Despite controversies over VNR usage, manufacturers still find them valuable for promoting their products. Erica Iacono finds out what works in today's newsroom
Over the past year, VNRs have gained the attention of those outside the typical PR and newsroom realm. Government VNRs in particular were under scrutiny regarding disclosure, and as a result, extra measures have been taken to ensure that government sponsorship is always apparent to both the newsroom and the viewer.
But despite this extra scrutiny, VNRs and b-roll are still an important part of the marketing mix for consumer-product manufacturers.
Jack Trammell, president of VNR-1 Communications, acknowledges that the VNR controversy of 2005 hurt production companies, but says that things are getting better.
"Newsrooms need us, and we have seen a slow return to normal," he notes. And so, he says, the "five gospels" of the newsroom - topicality, timeliness, localization, humanization, and "visuality" - are more important than ever. "You can't get sloppy now," he adds. "Everything is still true, but more so."
The visual element is perhaps the most important part, especially when a consumer product VNR is concerned. "The television stations argue that it's all about content, but... it's all about the pictures," Trammell says, adding that a good VNR can be "teased" before the newscast goes to commercial break. "If your story for television can't be teased, it should not be a VNR," he says.
The same holds true for b-roll. Trammell points to a successful b-roll the company produced this past year for Lego to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Lego System of Play. Kristin Greene, principal at Flashpoint PR in San Francisco, worked with VNR-1 on developing the b-roll and says part of the reason the b-roll got so much pickup was because of the visual aspect of the piece. Two separate pieces, one airing in August and the other airing in November, featured children and adults constructing buildings out of Legos.
One way to ensure success, Greene says, is to conceptualize the story in advance. "Have in your mind what the ideal b-roll will be so you can work backward from that," she adds. In addition, she says it is critical for the b-roll to open with an action shot because the first 10 to 30 seconds of the b-roll should be the most visually compelling.
To make the jobs of those in the newsroom easier, Greene says that editing down a usable 90 seconds of b-roll at the beginning of the tape or feed is key.
Although there will often be a specific product at the center of a VNR, its role can be downplayed to good effect. "The story is not about the product," says Michael Friedman, EVP and partner at DWJ Television. "The story is about the people who use the product."
One of the ways to present a product without appearing too commercial is to craft the VNR around a certain problem that exists and then position the product as the solution.
Friedman notes that his company produced a successful VNR this past year for Healthtex children's clothing with its PR firm, Trone Public Relations. The VNR featured the president of the National Parent Teacher Association, as well as a college professor and Healthtex spokesperson, discussing the problem of early adolescent girls dressing too maturely for their age, such as wearing low-rise jeans and cropped tops. The voiceover mentioned Healthtex as a suitable alternative, and the VNR has 100 usages nationwide.
One of the things Friedman believes contributed to its success was that the piece was planned and pitched very far in advance. To get it airtime for the back-to-school shopping season, the team shot the VNR in June and began to place it in July.
"You can be too late, but you can't be too early," Friedman says. "There's a lot of competition out there."
"Things that are produced commercially are having a hard time," notes Michelle Harle, director of production at Medialink. "If you can twist it and find a news spin in there, it will get pickup." She adds that one way to do that is to find a tie-in to an event that is occurring in the month that the VNR is set to air. For example, now is the time to begin thinking about VNRs for March, which, as National Collision Awareness Month, could provide some opportunities for auto manufacturers and related industries.
As with medical VNRs, very often consumer-product VNRs that get the most pickup involve behind-the-scenes footage not accessible to a newsroom by any other means.
DS Simon Productions had success with such a VNR this past year that centered on the arrival of the latest Harry Potter book to a Barnes & Noble warehouse in New Jersey. The VNR got pickup on such shows as Good Morning America, as well as local news stations.
That behind-the-scenes tactic also worked for a VNR that Weber Shandwick worked on featuring footage of Paris Hilton's commercial shoot for Carl's Jr. The piece enjoyed nationwide pickup on programs like Entertainment Tonight, as well as news programs.
Another way to improve the chances of pickup is by crafting shorter VNR packages. Michael Schiferl, WS' SVP and director of media relations, notes that the standard length of VNRs is often too long for even the smallest stations. "Get it down to what the headline is," he adds.
In fact, thinking in such a way should be a priority from the beginning, according to Doug Simon, president and CEO of DS Simon.
"The first step is being realistic in terms of what's going to be of interest to the viewer and TV reporter," he says. Typically, a good question to ask is what the story of a VNR is if one were to remove the product from it. "That's a great first question," he notes. "Very often, it's product-centric when it needs to be story-centric media planning."
Remembering that a VNR's purpose is to tell the client's story could be best advice of all.
"At the end of the day," says Schiferl, "a good story is still a good story."
Do plan months ahead of time
Do craft a story around the product that positions it as a solution to a problem
Do include highly visual shots in the first 10 to 30 seconds of the piece
Don't make the VNR overly commercial
Don't make a VNR or b-roll package too long
Don't forget what has worked in the past; the same rules apply now