Bob Brody
Bob Brody

None of this is easy for me to say. I venture the following views as someone who has practiced public relations full-time at the highest levels for almost 33 years and journalism off and on for top-tier media for 46. I’ve pitched reporters and reporters have pitched me. I know full well how the PR-reporter dynamic works, thanks to my double life as a hybrid species straddling and shuttling between these two professions. So here goes:

Within the space of only the last few months, layoffs throughout the mainstream news media suddenly snowballed as never before. Major outlets ranging from the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post to Time Magazine, Business Insider and Vice let go of hundreds of reporters and editors. The Los Angeles Times alone slashed 20 percent of its editorial staff.

We’ve long since seen this coming. The latest bloodbath accelerates a trend begun almost 20 years ago. Jobs for journalists in newsrooms national and local have dwindled dramatically, from 2008 to 2020 plummeting some 26 percent to about 31,000, and are expected to keep dropping 3 percent a year until 2032. Readership habits have declined. Once-successful newspapers and magazines have withered into skeletons or gone out of business. This phenomenon is by now a widely known tectonic shift in our popular culture toward digital life.

Meantime, another force is at work, quietly operating beyond public view. A profession that exists largely to maintain a symbiotic rapport with the news media is flourishing. I refer here to public relations.

Public relations specialists in the U.S. currently number an estimated 264,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Employment opportunities in the sector between 2022 and 2032 are projected to grow by 6 percent a year, “faster than the average for all occupations,” the bureau reports. In the U.S. alone, the world’s top 250 PR firms grew by 11.4 percent in 2022, reporting fee income of $11.4 billion.

In other words, just as the news media business is shrinking, the PR business—often playing the role of its partner—is expanding. And here’s a key metric: The ratio of PR professionals to journalists, only two to one back in 1980, rose to more than three to one in 2008 and now stands at more than six to one. For every reporter still on the payroll, then, six PR pros are vying for his attention.

The upshot of this convergence of occupations is that reporters, already outnumbered more than 40 years ago, are today outnumbered even more. That’s the single most telltale factor at play in this emerging equation. And ongoing layoffs in the news media are destined in years to come to render the six-to-one proportion even more lopsided.

Should these opposing trajectories matter to the average American citizen who still avidly follows the news? Yes. It should matter a lot. It will have multiple implications, some anticipated but others unforeseen.

The outcome that’s likely least expected and most overlooked is this: the public relations profession will grow vastly more powerful and persuasive, inevitably so, and exert more influence, more widely and deeply, than ever before, over which news is reported and how.

This seismic disruption will bring some benefits but also run more than a few risks.

Why and how would this be so? Let’s start with how news usually comes to be news. The general public little knows, much less understands or appreciates, a basic reality about public relations. The PR industry routinely obtain access to most news before almost anyone else, including the news media itself.

Plus, much of the news that’s reported originates from public relations—estimates run from 25 percent to 85 percent—either through an email pitch, a tip over the phone or a press release. Translation: Before reporters and editors ever get the chance to curate the news—whether a new product announcement or a quarterly financial report—PR, in collaboration with clients and unbeknownst to the general public, curates it first.

This access to inside information comes in handy on both sides. PR pros, trained to lend a hand to journalists, deliver exclusives and interviews with otherwise elusive Fortune 500 CEOs. And reporters, now stretched to gather ever-more news and frame it ever-faster, will likely be even more grateful than before for these convenient services.

But here’s the catch. The fewer journalists are available to dig out real news and do so independently, the more they’ll feel forced to depend on public relations sources for mediable material. They’ll want—and need—all the more to maintain those valuable PR contacts. Reporters assigned to juggernauts such as Meta and Google, for example—or, for that matter, to the elite White House press corps—will feel more beholden to stay on what the PR folks regard as the straight and narrow.

PR will thus accrue more leverage over reporters. And that will likely intensify the growing imbalance of power between parties.

The news media cutbacks will thereby streamline a chain reaction already long since set in motion. Public relations will be better positioned to bargain for media coverage that reflects a party line favorable to clients. Reporters will collide with fresh challenges to maintain a semblance of objectivity and arrive at some approximation of the truth.

More and more, as a direct result, PR will drive the news—its quality and its overall editorial direction. PR will increasingly loom as indispensable to the news media. Reporters will feel tempted, understandably enough, to compromise the autonomy and journalistic standards long held dear.

And that’s just for starters. Given more layoffs, fake news and misinformation will more easily find new homes. Propaganda of a sort will prevail. The PR business will serve more than ever as a shadow media, acting as a puppeteer, a Wizard of Oz masterminding public perception secretly behind a curtain to win hearts and minds.

And all this coinciding with a 2024 presidential election likely to be the most pivotal in generations.

PR counselors and reporters do a dance inherently—and ironically—mutually beneficial but also fraught with competing priorities. The reporter seeks details that deserve to be communicated as news, whereas the publicist purveys a version of the facts that will positively showcase a client.

That’s ultimately the danger right there—that the general public will be fed a diet of news that’s increasingly upbeat about individuals and organizations paying for PR.

What to do? For starters, journalists should be ever-more hyper-vigilant in vetting which PR pitches actually qualify as news. The PR industry should do its utmost—as it typically does, by the way—to uphold the highest ethics and take responsibility for disseminating information closely resembling the factual.

As for the average citizen, cast a skeptical and suspicious eye over any news you consume, knowing it may come from a source representing a special interest agenda and getting preferential treatment. You might even sample news outlets across the ideological spectrum, the better to avoid being too tribal and catering only to your own partisan tastes.

Ignore this warning about the news at your peril. Otherwise you’ll probably never know more than half the story.


Bob Brody, a consultant and essayist, is author of the memoir “Playing Catch with Strangers: A Family Guy (Reluctantly) Comes of Age.” He is a former senior vice president of Rubenstein, Ogilvy and Weber Shandwick. His humor has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere.