PR TECHNIQUE: STAYING ON THE AIR - The new world of broadcast PR.Broadcast PR firms are facing the possibility of reduced capacity forscreening VNRs, but stand to gain in other areas, finds Robin Londner

A common image is seared into the minds of Americans: One tower on

fire, a commercial jet hits the other, and both towers spout black smoke

and flames. The towers eventually collapse, all captured in

not-so-glorious Technicolor.



What hope does a VNR have in breaking through the clutter to fill

today's small news hole when TV producers need no help in capturing

today's powerful, hard news images with their own cameras?



The steep drop in demand for canned footage means that VNR companies are

scrambling to find ways to help their clients earn a slice of the

smaller airtime pie. But it also means they are working to nurture other

(albeit less profitable) revenue sources that use similar technology and

expertise, such as webcasting and videoconferencing.



While stressing that some VNRs will still be screened, Deborah Nettune,

media director of DWJ Television, says she is telling her clients that

producers are walking a tightrope between responsible coverage of

breaking news and an attempt to return to normalcy. But normalcy will

not mean a return to frothy news of yesteryear.



"Features and other fluff news are pretty much out of the picture," says

Nettune. "Stations are looking for hard-core news."



On the morning of September 11, representatives of Medialink, the

nation's largest VNR producer and distributor, called all its clients

and advised them to postpone their projects until further notice. DS

Simon Productions was so concerned about potential clients shying away

from SMTs or VNRs for fear regular news would be preempted by breaking

news (thereby dumping any stories that may have featured VNRs), the

company now sells insurance for interrupted SMTs and VNRs.



John Hawkins, VP of corporate communications for Choice Hotels

International, based in Silver Spring, MD, bought the insurance. Choice

paid an additional $1,250 for the insurance on top of the $20,000 fee for the VNR promoting the company's "Thanks for Traveling"

campaign designed to promote tourism.



He says he doesn't regret spending the extra money for the

insurance.



"The way the news has gone the last couple of weeks, you don't know what

might hit and what might knock you off the television," says

Hawkins.



"In our particular case, the VNR relates to the big story that is going

on right now: this whole war on terrorism and how it has seriously

impacted one of our major industries, the travel industry. It's a timely

topic that can help round out a hard newscast to show what people are

doing to respond. But if, God forbid, something else occurs, it will

push this into the background."



But for companies that cannot tie their activities to hard news stories,

a VNR may not be able to break into many hard-news-dominated TV

programs, which is why some VNR companies are pushing webcasting and

videoconferencing in lieu of producing VNRs. The same fears that are

leaving business-travel airline seats empty can move companies to try

videoconferencing to hold group discussions from disparate locations.

The same wall-to-wall news coverage that has constricted the news hole

can move marketing to the internet, where companies can webcast their

information to a specific audience.



At On the Scene Productions, the demand for videoconferencing began just

two days after the attacks. The Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys Advisory

Council (APAAC) had scheduled a keynote speaker to fly in from Los

Angeles for a 500-person training seminar. With all planes grounded, the

speaker, based in Los Angeles, had no way to get to the venue in

time.



"We were reviewing options available to us on Wednesday morning, when

the possibility of having the presentation beamed via satellite was

suggested," says Bruce Bowers of the APAAC. "The bottom line is that the

program went off without a hitch."



For companies not wary of travel, but rightfully concerned about the

likelihood of VNRs being broadcast on television, webcasting boasts

sound and video, without the threat of being preempted from a one-off

time slot.



Steve Gold, president of TVN Communications Group, predicts that as

television becomes harder to access, webcasting demand will increase.

Terri Clevenger, a PR consultant with Weisscomm Partners in Weston, CT,

began a webcast campaign for client MAGIC Foundation before the attacks.

In light of current events, Clevenger says she's glad she made that

choice from the beginning.



"My professional opinion is that I would not use a VNR right now,"

Clevenger says. "The same thing happened during the Gulf War. We were

smack in the middle of a promotion then, too, and we pulled back all our

broadcast stuff."



Production and screening of PSAs, however, has not been hit so hard by

recent events, as they appear in ad breaks. Cynthia Patrasso, president

of Orbis Broadcast Group, says many of her clients' health, medical,

safety, and healthy lifestyle VNRs continue to get play due to their

still-relevant subject matter. But Patrasso adds that PSAs are in a

prime position to capitalize on a weak economy, with plenty of airtime

empty due to a pullback in advertising budgets and concern that some

commercials are inappropriate to air post-September 11.



"Some people may have to rethink some of the things they're doing, and

PSAs or additional PSAs replacing VNRs for some companies may be a good

idea," says Patrasso, who adds that the news of the day is likely to

elbow out VNRs for some time to come.



With the news of the day changing rapidly in these uncertain times, Mike

Hill, president of News Broadcast Network, advises VNR companies to

exercise patience in making decisions and advising clients.



"The impact of all this will be much clearer in four to six weeks," Hill

says, adding, "Much of it is really beyond our control, and our clients'

control."



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