Broadcast PR companies eyeing joint strategy amidst scrutiny

NEW YORK: Several broadcast PR companies are discussing plans to band together to fight the latest wave of public scrutiny of the sector, PRWeek has learned.

NEW YORK: Several broadcast PR companies are discussing plans to band together to fight the latest wave of public scrutiny of the sector, PRWeek has learned.

Broadcast PR firms mull union as VNRs feel heat

By Erica Iacono

NEW YORK: Several broadcast PR companies are discussing plans to band together to fight the latest wave of public scrutiny of the sector, PRWeek has learned.

The action comes in the wake of news that the FCC is investigating VNR use by news stations, spurred by a recent report from the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) that showed several news stations didn't disclose the corporate origins of VNRs.

Organized by Medialink, the group comprises more than a dozen companies, including MultiVu, West Glen Communications, DS Simon Productions, and News Broadcast Network. The group first met last week. Plans for future meetings remain unclear.

"If the FCC is considering an inquiry, we've got to take that seriously," said Medialink president and CEO Larry Moskowitz. "It is frightening to all of us to have the government take a seat in the newsroom as a censor. Many of us are former journalists, so it's even further disturbing."

Moskowitz said the group is considering reaching out to industry organizations such as the PRSA, the Counselors Academy, and the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA). He added that the group could branch out to fringe associations, such
as freedom of speech and democracy groups and the Motion Picture Association of America.

"We're communicating pretty regularly to come up with a common voice and ensure that the details of our position are aligned," he said.

All of the companies involved subscribe to and endorse the RTNDA's position on the matter of disclosure - that news stations must identify outside video material. What concerns VNR producers, however, is that the CMD could ask the FCC to require an on-screen, continuous disclaimer of a video's source, something which broadcast PR companies view as a violation of the First Amendment.

The result of a 10-month investigation, the CMD report revealed that 77 local TV stations in the US had presented corporate VNRs without disclosing to viewers that corporations provided the footage or, in some cases, complete story packages, to the stations.

"It certainly appears that the industry is incapable of effectively regulating itself," FCC chairman Jonathan Adelstein noted in a statement after the report was released. "It is incumbent on the FCC to take the necessary steps to protect the viewing public."

In April 2005, after a series of high-profile incidents, the FCC issued a reminder notice to news stations on its disclosure guidelines, which were based on the Communications Act of 1934. However, VNR producers argued at the time that the Act does not relate to corporate VNRs because it applies disclosure rules to material for which money, service, or other consideration is paid or promised to the broadcaster.

"The rules that [CMD] wants to try to tie this [issue] to were not written for the newsroom or for the PR industry," Moskowitz said. "TV as we know it couldn't exist without third-party material."

Yet, Michael Lasky, partner at law firm Davis & Gilbert, said the issue could arguably involve the overlapping jurisdiction of the FCC and the Federal Trade Commission.

"This is not pure news; there is commercial aspect to the content because it is paid for by a commercial enterprise," said Lasky.

"I think we are going to continue to hear about the lack of disclosure ... of the [VNRs'] source being a very big issue."

Scrutiny of broadcast PR practices is nothing new, although until recently the focus has been on government material.

Last year, a bipartisan Senate Committee approved a measure proposed by Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) that would require disclosure of federal sponsorship of VNRs. Coined The Truth in Broadcasting Act, the bill still sits on the Senate floor.

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