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PR practitioners vastly outnumber journalists

by Shari Graydon

I spent three years in the mid 1980s flogging pseudo news stories to journalists on behalf of large corporations. (All I can say now is I’m sorry, and I’ve been putting my talents to better use ever since.) Employed by Burson-Marsteller, then the world’s largest PR agency, I was astonishingly successful at getting my fast food, pharmaceutical and consumer products clients onto radio talk shows and into business sections of newspapers across western Canada.

Mildred Sanders Ruggles, daughter of the Colonel (note brand-reinforcing red and white attire) was just one of the corporate spokespeople I helped get into the news. But, along with her sister Margaret, she was undoubtedly the most delightful.

I was paid well, got to travel a lot, and learned even more. But after three years I couldn’t do it any longer. It depressed me that rich corporations were able to buy their way into the news, and that I was helping them – often at the expense of what I believed were much more important stories.

Now new research documents the fact that PR “flacks” outnumber journalist “hacks” by a factor of six to one. A recent article in The Economist magazine profiled a study done by Jamil Jonna at the University of Oregon finding that as newsrooms have cut staff, the ranks of those tasked with attempting to influence news coverage has swelled significantly.

I’m not alone in thinking this is bad news for the future of independent and authoritative information that helps citizens make sense of an increasingly complex world in which public space is already overwhelmingly dominated by commercial interests.