Every few years The Oregonian revisits a favorite old theme and elaborates a core journalistic belief: There just are too damn many public relations people on the public payroll. Such was the case when The Sunday Oregonian (October 16, 2011) let loose with a front-page broadside proclaiming, “Whatever Oregon's trying to communicate, it's costing you millions."
“Oregon is cutting programs that serve poor families, threatening to close highway rest stops and laying off teachers, yet state government spent millions of dollars last year on public relations, advertising, outreach and marketing campaigns,” the article begins.
It’s tempting but not worth spending too much time in rebutting the commentary’s conclusions. But it’s hard to argue over one of the article’s premises – there are more PR professionals working in the public sector today. Here are three simple reasons why this is the case that weren’t mentioned in the commentary:
First, all of us, reporter or publicist, are in a bidding war for mindshare. Our audiences are distracted. The door on the “Information Age” closed some years ago. We now live in the “Too Much Information Age.” We all have to work harder to deliver important news to an overwhelmed public and make that news stick, even when the news may be about public health and safety.
Second, local newspapers and TV news play less of a role in providing the public with news about government and nonprofit organizations. Many community-based newspapers, such as The Oregonian, once were so-called “newspapers of record.” They made an effort to provide readers a regular, if not daily, account of statehouse and city hall events.
But newspapers began running away from “process stories” – stories that explained how and why decisions were made by elected officials and agency managers. Now it is harder to follow what is happening in print and many websites run by newspapers make it hard to find stories. This has become the province of bloggers who have filled the vacuum vigorously, if not always accurately.
Third, PR pros have to pay attention to new news platforms in addition to traditional media. This means managers supervising communications departments must make sure their staff possesses a broad, more complex set of skills. More hands are needed on deck.
As The Oregonian correctly states, our public agencies are in a state of transition and change. So government organizations are in an increasing struggle to explain programs, secure limited space in print and reach diverse audiences with vastly different news consumption habits. The irony is newspaper managers know all of this as newsroom managers fight their own battle to keep their product relevant.