PR must move past VNRs and embrace new technology

Prepackaged news stories, long a mainstay of the PR industry and corporate communicators in the US, have come under fire as congressional investigators reprimanded several government agencies for their use of the technique in violation of a longtime congr

Prepackaged news stories, long a mainstay of the PR industry and corporate communicators in the US, have come under fire as congressional investigators reprimanded several government agencies for their use of the technique in violation of a longtime congr

Some in the PR industry claim that the recent guidelines placed on government use of voiced reports don't apply to use of VNRs by the private sector. Or, even less plausibly, they dismiss the entire debate over prepackaged news reports by claiming it is politically motivated.

This is just a blatant attempt to duck the issue.

We must ask ourselves, what is the intent of voiced reports? Who are they created for? And what benefits do they deliver to clients, to the agencies that create them, to broadcasters, and, in the end, to TV viewers?

Voiced reports are produced in the increasingly vain hope that they will be aired in their entirety. They cater to the weakness in all communications professionals: We want as much control over a story as possible. And journalists have made it clear that they do not like and rarely use prepackaged stories. Only in the most overburdened, understaffed, and underfunded newsrooms do unedited VNRs ever make it to air.

So now VNR producers have turned to "secured placements" that blur the line even further, blending sponsor messaging with legitimate news. These spots are purchased media and are guaranteed air time, running mainly on cable networks and broadcast stations in smaller markets.

This practice has generated an outcry from critics concerned that secured placements are virtually indistinguishable from real newscasts and cause confusion for television viewers. Yet they provide those in the PR industry with a preference for quantity over quality, a lazy way to claim "results" by way of confirmed airings.

Advertorials certainly have a place in the marketing arsenal of brands, but we should not confuse them with editorial.

Despite public shows of confidence, there is much hand-wringing going on among many VNR producers over the declining performance of traditional VNRs. Blame has been cast on a variety of culprits, from politics to bad tracking technology. However, the industry needs to face the fact that voiced reports are a dying tactic. Many newsrooms are on high alert against VNRs - regardless of whether they are from the government, a nonprofit, or the private sector.

The ugly truth is that, by and large, VNRs hold very little value for anyone other than the firms that produce them. Packaging the "ideal" story is reassuring to clients, but a waste of their production dollars if that story never makes it to air. Journalists infinitely prefer to use b-roll to put together their own segments. For consumers, VNRs masquerade as real news broadcasts when they're actually more akin to paid advertising, sowing confusion and ultimately undermining the bond of trust between broadcasters and the viewing public.

This is not to say that third-party content isn't valuable to the TV news business. In fact, third-party content has never faced a more receptive environment than it enjoys today. It's become indispensable in an age of 24-hour news programming and shrinking budgets. And technology is fueling new opportunities for the creation, marketing, distribution, and consumption of third-party video content.

Video is easier and cheaper than ever to create. Once produced, it can travel much broader and deeper into the landscape of media outlets. And it is no longer the exclusive purview of broadcasters. Established print titles and online portals are embracing video as more consumers move to broadband internet access and gravitate to rich media content. Recent announcements by Yahoo, Google, CNN, and others about their increasing focus on video signify that we're entering the age of video PR.

Smart organizations are exploiting emerging opportunities by providing b-roll and raw stock footage that enable journalists to be journalists. It is b-roll that has a place in the highest quality programs, and not voiced reports. The markup isn't as attractive for production firms, but the results will keep clients coming back for more.

Instead of trying to protect the voiced report, a tactic that has come to be seen as bad business practice, communications pros need to embrace the new opportunities that are opening up in video PR.

  • Shoba Purushothaman is cofounder and CEO of The NewsMarket, an online distribution platform for broadcast-standard video.

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