OP-ED: Recent VNRs scandal shouldn't discredit the medium

Press releases have been around since the printing press. Video news releases (VNRs) have been with us since the first TV station went on the air. We've seen fraudulent press releases and even propaganda written under a "for immediate release" slug. We've also seen VNRs that went beyond the pale. Are press releases now evil because a government agency put "spin" into one? Are VNRs any less valid a communications tool because a government agency did not identify itself as the source of one or two?

Press releases have been around since the printing press. Video news releases (VNRs) have been with us since the first TV station went on the air. We've seen fraudulent press releases and even propaganda written under a "for immediate release" slug. We've also seen VNRs that went beyond the pale. Are press releases now evil because a government agency put "spin" into one? Are VNRs any less valid a communications tool because a government agency did not identify itself as the source of one or two?

Two VNRs produced for the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently caught the attention of other governmental departments and print journalists because the content might have been in violation of federal laws preventing the government from engaging in propaganda. If indeed the VNRs were not identified as HHS-produced, then this would have been a violation of all professional PR standards. If they were, in fact, branded as video produced for HHS, then there should be no controversy.

Public information cannot be made available to the public without communications. TV is a visual medium and requires pictures to tell stories. The concept of VNRs is not at issue; misuse of the venerable vehicle is. After all, thousands of corporations, organizations, not-for-profit groups, associations, universities, and hospitals produce and distribute thousands of VNRs, b-roll packages, and live interviews each year. The vast majority of broadcasters use material from them.

Are broadcast journalists not as ethical or skilled as their newspaper peers? Are they so cash-strapped at television stations that producers will "slap" anything that comes in over the transom into their newscasts?

Of course not. But if a Fortune 500 corporation issues an earnings release, you will see it on the Dow Jones and Reuters newswires within seconds headed, "edited press release." Within minutes, you will see a rewrite on those wire services without the moniker. You won't find an electronic or print outlet that does not rely on press releases as sources of news and information, facts, figures, and quotes.

Television newsrooms are not very different from print publications. A quote or a sound bite from a business figure or celebrity will be published or aired if the story is compelling or newsworthy. It is what it is: news.

The PR industry's obligation - whether in the corporate world or government - is to disclose. If the journalists know who produced the material, they can decide what parts to use, what to ignore, and what to identify visually or verbally on air. Where I come from, that's free speech.

VNRs have been a staple of professional communicators for 50 years, and at least 2,000 to 3,000 are distributed each year in the US alone. VNRs bring us the satellite launches and new-car unveilings, the news of government product recalls, and the introductions of new computers. Moon landings and Mars exploration come to us via NASA.

Where's the controversy in a station airing the trailer of a new film? Movie trailers are invariably produced by the motion picture studios releasing the films. What's the issue if a station uses a sound bite from the author of a new book? Virtually all video PR material used by broadcasters worldwide air in edited segments, just as quotes and statistics are "lifted" from press releases and "backgrounders." Further, journalists have an obligation to do their best to ensure that what they print or broadcast is accurate and that the source is attributed. Video is no different. Just as surely, every professional communicator must present information - in print, audio, or video - in a clear, straightforward manner and identify the source. It's standard practice.

It's the logo at the top of the press release, the contact name for more information. This is not the first time VNRs have been scrutinized, criticized, and lauded during the past 50 years, and today they are far more commonly used than ever. In fact, a quick Google search reveals that scores of government agencies at the federal and state levels, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, regularly employ VNRs. Even news organizations themselves produce and distribute them. Nearly 20 years ago, Medialink worked with the Radio-Television News Directors Association president to establish a code of ethics relating to the production and distribution of VNRs and other broadcast publicity tools. We've subscribed to it since then. The first rule: full disclosure.

Full disclosure is always the best policy. Stifling communications, whether in print or in video, isn't.

  • Laurence Moskowitz is chairman, president, and CEO of Medialink.

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