Broadcast: The new rules of engagement

Recent controversies surrounding VNRs have led some to worry that their pitches will be ignored. Erica Iacono goes back to basics to find what's needed in this day and age

Recent controversies surrounding VNRs have led some to worry that their pitches will be ignored. Erica Iacono goes back to basics to find what's needed in this day and age

Each day, in TV newsrooms around the country, broadcast PR pros pitch producers and reporters with the hope of getting their client's VNR on the air. But between the recent controversy concerning VNR disclosure and the shrinking news hole, there are certain things to keep in mind to increase your chances.

In spite of all of the recent attention given to VNRs, Larry Thomas, president of MultiVu, says that the procedure has not really changed for the most part. "People need to remember to get back to basics," he says.

The first step is determining if the story is right for broadcast. Despite any changes that may have taken place in the industry or newsrooms, one thing still holds true: A good story is the key to getting a VNR on the air.

Medical stories are among those with the best chance to get on-air, says Alan Weiss, president of Alan Weiss Productions.

"Anything that is an undisputed news story is what works best," he says, adding that FDA approvals are usually a surefire bet. "The typical news director will not get access to footage of the manufacturing plant."

Jack Trammell, president of VNR-1 Communications, says that in choosing what type of story to produce, it is important to keep in mind the "five gospels" of the newsroom: topicality, timeliness, localization, humanization, and "visuality." He adds, "Those are the requirements of a good TV story."

Although "fluff" stories have declined slightly in use, Michelle Williams, director of production at Medialink, says there are ways to increase the chances of getting them on the air. Tying it to a current event can help, she says. A recent VNR Medialink produced for Redken around the Oscars featured tips on how to get the look of popular celebrities. "You want to make it a no-brainer for the station to use," notes Williams.

After deciding what type of story to do, determining the type of package to send to stations

is also key. While most VNR producers agree that the complete story package is rarely, if ever, used by stations, there are situations where it is best to include it.

Maya Burghardt, GM of On the Scene Productions, says that when the story in question contains a lot of dense information, a story package could be beneficial for the reporter. "There are certain stories that warrant that type of walk-through," she adds, citing medical or technology stories as such examples.

Thomas agrees. "It gives the media the basis to comprehend what the story is about," he says. "It acts like the lead press release in a media kit."

Trammell adds that the story package can help ensure that the story doesn't lose its intended direction. "A news package becomes an editorial weathervane," he says.

Once the VNR is completed and ready to be sent out to newsrooms, the next step is to send advisories. Williams says that it's important for the advisory to be cleverly written, in the style of a news story. "If it's commercial or written as a press release, it will get thrown [out]," she adds.

While being clever may be important, Thomas stresses that the most important thing is that the advisory be clear about what the story is. "You must be straightforward," he says. "Don't get too cute with headlines because you'll lose them."

Trammell says that if the story has a visual angle, it's important to make that apparent in the advisory. "A good notification should press the visual up-front and early," he says. "Give them a sentence so that if you heard it with your eyes closed, your mind conjures up something visual."

Though newsrooms may still be willing to accept third-party video, they are more diligent when it comes to asking about the sponsorship of the b-roll, VNR, or SMT, says Burghardt.

"All of that has always been done," she says. "The difference is that stations really need to have that in a way that is [highly apparent]." She says that disclosure of the client should be mentioned on the initial pitch call. It should also be on the advisory and slates on the VNR package. "It's expected now," she adds. "In the past you didn't want to be too commercial. Now people want to know that information up-front and center."

Doug Simon, president of DS Simon Productions, says that he has noticed upper management of stations getting more involved regarding airing third-party video. He's run into situations, he says, where reporters and producers have to get the use of such video approved, which wasn't always the case.

Some things have remained fairly consistent, however. Satellite is still the preferred method of distribution, Thomas says, although some stations will ask to receive tapes. In fact, Williams says, many entertainment shows prefer tapes to satellite feeds.

When pitching the story to producers and reporters, Williams says that a phone call is usually the desired route to take. "A human talking to a human is one of the best ways to tell a story," she says. "Within three seconds, the producer will make a decision whether to look at it or not."

One way to increase the chance of getting a producer or reporter's attention, she says, is by sending a product along with the pitch letter. If the VNR is about the Nathan's hot-dog eating contest, for example, sending a package of hot dogs could provide a good segue into conversation during the pitch call. "It opens up [a conversation]," says Williams. "You can offer different angles for the story."

For the most part, pitching a VNR to newsrooms should follow the rules of PR 101, says Williams. Too many phone calls can be a turn off, as is embellishing the news value of a story. "If you mislead them, they'll be very upset and not use it," she says.

Technique tips

Do make sure notification of the sponsor is made verbally, as well as on the advisory and slates

Do make sure stories have inherent news value

Do write advisories in news style

Don't mislead newsrooms as to the subject or newsworthiness of a VNR

Don't badger reporters with incessant pitch calls

Don't forget to include visual elements of the VNR on the advisory

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