economic recovery in many cities. New York City alone is home to more than 1,000 PR firms that contribute well north of $1 billion annually to the city’s economy. And let’s not forget the trickle-down effect these firms have on other economic sectors. For example, Foursquare has been a boon to the PR, marketing and ad firms, as it offers new ways to produce targeted messages.

And yet, this real news is largely missing from mainstream media coverage. What we’re left with are trite, rehashed pieces focusing on a minute sector (publicity) of a larger industry; a profession that has grown to become one of the most important management functions in business.

That’s the real story that needs to be covered. Not another throwaway piece on keeping a celebrity out of hot water.

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  • Good post Keith, and it is quite disappointing that that mainstream media tends to focus on the publicity angle rather than dig deep into the true value and growth potential that PR brings to the table. No surprise that PR industry growth has skyrocketed recently – you know the old adage that perception is 9/10 of reality, and everyone from multi-billion corporations to mom and pop corner stores are doing a more proactive job with using PR and the myriad of tools in its tool shed to manage and improve the public’s perception.

    • Thanks for your perspective, John. I think you bring up a good point that public perception plays a role in both PR’s growth. The unfortunate downside to this is that because the media continues to miss the big story about PR’s true value, both to the public and to the business community, and instead, focuses on trite throwaway pieces about celebrity publicity, the public perception of PR continues to be shaped in ways we as PR professionals know isn’t demonstrative of the whole truth or value of PR.

      All the more reason, I guess, for us to continue to point out major storylines about PR that the mainstream media is so clearly missing. So in that regard, I really appreciate your point about public perception for both large and small businesses.