ITN News deputy news editor Arti Lukha uses just one or two of the hundreds of video news releases (VNRs) she receives every day. It's not because she is any more demanding than most other broadcast journalists, nor that the VNRs are necessarily bad, it's just that news time is precious and international news dominates, so it is becoming increasingly difficult to place them.
As a result, some agencies are no longer bothering with them. Joanne Milroy, partner at agency Eloqui PR, whose clients include GE and BMW, says: 'You rarely need something as grand as a VNR. It's more useful to have spokespeople and locations on standby to receive crews at very short notice.'
But most agencies still make VNRs because clients like to be portrayed in the way they would like. And, while only a low percentage of VNRs are used, some agencies do have much more success than that, suggesting that there is a formula for producing effective VNRs.
1. HAVE A STRONG NEWS HOOK
The first rule of producing an effective VNR is to have a strong news hook. It must be something that broadcast editors will want to cover.
As Amanda Richards, project manager at VNR production company TV News Release, says: 'The amount of space available for stories is even more limited in broadcast than in print, so VNR content must be even more newsworthy than press release content.'
Topics that tend to make good VNRs include the publication of surveys, anniversaries, or launches of ground-breaking products, charity, government or unusual ad campaigns and medical breakthroughs.
2. USE MATERIAL THAT BROADCASTERS FIND TRICKY TO OBTAIN
Broadcasters appreciate VNRs that contain material they find difficult to shoot themselves, either because of budget constraints or it covers an event overseas. Timing might also be a factor, for example showing the training that went into an expedition to the South Pole. It could also be that interviewees, such as sick children who may have been saved by a pharma breakthrough, will not respond well to a large camera crew.
'VNRs are immensely valuable to broadcasters if they provide images or graphics which are not available to the broadcasters elsewhere,' says Fishburn Hedges consultant Simon Montague. 'We have produced successful VNRs showing drugs being manufactured, rail maintenance work and new cars in production. They can also be useful at events such as the Farnborough Air Show where it would be impossible for the camera crew to be at all the press conferences and product launches.'
3. OFFER EXCLUSIVE MATERIAL
All successful VNRs are offered as exclusives. August.One Communications head of the broadcast bureau Niall Cowley offers an example of this: 'For the launch of the new Umbro England kit, August.One held a closed press conference with the England football squad. The idea was to exclude journalists and control questioning. The resulting footage was only available to broadcasters and it solely focused on Umbro's key messages. There were no tangential questions.'
4. PRODUCE TO BROADCAST STANDARDS
A BBC TV news producer, who produces pieces for the broadcaster's main news bulletins, says: 'Many VNRs don't adhere to basic production principles. Those producing them should learn to keep the shots long, provide enough choice of shots, and know how to shoot a sequence. I saw one from a high-street retailer for its store card. It was missing key shots to complete a sequence and was awful.'
The simplest way to avoid this is to hire former news production staff to produce your VNRs. Not only will they know how to adhere to the basic standard required, they will also be able to produce VNRs in the style required by most news producers. They will know not to include music, they will probably split soundtracks to keep voices separate from other sounds, and will steer clear of long tracking shots which will never be used in short news stories.
5. BE SURE YOU WILL GET A RETURN ON YOUR INVESTMENT
Many experts say a VNR should be the last, not the first resort. This is because they are expensive and so rarely used. Other options include corporate videos, webcasts and satellite media tours. But as Ade Thomas, MD at VNR production company largeblue, admits, it can be hard to turn down potential business: 'As VNR producers we need to be more honest with potential clients and tell them that making a VNR might be nothing more than a waste of time and money.'
6. CONSIDER B-ROLLS INSTEAD OF VNRs
B-rolls are an increasingly popular option. A VNR is a scripted news story. A B-roll is a mini-archive of sequences and interviews put together on broadcast tapes under distinct subject headings, rather than as a fully edited story. It is much cheaper to produce and provides long-term library back-up for broadcasters. Often called 'wallpaper footage', it can be shots of the organisation's HQ, manufacturing shots or simply stock shots.
Steve Garvey, head of news and web at production company, World Television, says: 'We're finding that VNR is becoming an old-fashioned term rarely used in the broadcast industry. B-roll is the term that broadcasters now use.'
7. DEVOTE SOME RESOURCE TO SELL YOUR VNR
A common mistake with VNRs is to overspend on production and under-spend on selling them to broadcasters. Caroline Kerr, a former business editor at ITN, recalls the many VNRs she used to receive. 'About half of them would end up unused in a drawer simply because I wasn't certain what the firm did. If the PRO had called up and discussed with me how I might use the VNR it would have been much more helpful,' she says.
In doing this, PROs ought to think carefully about the target media and then getting to know all of the main contacts there. Some VNRs are better targeted at regional rather than national media. Since the introduction of Ofcom, news broadcasters face much tighter restrictions governing their use of third-party material; for example, the BBC's Guidelines for Editors explicitly prohibits the use of VNRs. This has led some PROs to target features, magazine and youth broadcasters instead.
8. TAKE CARE WITH BRANDING
Broadcasters will not use footage that contains overt branding. However, clients want their brands to receive as much exposure as possible. This leaves PROs performing a difficult balancing act. As Elaine Stern, MD of The Television Consultancy, which has produced VNRs for Orange and Virgin Atlantic, says: 'Broadcasters will always try to crop interviews to cut out sponsors' branding, so all interviews must be shot to ensure that branding cannot be cropped.'
9. GET BROADCASTER FEEDBACK
One of the most effective ways to save clients money is to ask broadcasters if they will use a VNR before producing one. At the very least it is advisable to gain input from broadcasters during the production process. As markettiers 4dc director Julian Fisher suggests: 'Try a bit of research to see what images would help which broadcaster. Do they have a question we could ask an interviewee? There is no such thing as a VNR template.'
10. DON'T FORGET THE PRACTICALITIES
Once everything else is in place, make sure you deal properly with the many necessary practical considerations. Make sure that interviewees are on hand to be interviewed. Deliver the VNR on time and to the right person at the right address. Have back-up copies available and be prepared to feed the pictures and to bike them direct. Maintain copies even after it has been used as it is not uncommon for requests for further copies to come in months later.