Using VNRs without sparking controversy

In the wake of recent criticism, VNRs shouldn't be done away with altogether. Rather, more attention should be paid to ethical standards and production.

In the wake of recent criticism, VNRs shouldn't be done away with altogether. Rather, more attention should be paid to ethical standards and production.

When PR professional Karen Ryan recently signed off her voice-over on a Department of Health and Human Services VNR by saying she was "reporting" from Washington, DC, she sparked a debate about the use of video news releases. Critics charged she was disingenuous by implying a journalist's impartiality in a piece about changes in Medicare benefits. VNR defenders, although not widely quoted in the media, countered that Ryan's tactic was a fairly standard practice and that news directors are given multiple notices about the paid aspects of VNRs.

However, says Medialink CEO Larry Moskowitz, it is clear that PR pros must disclose more than they even think necessary when sending out a VNR. "It isn't a question of disclosure - everything was disclosed," he says. "But look at the way the [other] media jumped on the story."

While the debate has faded from the headlines, the underlying issues remain daily concerns for PR pros who have relied on VNRs for more than 30 years. Some in public relations have even expressed hesitancy to use them in the future, or at least until memories of the Ryan controversy fade a little further.

But scrapping VNRs altogether isn't the answer. Instead, experts say, the trick is to maintain high ethical standards and quality production values to craft VNRs that are both usable for news stations and that generate exposure for paying clients.

The first step in creating a good VNR and avoiding any confusion is to be up-front, says Doug Simon, president and CEO of the production and event company DS Simon Productions.

"What we do by definition is advocacy. It's not journalism," he says. "If you communicate that to the station, then they know that. It's about accuracy, and it's identifying the funding source. From my point of view, that is the entire ball game in terms of protecting your client from a negative response."

That communication starts with the pitch. Production companies like Simon's are typically charged with both creating and pitching the VNR package. Many have in-house teams that do this, while others use freelancers. Either way, Simon says, these media-relations team members need to clearly identify themselves when talking to the media.

Sally Jewett, president of On The Scene Productions, says that isn't hard to do because "reporters know that when a company like ours is calling, somebody is paying for it, and it is usually quite obvious who is. If it's not clear, they ask."

Once a station or reporter expresses interest, the VNR package is sent out - again with clear identification. This is usually done on the "slate," says Jewett. The slate is simply clarifying information that runs at the beginning of the footage.

"The idea behind the slate is that if any paperwork we've sent got separated from the tape, a reporter could put the story together with just the tape," explains Jewett. She adds that the slate can contain the title of the piece, a table of contents, a condensed version of the press release, and even a copy of the voice-over script.

Jewett says that the script is often important because most broadcast outlets don't use the actual VNR as it is sent to them. In fact, the VNR package contains an edited and voiced "produced" piece that is ready to be aired as is. But it also contains b-roll and other visuals that station editors can use to build their own package.

"In our experience, stations prefer to have a video highlights package," confirms Jewett. "With a VNR, it's harder to take that apart and put it back together in a way they want to put it back together."

Michael Hill, president of News Broadcast Network, says that sometimes a station will use a piece of the edited footage if it is well done, but even then, "rarely do they use the voice-over to go with it."

By providing the script and any audio on separate "channels" that can be easily edited in or out, VNR producers give journalists the flexibility they need to create news from VNR packages. But, Jewett warns, that also means the client has no control. A news station could take the footage and create a negative piece, or even introduce inaccuracies, and the client would have no say.

For that reason, there are some cases when Jewett recommends the produced VNR, especially for her healthcare clients.

"It is extremely important to healthcare clients that their message is presented exactly the way they want," she says.

Along with b-roll or video highlights, VNR packages often contain "man on the street" interviews or testimonials. This can be a tricky area, Hill warns, because some companies actually use employees or paid spokespeople in this section without clearly identifying them. That could be a potential, if common, mistake.

"With those 'vox pop' kind of things, it may well be that they scripted those, and they are not random interviews," he says. "There is a real temptation to do that. It's not really the best editorial practice, but it's not really nefarious."

Hill says that if the topic of the VNR is controversial and could leave viewers feeling misled if the paid nature of the interviews were disclosed, this practice should be avoided.

"Let the television stations do their own [interviews]," he advises.

And lastly, the single word that caused so much debate: reporting. Hill says just avoid it. "You don't want to say reporting if you haven't done the reporting," he points out.

Instead, stick with a simple sign-off that avoids any pretense of the voice-over person being a journalist.

Technique tips

Do clearly identify the footage as a VNR

Do provide a 'package' that will allow stations to build their own story from the provided footage

Do make sure all facts are accurate

Don't use the word 'reporting' in your VNR if anyone other than an independent journalist is speaking

Don't try to hide the client - broadcasters are fine with VNRs as long as they are identified

Don't distort the facts. All that will do is harm your client's credibility

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