Head to Head: Are there now too many PRs compared to journalists?

In this series, Mumbrella invites senior PR professionals to share their opposing views on the industry's biggest issues. This week, Toby Hemming, founder and MD of Bold Media, goes head to head with Group M's Rosie Baker on whether there are now too many public relations professionals.

The number of journalism jobs in Australia is continuing to shrink. It can feel like every day there are fewer job prospects for professional journalists, and many of them end up trying their hand at public relations instead. 

So, have we reached ‘peak PR’? Are there too many people on one side of the fence?

Founder and managing director of Bold Media, Toby Hemming, says the changing roles of journalists and PRs, thanks to social media and influencers, has thrown off the ‘symbiotic’ relationship between the two sides of the industry.

Meanwhile, Group M group communications director, Rosie Baker, says that the issue is not that there are too many PRs, but there are not enough journalists.

Are there now too many PRs compared to journalists?

Toby Hemming, founder and managing director of Bold Media, argues ‘Yes’:

“In his 1994 hit ‘Girl Like You’ Scottish singer Edwin Collins bemoans the fact that in his eyes, the world is suffering from, ‘Too many protest singers, not enough protest songs.’

“It’s easy to see where Collins is coming from, painting a bleak picture of a society with no lack of people ready to spout their opinions, but very little for them to actually say.

“It’s an apt analogy, and one which could easily be applied to the world of PR where some studies have shown we outnumber our journalism colleagues by nearly four to one.

“But the simple facts are that despite a somewhat elaborate game, the journalist/ PR relationship at best should always be a symbiotic one, benefitting both sides. Without a healthy balance and of course a healthy media industry, we are all are destined for the scrap heap.

“The rapidly changing definition of influencers and audiences and content itself is transforming what it actually means to be a journalist. Add to the mix the fact that social media has let misinformation proliferate for years and now, when the stakes are higher than ever, a lack of preparation, precedent and commitment to responsibility threaten to cripple effective debate.

“So yes, without our esteemed colleagues at the news desk to spar with and their egos to massage, we live in danger of an even more homogenised world of self-uploaded content and viral videos. I feel it’s never been more important for the balance to be right, even if it means losing a few PR execs along the way.”

Rosie Baker, group communications director at Group M, says ‘No’:

“The issue isn’t that there are too many PRs, but that there aren’t enough journalists.

“In my 10 years as a journalist and editor covering the media industry, marketing and advertising, there were frequent wholesale culls to editorial teams at national and regional newspapers and media outlets in the UK, here in Australia and around the globe. At times I wondered how many more journalists there were to be cut.

“Journalists – good ones – get into the game because they have a love of storytelling and respect for the truth. At the heart of journalism is crafting stories that help audiences understand complex information. The profession has independence at its core and journalists work hard to hold companies and public institutions accountable.

“At its core, PR and communications is the same. As a journalist who moved into communications and PR, I know why many make the leap.

“I believe a journalist has great advantages when they move into PR. Knowing how a journalist thinks and how the media works, from the inside, is key to creating unique, authentic, genuine stories, and in building two-way relationships that form the foundation of a strong, reliable and effective PR strategy.

“But it goes both ways. Neither can exist without each other, and there are things I now understand better about how PR works, that would make me a much better journalist now, were I to ever go back to it.

“However, the concern that this question raises extends beyond the profession of journalism and PR, to the very fabric of democracy that underpins the society we live in.

“If that sounds dramatic, it’s because I believe it is. And in the context of the AAP shuttering after 85 years, it’s an ongoing concern. Good quality, well-resourced journalism is costly, and the AAP is part of that. But my fear is the cost of allowing it to fall by the wayside is greater.

“News wires like AAP are foundational for national newspapers. Many have said already that it’s a blow for Australian democracy – and that’s not hyperbole.

“Democracy rests on the access to fair, balanced and accurate news and information. Many newspapers rely on AAP to provide the basis of stories. Without it, I wonder how the already stretched regional and metro newsrooms in Australia will fill the gap.

“Without news institutions that invest in quality, non-biased journalism, we wouldn’t have the justice served to now convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein. Former US President Nixon would not have resigned his post had journalists not uncovered the scandal of Watergate in 1974. There are many more.

“Many journalists are strapped for time because newsrooms are under-resourced. They don’t have the resources to properly research a story, investigate an issue, or apply well-rounded context. Too often stories are launched like grenades, irresponsibly and irrevocably.

“There is a very real threat to the quality of information the public can access when there are fewer and fewer journalists serving less and less resourced newsrooms. We all suffer because of that.”

  • As told to Zoe Wilkinson. If you’re a senior PR professional who would like to take part in a future Head to Head, please email zoew@mumbrella.com.au

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