Winning over television's gatekeepers

The first audience for any video news release is the television producer. If you can't engage them, your VNR is as good as useless.

The first audience for any video news release is the television producer. If you can't engage them, your VNR is as good as useless.

Most television producers receive a pile of video news releases (VNRs) each week, and at least twice as many pitches and follow-ups from PR people determined to get theirs to the top of the heap. Grabbing the attention of these newsroom gatekeepers requires being honest but subtle, persistent but not bothersome, and helpful but not presumptuous. What makes a VNR something other than an advertisement in the eyes of a television producer is its news angle, but everyone involved knows that the purpose is still at least partly promotional, so don't waste time (and ultimately, your shot at getting picked up) trying to convince producers otherwise. Edd Adamko, executive producer for ABC 7 in Los Angeles, points to a pitch he received for a VNR on how kissing over the holidays can spread germs, an idea he calls a "perfect example" of a complete waste of his time. He explains, "Of course kissing can spread germs, but [the e-mail pitching the story] never says what the story is about," or what product or advice the piece is centered around. "By not saying anything, it seems like they are lying, and it is going to get deleted. It is better to be honest and let me know what I am getting," advises Adamko. Up-front honesty is imperative, but that doesn't mean producers will be receptive to blatant commercial messages. If your VNR has one or two product mentions, tell the producer immediately, but gear the bulk of the pitch toward why the piece is relevant now, what makes it newsworthy. Medialink, for example, produced a VNR to promote Jennifer Lopez's perfume, Glow, focusing primarily on J Lo as a Hispanic role model and one of People magazine's recently rated most beautiful people. The story aired on E!, Good Day Live, Extra, VH1, and even some Hispanic stations in Canada. Because it is a VNR, says Victor Lee, president of US broadcast for Medialink, "The story is about J Lo, and the perfume is secondary. In a commercial, that would have been flipped." Medialink also recently produced and pitched a VNR to promote the 50th anniversary of Playboy. To make the story newsworthy, most of the footage was of the party held to celebrate the milestone, but "it was still a plug for the magazine," notes Lee. Due to this disparity between how a VNR might appear on paper and how the visual components end up conveying the story, it is important for PR people to know how to read news scripts. Scripts are divided into two columns - right for audio, left for visual - so sometimes a product might not appear in the spoken contents of a VNR, but it will be shown visually. Michelle Williams, head of Medialink's production unit, says it helps when PR people can explain this to their clients, who are sometimes "dissatisfied if they don't see their product mentioned in every line." She explains, "The viewer will take away something visual before they take away something audio. Instead of plugging a product by talking about it, showing it in use" can be more effective. Assuming you've coordinated a healthy balance between being forthcoming about your motives and savvy in your approach, the way the pitch is delivered to a producer should be the next area of concern. Preferences for phone, e-mail, or fax vary, but producers' aversion to receiving pitches more than once remains a clear common ground. As a general rule, get to the point, and then let them get back to you. Says Doug Simon, president of DS Simon Productions, "If you're sending an e-mail pitch, write in broadcast style. Sending a five-page message for a 30-second spot" does not make sense. Stacia Matthews, health reporter and anchor for WRTV 6 in Indianapolis, says long-winded VNR pitchers have forced her to be "quite persistent in asking people not to leave phone messages." She says that given the opportunity, people pitching VNRs have filled up her entire voicemail, causing her to miss anticipated calls or feedback from viewers because they cannot get through. "They try to sell you the VNR by repeating information or sharing things that I already know. I am a reporter, so I don't need all the background. Just tell me what is new and if I'm interested, I will call back for more." For producers, an even bigger waste of time is getting pitched for VNRs that either don't fall under their beat or assignment area, or for stories that have already run on their station. Getting to know the news organization prior to contacting its staff is mandatory, as several have pre-identified needs on the types of VNRs they will air, and to whom and when they should be directed. "Know who and why you are pitching," tells Maya Burghardt, VP of publicity for On the Scene Productions. She explains, "I am never going to call someone up just because they are a medical producer. If they just aired a ten-part series on breast cancer, pitching them on something about that" is obviously not advisable. Nor is it advisable for VNR pitchers to overstep their boundaries by trying to tell television producers how they should angle a story. Most stations want a brief explanation about why a particular VNR might be of interest in their region, or to the demographic makeup of their viewers, but flexibility is more important. Knowing what the "viewer benefit" is, according to Simon, "helps stations tease the story." Matthews notes, however, that she sometimes gets calls from PR people who "make assumptions that are not true" about WRTV's viewers. She prefers when pitchers "tell me that they are going to pitch something my way that I might want to consider, but don't try and tell me what my viewers want to know." ----- Technique tips Do always tie your pitch to something newsworthy Do learn how to convey a story's relevance to the station's audience without overstepping boundaries with the producer Do familiarize yourself with a station's producers and their schedules prior to pitching to ensure your story reaches the right person at the right time Don't pitch a story that clearly only has local relevance to a national news program Don't assume that a VNR is useless just because it does not initially get picked up in the form you originally envisioned Don't try to fool producers by acting as though your VNR is not being pitched for promotional purposes

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