What’s the real ratio of PR reps to journalists?

Dec 21, 2016Original Thinking

If you’re deciding between a career in journalism or public relations, you might wonder how many opportunities there are in the different fields.

A quick Google search will turn up a number of articles that claim there is a 5-to-1 ratio of PR professionals to reporters in the United States. A sampling of sources citing that figure include The Guardian, Pew Research Center and Harvard Business Review, which would lead most people to presume it’s legit.

It also just sounds right. It fits nicely with the narrative that journalists tell themselves, that in these scary times, reporters represent the brave Spartans standing against a press release-wielding horde.

“As editorial staffs shrink, there is less ability for news media to interrogate and counter the claims in press releases,” authors Robert McChesney and John Nichols wrote in their 2010 book “The Death and Life of American Journalism.”

Others have been even more dramatic:

Two problems: that isn’t actually what the data says, and these numbers are increasingly meaningless.

First, the statistics cited in all these cases come from a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics survey of employers, which doesn’t include the self-employed. That’s a major caveat, because we’re not counting all freelance journalists, especially as the gig economy grows.

The BLS then groups careers into general categories, of which “news analysts, reporters and correspondents” is one and “public relations specialists” is another. If you only compare those two, the ratio is 5-to-1. But that isn’t what any of these analyses are really trying to do, is it? Based on the more sweeping conclusions they’re making, they’re clearly trying to compare the number of people who create and control editorial content with the number of people aiming to influence editorial content.

In that case, we need to include a number of other career categories, such as the 189,840 “writers and editors.” Surely, there must also be many journalists among the 191,590 radio and television announcers, photographers, film and video editors and other media and communication workers. If you were to combine all those people with the 45,790 reporters and correspondents, you’d nearly double the number of PR professionals.

Then again, if we’re going that broad with how we define editorial content creators, we’d also have to go as broad as possible with people who aim to influence those creators. If we count all 1 million advertising, marketing and public relations managers and specialists, we’d then be back to looking at a ratio of more than 2-to-1 of content influencers to content creators.

Suffice to say that if you don’t selectively cherry-pick the numbers, it isn’t nearly as dramatic a situation as it’s often presented to be. But the more important and interesting point is that the lines between all these roles are blurring.

Traditional media relations is becoming a smaller and smaller part of what public relations professionals do. That makes the aforementioned references to vetting press releases so anachronistic – the press release itself is increasingly archaic.

Instead, more and more companies are embracing content marketing, hiring and training people defined as marketers to create editorial content. That is leading to tremendous overlap in careers currently defined as “reporters,” “editors,” “writers,” “public relations specialists” and “marketing managers.” If someone works in a marketing department, but strictly produces editorial content for a company’s magazine, are they a marketing manager/PR rep, or a writer/reporter? Many people with titles such as editor-in-chief or content specialist are still being defined in marketing roles because that’s traditionally the only similar role at companies like GE and Marriott, even though they have a robust magazine and full-blown content studio, respectively.

While content marketing is not included anywhere in the BLS definition, there are recent reports showing that careers specializing in this approach are growing. It’s certainly why some people recommend that young journalists should learn more about the field.

It’s inconceivable that the federal government will ever capture this level of nuance, but journalists and marketers should know better. It’s simply poor reporting to misrepresent the data and then present the unfounded conclusion that “people are getting less objective news and more biased content.” That type of oversimplification is clearly not an informed perspective.

So then, what’s the real ratio of PR reps to reporters? Who cares. The better question is, what do those terms even mean anymore?