VNRs, SMTs and ... Enron

It doesn't look like Public Relations is a favorite topic for the NY Times - or, the flip side, maybe it is too much of a favorite topic right now.

Once again, the industry comes under fire with an article by Frank Rich today - calling PR culpable for the Enron mess.

According to the article,

The enduring legacy of Enron can be summed up in one word: propaganda. Here was a corporate house of cards whose business few could explain and whose source of profits was an utter mystery - and yet it thrived, unquestioned, for years. How? As the narrator says in "The Smartest Guys in the Room," Enron "was fixated on its public relations campaigns." It churned out slick PR videos as if it were a Hollywood studio. It browbeat the press (until a young Fortune reporter, Bethany McLean, asked one question too many).
This is part of a series of unrelated PR-related articles, and Rich goes into the recent spate of pay-for-plays, and brings up the issues of VNRs (video news releases) - which was a recent front-page article for the Times. That story hit a big enough nerve that most of the letters the next day were about the VNR issue, and the Times had another editorial about it as 'counterfeit news.'

The facts are that VNRs are being used by the federal government to get out the word on programs. Has this always been done? Yes. Is there transparency between the VNR firms and the television stations? Yes. Is there transparency between the television stations and their viewers? Not at all. Therein lays the issue that NYT has brought up, and considers part of the overall story of the current administration's lack of respect for the press, and its apparent belief that the press can be bought, a la Armstrong Williams, VNRs, Jeff Gannon, etc.

To address the VNR issue, yesterday the O'Dwyer website hosted a teleconference with top broadcast PR execs on ethics questions raised by the NYT article. Those in attendance included: Doug Simon of D S Simon Productions; Stan Zeitlin, West Glen Communications; Larry Moskowitz, Medialink Worldwide; KEF Media's Kevin Foley, and Peter Wengryn of VMS.

In the spirit of blogging and PR transparency, I have bought tapes from VMS, had a few all-night SMTs with Doug Simon, and am currently in talks for a VNR for a client, and I spoke during the teleconference.

O'Dwyer's already has a transcript of the session, as well as a story. But, this is my take on the call, and what is happening with VNRs and the slippery slope we are slowly falling down. And, yes, I know slippery slopes are logical fallacies, but it can happen.
The Times has taken such a position against VNRs, but there is obviously value for public relations with VNRs. There is a responsibility and duty to communicate information that is in VNRs, and there is a public's right to know such information.

The NYT article - while we may not like what was written - has a lot of truth to the article. The legitimate practices of VNRs are being thrown together with the bad, corrupt practices. The VNR industry needs to clarify to the public that it is not in the business of fake or paid news, but in the business of helping companies and the government with video advocacy.

VNR companies produce news packages for television. The VNRs are easily cut, with suggested narrations; they also come with voice-over narrators on a separate audio track so the stations can personalize them with their own broadcasters.

VNR tapes are labeled as such. There is transparency there between the VNR companies and the media. They are labeled for the television stations, and are supposed to be a guide to the journalist on complex stories. Plus, the VNR firms provide additional b-roll, so the stations can build their own story - to use like an erector set.

Just like newspapers and magazines use press releases for stories, television producers use VNRs for stories.

This is not the first time VNRs have come under fire and the microscope. Back in the 1970's, there was an "expose" in TV Guide. The VNR firms do act responsibly, with clearly labeled VNR tapes. The fact is that the media needs the material.

But, the issue right now in the media is concentrating only on the government's use of VNRs - there's been nothing on private industry using VNRs.

It's not the fault of the television stations, but a reaction to the news stations needing video to fill the time.
The point I brought up was that one local station in Phoenix has 1/3 of the day dedicated to news, 9 1/2 hours. Then the news is re-aired on a second cable channel 24 hours a day. I can come home and sit there and watch the VNRs roll by, naturally re-edited to have their own newscasters reading the scripts.

It’s not the laziness of news producers, but the cheapness of the conglomerates that own the local TV stations. You can only do so much with a limited staff while having to put up even more news.

But, what amazed me during the call was the blinders that most of the VNR companies seemed to be wearing. While the concentration of the NYT press has been on the government's use of VNRs, it is only time before the media starts digging around for more stories and decides to dig up that VNRs are used for lots of mainstream consumer products, sometimes with no real news value.

Producers do know about VNRs, and know that they are thinly veiled "news" stories. The producers I know also admit that they just have too much time to fill, and not enough staff. It's a Catch-22 for the producers and assignment editors, and one they would rather not deal with.

The worst analogy, though, was that VNRs are just like press releases. Slight difference between press releases and VNRs is that you seldom see a press release used in its entirety. And, the majority of Americans get their news from television, not the print news. So, these VNRs have an even further reach.

The press getting outraged about things that they know are going on isn't a new thing. A few months back, I was contacted for a story on SMTs (satellite media tours) but it appears that the story was spiked. I would be surprised, though, if the reporter weren't rethinking the story in light of all the VNR stories floating around right now.

And, back in December 2003, Dan Gillmor was shocked, I say shocked, to find out that reporters sometimes go on television and are paid for it by companies. You can almost hear Foghorn Leghorn, "Now lookie here, I'm shocked, I say, shocked."

It's called a satellite media tour with an expert. Sometimes it's a toy expert, sometimes it's a consumer electronics expert, sometimes it's just a celebrity that's an expert in being a famous person.

The fact is that the producers that I have worked with in the past KNOW that such feeds are pay-for-plays, and to think otherwise is quite naive. What's the statistic, that close to 80 percent of what's read in the papers / magazines, or seen on TV news is public relations generated? This is not much different.

As an industry, we need to ensure that we are transparent in our dealings. Heck, even Richard Edelman pulled back the curtain to let people know how much Edelman is billing in DC in his latest Speak Up blog post.

But, the whole issue of VNRs, SMTs and transparency make me wonder how transparent are we supposed to be?

Are SMTs/VNRs much different than a journalist with preferential treatment from a company because the understood relationship is that if reporter A does not get the scoop, he/she will work over the company?

Or, how much different is this than giving a reporter a sneak preview because of a long-standing relationship? Should the reporter have to let his readers know that "I have had a working relationship with Company Z for a decade and they always give me product first and ask for my thoughts, and it may temper my article, etc."

For the readers, would it be best for every reporter to identify the public relations firms that pitched the story they are writing?

While the VNR issue is still being played out - and I think it will continue to be reported on, and draw in other PR tools that are common but not fully transparent - where do we have to draw the line?

Technorati tags: PR Public Relations



  1. Jeremy:

    Excellent post.

    My feeling is that corporate VNRs are perfectly legit and that the responsibility for transparency lies with the television station.

    Government VNRs are a different animal.

    I believe it's completely unethical to air government-produced VNRs on issues of policy. Everyone shares the blame here -- the administration, the PR firms, the VNR firms and the stations themselves.

  2. Jeremy -- Enjoyed the thoughtfulness of your commentary.

    Where's the line to be drawn re: VNRs? Perhaps motive needs to be a factor of consideration. Is the piece informational or manipulative? The gov't can put out informational pieces. Who wouldn't want to know about gov't grants? But I do agree that when a policy issue is at stake, the line must be drawn. Manipulation is where the value in a VNR stops. This, however, means there needs to be self-policing on the part of the producers. As professionals, we know what the motives are. We know the difference between information and manipulation. Do we have the backbone to point out the difference?

  3. Thanks you two.

    I really am torn on the VNR issue. On one hand, it's all manipulation, and not just the government. Is my life made better knowing about online networking sites on the local 6.00 PM news? Not really.

    As for having the fortitude to point out when it is propaganda, I am not sure many agencies turn a blind eye, but rather err on the safe side. At least, that's the feeling I get when I talk to different top PR professionals.