PR TECHNIQUE: And to get your kicker on air

The post-Iraq levity of television news has once again opened up the field for those quirky stories that typically end a broadcast.

The post-Iraq levity of television news has once again opened up the field for those quirky stories that typically end a broadcast.

Now that it's OK to laugh again while watching the evening news, the kicker has reclaimed its rightful place in the last few minutes of the broadcast. TV journalists still download plenty of Iraqi images from The NewsMarket, an online video distribution system, says CEO Shoba Purushothaman. But clips from the Corvette's 50th anniversary celebration have been among the company's most popular postings since US troops took control of Baghdad. Other broadcast PR vendors agree newsrooms quickly fell back into their usual routines. West Glen Communications surveyed 28 TV newsrooms in June and found predictable VNR usage patterns reemerging. Medical items (preferred by 96% of respondents) and kickers (28.5%) once again proved the most popular VNR topics. For companies without medical stories, kickers provide a playful avenue into newscasts, particularly on local stations. "Kickers always have their place in the news," says Lidj Lewis, media relations VP for Medialink Worldwide and Newstream. PR practitioners often rely on satellite media tours for placing softer features on morning and noon shows, while VNRs tend to carry newsier messages for harder-hitting time slots. Kickers can be an exception to that rule, however, providing evening airtime opportunities for lighter fare and consumer products. As with any PR campaign, journalists will shun anything too commercial, but they may be more forgiving where kickers are concerned. Jeff Crilley of Dallas' Fox affiliate, KDFW, says as a feature reporter, he regularly used Neiman Marcus' outrageous and extravagant his-and-her gift offerings as kickers because those stories consistently met his "oh my God" test. Still, Grace Leong, president of Hunter PR in New York, says she uses a "three-strikes-you're-out" approach to commercial content, even for kickers: "If there are more than three commercial messages in the package, [reporters] won't use it." News Broadcast Network president Michael Hill says established brands entrenched in popular culture can be ideal candidates for kickers. Newscasters don't have to explain the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile, for example. Conversely, Hill advises against targeting kicker segments when building recognition for new, relatively unknown brands. Experts rank eye-catching visuals as a campaign's most kicker-friendly element. Since newscast-ending segments tend to be short, thousand-word pictures come in handy. West Glen COO Mark Dembo calls them "money shots" - quick visuals that speak for themselves, like kids stacking Oreos, or the world's largest enchilada. Hill's recipe for a good kicker combines strong video with emotional or funny content. "If you can mix any of those three, that's great," he says. Producers seeking quirky, ironic, or heartwarming stories to end newscasts frequently fall back on kids, animals, and world records. Wacky events can be kicker fodder, but Crilley won't raise PR practitioners' hopes too high. Competition can be fierce given oddball material stations get from other sources, such as network feeds. In fact, Crilley says his station reassigned him to hard news because so much free, prepackaged feature material is now available. Tom White, an evening producer for ABC affiliate WQAD in Moline, IL, says kickers must be easy to tease. Newscasters often use the promise of quirky, show-ending stories to keep viewers from channel surfing. Thus, the seemingly humble kicker can be the thread that ties newscasts together. And a good kicker gives anchors something to chuckle about into the closing credits. "It's got to lend itself to conversation," Michael Cherenson, PR VP for the Cherenson Group in New Jersey, says. One successful kicker campaign Cherenson's firm led this summer illustrates another important ingredient - relevance. The agency promoted a laser light show at the Trump Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City set to Bruce Springsteen songs. The week-long series of free exhibitions overlapped the Boss' concert series at Giants Stadium upstate. Since the opening light show happened after dark, Cherenson ran a live feed for late newscasts and resent recorded video later, scoring 5.3 million viewers on 26 stations across the country that weekend. When producing packages for kicker campaigns, experts advise against going overboard. Stations will want plenty of b-roll video but probably won't use voice-overs. Leong doesn't bother putting together fully packaged VNRs in such cases, instead providing b-roll with a few sound bites, captions, and a slate of text explaining the story. Opinions vary on the best way to pitch kicker-friendly VNRs. Kenneth Meyer, media relations VP at DS Simon Productions, believes in targeting stories for specific newscast segments. On the other hand, MultiVu media relations manager Allison Welz prefers to keep her options open and not pigeonhole stories. Meyer also suggests pitching producers directly. "Generally, kickers are not put together by beat reporters," he observes. While PR practitioners may think of VNRs in terms of national distribution, providing prerecorded video of fun or quirky local events also can be effective, says Trish DeBerry, founding partner of San Antonio's Guerra DeBerry Coody. "[Reporters] may not have the opportunity to attend because of spot news or harder news," says DeBerry. A former broadcast journalist, she adds that producers may want to end the week - not just the newscast - on a happy note. Her assignments editor used the term "Feature Fridays" because the station ran lighter segments leading into the weekend. Kickers aren't a good idea if your client doesn't have a sense of humor. "The key thing is you want to make sure that you're comfortable with the placement, with possibly being made fun of a little bit but getting attention," Meyer says. And backup plans are always wise in case big stories soak up airtime or somber events make kickers seem inappropriate. Meyer suggests developing alternative angles or evergreen approaches to save your client's story from being completely blacked out if viewers must again resort to reading newspapers by candlelight. ----- Technique tips Do consider kicker campaigns when you can supply eye-catching, entertaining, quirky video Do pitch kickers when your story is funny or emotional and involves kids, animals, world records, or unique events Do target producers instead of beat reporters when pitching kicker VNRs Don't rely on the kicker format for complex stories or to build awareness of new brands Don't include too much overtly commercial content Don't overproduce kicker material with voice-overs - b-roll, sound bites, and text slates or information sheets will do

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