HOLMES REPORT: A new VNR from the Department of Education crosses into realm of political propaganda

Earlier this year, when the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) was criticized for using VNRs to promote changes in Medicare benefits, I wrote in this column that any criticism should be leveled at the news organizations that chose to use the footage without acknowledging its source, not on the PR people who distributed it.

Earlier this year, when the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) was criticized for using VNRs to promote changes in Medicare benefits, I wrote in this column that any criticism should be leveled at the news organizations that chose to use the footage without acknowledging its source, not on the PR people who distributed it.

When the General Accounting Office later ruled that the VNRs were political propaganda - basing that ruling in part on the supposed lack of disclosure - I found the decision absurd. The fact that these VNRs were produced by a government agency was quite clear to the reporters who used them. The fact that those reporters elected not to share that information with their viewers was the responsibility of the media, not the PR people. At the time, I focused on the broad issue of VNR use, not the content of the HHS release. But with a new, remarkably similar controversy brewing over a VNR produced by Ketchum on behalf of the Department of Education (DoE), there's an opportunity to look at the difference between legitimate government communication and political propaganda. It's worth noting that the DoE VNRs, designed to promote the President's "No Child Left Behind" effort, feature the same front person as the HHS campaign - journalist-turned-PR- pro Karen Ryan. She even uses the same misleading phrase - "This is Karen Ryan reporting" - when signing off on the education VNR, despite the fact that the PRSA advises members against using the word "reporting" in sponsored news materials. But because the education VNRs were produced before the HHS controversy, the PR team should be cut a little more slack. More troubling, however, is the fact - reported by the Associated Press - that Ketchum used a scoring system to show the success of its efforts that awarded points for positive messages, including five points for reports that contained the message that "the Bush Administration/the GOP is committed to education." There's nothing wrong with using $700,000 of public funds to explain education policy and provide people with information they need to make informed choices about their children's education. Nor is there anything wrong with measuring the success of that campaign - by awarding five points for stories that explain how the law gives choices to parents or hold schools accountable. But public funds shouldn't be used for the explicit purpose of promoting the political party in office. There might be a fine line between legitimate government communication and political propaganda, but even though the VNR makes no explicit mention of the President's role, this effort seems to have stepped over that line by making favorable coverage of the GOP an explicit goal.
  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 17 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

  • Have you registered with us yet?

    Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

    Register
    Already registered?
    Sign in

    Would you like to post a comment?

    Please Sign in or register.