I've been wondering when the PR industry would own up to the fact that Video News Releases — now very controversial, and seen as deceptive — have been a standard public relations tactic for maybe two decades. Some form of VNR is (or was until recently) a standard part of any major product launch or corporate initiative. But when the press started writing stories about VNRs appearing on television (where else would they go?), nobody in the industry defended them very publicly. At least, not that I saw.
In fact, with the major exception of Richard Edelman, the PR industry is still tip-toeing around this issue. But the companies with the most to lose, the VNR producers themselves, have decided to organize. I can't blame them. From PR Week:
Several broadcast PR companies are discussing plans to band together to fight the latest wave of public scrutiny of the sector, PRWeek has learned.
The action comes in the wake of news that the FCC is investigating the use of VNRs by several news stations that, according to a recent report by the Center for Media and Democracy, didn't disclose the corporate sponsorship of the video releases.
Organized by Medialink, the new group comprises more than a dozen companies including MultiVu, West Glen Communications, and News Broadcast Network.
"If the FCC is considering an inquiry, we've got to take that seriously," said Medialink president and CEO Larry Moskowitz. "It is frightening to all of us to have the government take a seat in the newsroom as a censor."
Moskowitz said the group is considering reaching out to industry organizations such as PRSA and the Radio-Television News Directors Association, as well as freedom of speech and democracy groups.
Ironies abound here. It was government's use of VNRs that put the stink on this tactic — including the White House. Now the same government wants to regulate them? Okay, but first, stop buying them!
Even more ironic is that the "broadcast PR companies" are vendors to PR agencies. So why would they need to "reach out" to the PRSA (Public Relations Society of America)? Shouldn't it be the other way around? It's the PRSA membership's client work, and their clients' freedom of speech, that are potentially at issue. Why aren't they defending themselves?
The bad guys here are the TV stations that broadcast this content as news without telling anyone that it came from a PR agency. The "broadcast PR companies" have nothing to do with the decisions made by station execs. The PR agencies that distribute these videos could admonish the stations to identify the clips as PR content (as Edelman suggests) but in the end, the stations themselves decide what goes on their air.
The Center sees a much brighter line between broadcast TV news and VNRs than I do. What's the bill of particulars against VNRs?
- That they aren't news? That's for the individual stations' news directors to judge. Many VNRs are loaded with news value, although it's obviously a one-sided presentation. But is anyone stopping news directors from presenting the other side?
- That you've got actors pretending to be reporters? Uh, hello? That ship sailed long ago. There are far more actors, models, comedians, disk jockeys, ex-athletes, and ex-politicians who are presented as journalists by news stations than by PR agencies. There is no license for journalists. The charge of impersonating a TV reporter doesn't have the same weight as impersonating a doctor, a lawyer or a general.
- That they run on TV news programs without being identified as PR? Again, talk to the news director. He or she can put up a graphic in front of the VNR saying where the footage came from. No one's alleging the videos arrive in a plain brown wrapper, or that anyone at the news station is being fooled.
It comes down to news judgement. Once upon a time, I worked with a company on a video documentary about a high-profile client, and we hired a high-profile TV personality to serve as host. For a few months, this video ran frequently on local-access cable channels. We didn't pay them. They ran it because they thought it was interesting and they had space to fill.
More typically, I commissioned B-roll and provided it to local TV channels. No fake anchors; just video clips that might help illustrate the story we hoped the news outlets would tell. Often, it was footage the station couldn't have gotten for itself, such as an event that took place out of town. Sometimes, too, we'd recognized that the TV station didn't have crews available to cover our event (in other words, we got shut out), so we would messenger over our own edited video version of the event. Of course, we edited the footage to show off our clients, but most of our editorial decisions were made based on what we thought the news stations would find interesting and worth airing.
The campaign against "Fake News" strikes me as somewhat overblown. It's such an easy thing to fix. News directors should from now on indentify on-screen the source of the video footage they're showing. Knowing that some news directors are too lazy to take that step, perhaps PR agencies should do it for them — as a convenience, in the name of transparency, not to head off regulation. Do those things and the issue goes away.
Or will it? Like many PR controversies of late, I think there's a bigger question on the table — the legitimacy of PR. PR equals spin equals lies. That's what many Americans think, and they're sick of it. Americans are tired of being pitched. They want to zap commercials, watch commercial-free TV, and block pop-ups. They recognize that corporations and government agencies have information for the public, but they yearn to hear it straight, not "strategically."
As I think back on it, it's clear to me that many standard PR strategies were designed to manipulate the media, because the media is assumed to be the filter for information reaching the public. Paradoxically, that's why so many PR campaigns don't ring true. They're designed with reporters and editors in mind — an alien subculture to most Americans.
VNRs and even traditional press releases — their point is to take advantage of the media's laziness and need to fill news holes with limited budgets. There's something surreptitious about doing business this way — like a teenager waiting for his parents to fall asleep so he can sneak out of the house, instead of asking permission.
So, what would happen if you took the news media out of the equation entirely? Wouldn't that change the way corporate America and government agencies talk to the public? Or would PR advisors still believe it's necessary to spin?
*Extensively revised and expanded.