PR TECHNIQUE: How PR broke through war TV coverage

The experiences of airing VNRs and SMTs during the war in Iraq can better prepare the industry for any future TV news saturation.

The experiences of airing VNRs and SMTs during the war in Iraq can better prepare the industry for any future TV news saturation.

If Operation Shock and Awe seemed to fall a bit short of its billing, so did its anticipated affect on TV media relations. Granted, those who released consumer product VNRs during the first two weeks of the Iraqi conflict probably experienced the anguish of dead air. "During that first 10 to 14 days of the war, it was all war, all the time," says Jeff Crilley, a reporter at Dallas' Fox affiliate. "City Hall would have to burn down to find a spot on the newscast," he jokes. Local TV stations, however, began accepting PR video sooner than many expected. Beyond local tie-ins - such as stories about hometown soldiers - they eventually ceded most war coverage to the networks and cable news channels. From the beginning, video vendors attempted to reassure customers. KEF Media sent a letter to clients speculating that, based on experiences during the 1991 Gulf War, beat reporters would return to normal activities within two to three days. Similarly, a DS Simon survey gave them a week to get back to their beats. The vendors' claims weren't just wishful thinking. PR practitioners agree that "normal" television coverage rebounded much more quickly than it did after September 11. "I think the PR industry was anticipating a similar impact with this war to what we had on September 11," says Lynn Espinoza, electronic media director for Waggener Edstrom. "While the impact was great within those first few days, we could start to place relevant stories shortly after." In fact, a Pew Research Center study released April 9 found 39% of those polled thought that the news media was overcovering the war, compared to 4% who wanted more information. Without question, the Iraqi conflict was a TV war. Delahaye Medialink tracked coverage of the nation's 100 largest companies and found corporate TV news dropped 69% during the war, while corporate print coverage fell just 18%. SMTs also fared better than VNRs, notes Larry Moskowitz, president, CEO, and chairman of Medialink. SMTs appeal mainly to morning and midday producers, who have more time to fill with lighter fare. Conversely, VNRs tend to convey harder-edged news that could not compete with war coverage during evening broadcasts. "I didn't have the opportunity to look at [VNRs]," says Al Johnson, managing editor at Detroit's Fox affiliate. The war presented good PSA opportunities, since many advertisers pulled their television spots. The Ad Council reissued PSAs developed after September 11, and Melody Kimmel, associate director of media services for Fleishman-Hillard, says her agency considered reframing some VNRs as PSAs. Although no projects ultimately went that route, she thinks such a strategy would be sound in similar situations. With plenty of advance warning of war, PR practitioners opted to delay some of their campaigns. "You have to make this go/no go decision," says Ketchum VP Teri Daley. But many other campaigns proved that broadcasters were soon looking for softer news, such as the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, which decided to go ahead with its Celebrity Dodgeball event in Los Angeles on March 30. Dogmatic produced b-roll of the event, and despite concerns by Dogmatic that it wouldn't get picked up, the package garnered enough hits for the client to be "delighted." Many of those campaigns that did press on presented information germane to the conflict or were too time-sensitive to delay. A number of vendors report coordinating broadcasts for the military. Medialink broadcast three SMTs for the US Air Force, which had less media access than other branches of the military. Otis Elevators faced the dilemma of deciding whether to publicize its long-planned 150th anniversary on April 1. "We went back and forth every minute of the day," says international communications director Dilip Rangnekar. At one point, Otis executives decided to delay distribution of information about the VNR event, which included a reenactment of the modern elevator's invention. They changed their minds just two days in advance. "We felt news networks were starting to look for softer news," Rangnekar says. Financial reporting deadlines also forced UPS to unveil its new trademark at the war's height. "The results were probably somewhat less than they would have been, but they did alright," says Michael Hill, CEO of News Broadcast Network, which distributed UPS' feeds. PR pros also report positive results from broadcast campaigns with tie-ins to the Academy Awards and the NCAA Tournament, which went on despite protest by participants. Monica Neufang, a VP at Weber Shandwick, says an Oscar-party-themed SMT for Folgers Jakada netted a dozen placements on March 21, although another four or five stations canceled their interviews because of the war. Recent experiences like these could prove useful in the future should another major news event come along to dominate television coverage. If a newscast-usurping event threatens to bump product features off the air, Neufang suggests following up with reporters who might cover the story when the storm passes. Sending product samples and targeting less-pitched weekend producers can be effective, she adds. PR agencies and vendors advised clients to postpone consumer product campaigns that couldn't be legitimately tied to the war. Some efforts had been sidelined by geopolitical uncertainty since the start of the year, so PR pros were ready to jump into action when victory seemed certain. Some healthcare campaigns got earlier starts. But while interest in healthcare endured, PR initiatives in that sector had to compete with the SARS outbreak for reporters' attention. April proved to be a generally strong month for video vendors, but the fall of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad didn't necessarily open the floodgates on pent-up marketing programs. In less challenging economic times, the bounce back might have been higher, Moskowitz surmises. "We certainly saw a spring bloom that came later than the flowers opened." ----- Technique tips Do determine whether your SMT or VNR message carries relevant and tasteful tie-ins when a big story dominates newscasts Do avoid overly commercial messages Do monitor both national and local newscasts closely and keep in touch with reporters so you will know when they are ready to entertain pitches again Don't issue releases that might be construed as "cashing in," or taking advantage of the situation Don't press on with consumer product campaigns unrelated to news of the day, especially if launches can be delayed Don't assume local television and radio stations will be as obsessed as the networks and cable news channels with big, national news stories

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