In complete contradiction to the bombast of television pundits and the innuendo and inaccuracy of newspaper reporters in the current PR controversy, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) actually recently ruled that federally issued video news releases (VNRs) are legitimate communications techniques.
To be sure, the First Amendment fully protects VNRs and all other press communications issued by everyone else, and those activities are not in question. What the GAO concluded was that government agency VNRs must simply meet clear and sensible disclosure standards.
These rules for the federal government echo the longstanding practices of the PR industry and the standards that Medialink submitted to the Radio-Television News Directors Association nearly 20 years ago. VNRs issued by US government agencies must be identified as such in the written advisories alerting TV stations to the availability of the VNRs and on the explanatory text "slates" on the video. Simple. Sensible. A time-honored practice. So where's the controversy?
The GAO ruled that specific VNRs issued by the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) did indeed contain disclosure to the broadcasters, but not in the narrated element of the VNR package, which included other interviews and background information. These projects would have been valid and not in violation of the publicity or propaganda prohibition, the GAO said, if they had also contained attribution in the suggested script.
What created confusion was that when the VNRs were produced, that final rule - attribution within the script - was not yet on the books. In other words, the ONDCP projects were produced before yield signs were put up next to the speed limits. Put another way, the VNRs adhered to standard practices at the time they were produced, but were deemed to fail the "full disclosure" spirit of the law in retrospect. So now the GAO has established a new guideline.
The entire debate is quite frustrating because it is so clearly political. The Democrats found real fire in a television commentator, Armstrong Williams, promoting hotly debated government policy without disclosing that he was being paid by the federal government to do so. That's wrong, plain and simple. But somehow, completely bipartisan VNRs commissioned to help educate the public about the dangers of drugs have been swept into the political maelstrom. And despite sloppy reporting on this issue to the contrary, Williams never appeared in a VNR. Undisclosed payments to allegedly independent commentators have no relation to the distribution of fully disclosed VNRs. This twain does not meet.
Let's back up a moment and recognize some of the government's responsibilities. I always thought that the government has a duty to inform, educate, warn, and alert the public. I thought communications with the populace was good government. I thought that we have a right to know, and the government has a duty to tell us. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, information to the people is the most legitimate form of government.
More than 70% of Americans receive all their news from TV. Shouldn't the government do its utmost to reach that audience? Shouldn't the Consumer Product Safety Commission illustrate how a baby carriage might be hazardous? Shouldn't parents see what symptoms of drug abuse might look like? Shouldn't the Department of the Treasury show us how to identify a counterfeit $20 bill?
Adding to the fray, two US congressmen, Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA) and Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), both issued statements following the release of the GAO report arguing that the watchdog agency was actually wrong in adding the new rule. They noted that the ONDCP news releases were clearly identified as to their source, thereby meeting conventional disclosure protocol, and that the government's duty to inform the public should not be further shackled. It's up to journalists to provide attribution, they said, and only if they choose to do so.
What's clear is that VNRs are powerful, appropriate, and widely accepted communications tools. They have been used by state and federal governments and by virtually every television network and local station for more than 50 years. They are a staple of PR and public information campaigns for thousands of corporations and not-for-profit organizations. And VNRs provide broadcasters with pictures, interviews, demonstrations, and points of view they might not otherwise have.
The GAO actually bestowed a great service to the PR industry by codifying simple guidelines for government disclosure and reinforcing the need for simple honesty. Let the pundits learn to separate facts from politics.