VNR Producers Fighting Back*

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.

Here is a link to the Center for Media and Democracy's report on Fake TV News. The Center takes credit for spurring the FCC's probe.

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.

4 thoughts on “VNR Producers Fighting Back*

  1. You seem to have missed one of the main points of our Fake TV News report, whose subtitle is “widespread and undisclosed.” The fact that TV stations use supplied footage is not the problem. The problem is that they conceal this fact from the public. You’re write that TV news programs “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.” The point is not that TV stations are being fooled. The point is that the public is being fooled.

    As our study stated, “the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) studied hundreds of VNRs and VNR announcements and found — without exception — that the PR firms had clearly and accurately divulged the complete client funding information.” Nevertheless, “Of the 87 VNR broadcasts that CMD documented, not once did the TV station disclose the client(s) behind the VNR to the news audience.” Moreover, “TV stations disguise VNRs as their own reporting,” and “don’t supplement VNR footage or verify VNR claims.”

    You’re right that the VNR problem is “an easy thing to fix. News directors should from now on indentify on-screen the source of the video footage they’re showing.” So why don’t they fix it? Answer: because TV newsrooms don’t want the public to know how much they’ve cheapened their news product by replacing real reporting with fake filler. And up until now, PR firms have been only too happy to assist by providing the filler.

  2. Sheldon,

    Thanks for commenting.

    I think I understood your point. It’s about trust. Both the news media and the PR industry are waking up to widespread public mistrust of both industries respectively, and their symbiotic relationship is where much of the distrust derives from. The abuse of VNRs is one of myriad ways these institutions fail us.

    Your use of the word “cheapened” is kind of a double-entendre. Yes, the news managers have cheapened the news in search of ratings, and are trying to do it on the cheap.

    The only place where I would disagree with you is the special emphasis you’re placing on this particular practice. If running VNRs without proper ID was the worst thing being done on TV news, our republic would be in good shape. Before telling these stations what not to run, I’d first tell them to offer viewers some actual news, rather than the freak parade that makes up 90 percent of most broadcast news at the local level.

    The First Amendment says to me that if, in the judgment of the news director of a TV station, a VNR doesn’t need to have an identifier, it’s their right to run it that way. The First Amendment is silent on motives. If you engage in a free-speech act for purposes of not looking cheesy, that’s disreputable, but not actionable, in my opinion. Shame, not regulation, should be the cure.

  3. It’s not a first amendment issue to require that TV stations label what they air as to the financial source and bias. No one has told them not to run biased reports, only to be clear about it. Censorship has nothing to do with the debate and to say otherwise really cheapens your other points.

    Regulation is appropriate here because the public owns the airwaves. One of the few things we require of TV stations in return for cheap licenses to _our_ airwaves is a minimum level of public good. Undisclosed VNR use diminishes that good to a significant degree. Is it the most serious problem? No. But it’s the easiest one to fix.

    And as for VNR producers, why don’t they label the footage themselves? Why don’t they complain when their implicitly copyrighted work is re-cut and re-purposed from its original form? Because they know TV producers want to re-label it, re-dub it, re-cut it. And the VNR producers want that to happen, as long as the clip gets aired in a form that helps their clients. They’re clearly part of the game. And no amount of “the blame game” will hide the fact.

    If they want to prove they’re above board, then they should put their own disclosures in the source footage in a way that is clear to the audience. Stations can overlay their own graphics, if they want. If they hide the disclosure, then the fault is clear.

    VNR producers won’t do it, though, because TV stations won’t like it. But it’s going to take more than shame to solve this, I’m afraid. If stations aren’t ashamed of their crappy news coverage now, then why should this phase them?

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