More than 80 per cent of people trust TV news journalists either 'a great deal' or 'a fair amount', according to research from a YouGov poll commissioned by The Daily Telegraph in February. Surely this suggests that a surefire method of boosting a client's profile is by getting its message positively portrayed on TV. This, in turn, means there must be a place for pre-shot, well-constructed, relevant images of your client and its business.
But are PROs exploiting the use of broadcast enough? And, in today's technology-driven markets, can there be a future for the video news release as a provider of high-impact, newsworthy footage that will grab the attention of broadcasters?
Listening to some PROs, you may draw the conclusion that VNRs are, at the very least, in urgent need of a thorough check-up. When it comes to broadcast PR, the visual equivalent of a press release is no longer the only game in town.
Kaizo creative director Eugen Beer describes VNRs as a 'curate's egg'.
'The broadcast landscape has changed so significantly that I just don't see much PR on the news any more - how do you compete with Alastair Campbell live in a parliamentary committee?' he asks. 'News is now dominated by "going live somewhere". The agenda has changed, and that is a big problem for broadcast PR.'
Furthermore, many sectors appear to have no allure for news organisations in VNR terms - for example, you can't make financial products look sexy onscreen, claims Link Media MD Lindsay Kennedy. She suggests instead that PROs base their approach on the issues rather than the images. 'There used to be the thought that broadcast PR equals VNRs. But a well-briefed spokesperson, particularly for sectors such as financial services, is just as valuable,' she says.
Still, broadcasters at both ends of the commercial spectrum stop short of dismissing VNRs. 'While it's very rare that we use them, we may occasionally use pictures from them as background wallpaper in a report,' one BBC News spokesman admits. CNN International senior vice-president EMEA Tony Maddox agrees, adding that there are still occasions when the use of VNR may be appropriate.
However, broadcast PR consultancy On Line Broadcasting MD Simon Wynn warns that, if you go too far with a VNR, for example if it is too massaged and controlled, then the broadcaster will feel uncomfortable with it.
'You need a mix of good background footage and live interviews,' he advises.
But it is new technology within the VNR business that could halt the debate on whether these news reels have a future in broadcast PR. Medialink Worldwide group marketing manager Matt Burgess explains that with Teletrax, a joint venture between Medialink and Philips Electronics, each piece of video it puts out has its own unique identification - that is, time, date and number - which means it can be tracked.
'Teletrax evolved as a tool to prove that VNRs do work, and that corporate content was being used,' says Burgess. 'As well as tracking our VNRs for all clients, we watermark for Reuters all of its content, which means we're able to tell whether report X was used or not.'
This sort of accountability is vital, given that a 24-hour news agenda has shifted the media landscape. Far from ensuring that live two-ways have edged out the VNR as a broadcast tool, the expansion of schedules mean they are more valuable than ever, Burgess argues. 'Rolling news networks have changed the way newsrooms work,' he says. 'Multi-skilled producers need a helping hand. Teletrax has shown us things we are really surprised at, for example how newsrooms put together some of their programming.'
In a recent round-the-world boat race, Medialink put out a series of feeds from different stages. Using Teletrax, it claims to have found that a single ITV1 report on the race used 60 pieces of its video. And building on what it sees as a global desire for images, Medialink has launched Telefeed, which delivers, by satellite, themed packages covering sport, health, science, business, automotive and showbiz to 700 broadcasters worldwide.
Citigate Broadcast head of media Andrew Robinson also advises clients to build up a good B-roll - unnarrated footage - and make sure they have an interviewee live on location should something break.
Healthcare communications agency Jago Pearce MD Mike Dixon advocates the use of B-rolls rather than VNRs. 'You can sometimes use footage of your client's manufacturing plant, with tablets going down the line, as a way of getting the brand on screen,' he says. 'For, say, a Viagra launch, VNRs may be very valuable. But for a disease awareness campaign you have to make a decision on whether the expense is worth it.'
Elsewhere, crisis management specialist Regester Larkin director Michael Regester says a lot of the company's clients have operations in remote places, and are advised to have uncut video footage of their operation so that, in the event of a crisis occurring, broadcasters are provided with footage of things working normally at the company.
Increased broadband take-up means B-rolls can be accessed online, and broadcasters are already using footage from online interviews with businesspeople filmed by firms such as video communications service company Cantos. Yet, recent research by Medialink among more than 200 international broadcasters suggests that newsrooms prefer satellite feeds and tapes as vehicles for receiving content - at least for now.
Either way, media fragmentation and new methods of delivering footage means that VNRs are far from dead, claims Burgess. 'The PR community needs to up the ante in the way it uses TV,' he says, particularly in this 24-hour news environment.
INNOVATIONS IN BROADCASTING
Developments in online and mobile technology are set to improve ease of access to VNRs and other footage. PRWeek asks the experts where the innovation is coming from.
'There is an increasing use of broadband, although there is still room to improve the quality,' insists Claire Palmer, senior producer of broadcast services supplier TV News Release, who worked on JK Rowling's recent webcast live from the Royal Albert Hall.
On Line Broadcasting MD Simon Wynn agrees: 'There is a growing role for streamed footage.' However, people's tolerance for web streaming is two to three minutes. But there will come a point of convergence between TV and the web, maybe through satellite or compression technology.' According to Wynn, websites are delivering VNR footage, yet mpeg files, which are fine to use for broadcast, take a while to download. 'Broadcasters' attention span and patience is very limited. As with the rest of the web, the main problem will be swamping people with too much information,' he says.
- Mobile Citigate
Broadcast head of media Andrew Robinson argues that technology is moving away from the desktop. 'Broadband is tremendously relevant, but it needs to have a mobile platform. The strength of that will be in 3G and 4G technology, using your mobile phone or laptop to watch news wirelessly.'
These developments are moving at significant speed. Robinson predicts there will be more and more demand for mobile material, and any company prepared to invest in content is on to a winning ticket: 'Broadcasters' budgets are falling. The web is great, but it will be eclipsed by people wanting to see video on their phones and laptops.'
Developed by software firm 4BN and broadcast services company TVZ, QuickLink enables clients' video footage to be downloaded by broadcasters. As well as delivering VNRs, it can also be used for corporate video or archive footage. The BBC used the technology during the recent Iraq conflict by downloading software that compresses the footage, which can then be edited immediately or written to tape via a dedicated PC at the broadcast end.
Wynn, whose company On Line Broadcasting recently launched the product at the Monaco Grand Prix, explains: 'The system allows us to do live interviews on a reasonably fast modern laptop using a TV camera. There are huge applications in the corporate sector, delivering quality footage with smaller file sizes, and broadcasters don't have the cost associated with camera links.
It's similar technology to ISDN and radio, allowing you to do much the same thing. Broadcasters can cut into and away from it as they want.' Wynn concedes that this method is still in its early stages, but suggests the falling cost of equipment, and the ease of updating software, make the system attractive to broadcasters. QuickLink will be able to deliver live footage of greater quality than, say, the videophones used by correspondents in Iraq and Afghanistan.
CASE STUDY - THE OPENING OF THE HADRIAN'S WALL NATIONAL TRAIL
Logic dictates that VNRs are particularly effective when broadcasters are offered footage they would struggle to obtain themselves. Being in a remote location would discourage TV news crews from coming to Hadrian's Wall - the Roman border between England and Scotland. To counter this, TV News Release (TNR), which is part-owned by The Press Association, spent two full days filming, prior to its opening in May as an 84-mile coast-to-coast walking trail.
The client, Tynedale Council, provided a VNR budget of just £8,000 for filming, editing and sell-in. The brief was to communicate the beauty of the countryside surrounding the wall, while providing some of its history.
It also required footage illustrating the length of the wall to be balanced with creating publicity for the specific area of Tynedale itself. The role of the Countryside Agency, which runs national trails, also had to be made clear, without detracting from the client's needs to attract visitors to the area.
TNR senior producer Claire Palmer says: 'We took time doing intricate shots of the wall that meant we had a lot of angles with which to approach broadcasters.' Around ten minutes of footage included shots from ground level and the various Roman attractions along the wall. It also included footage to demonstrate where the Countryside Agency's £6m Heritage Lottery Fund investment in the project had gone - on paths, footbridges and signposts - as well as images of the opening ceremony. The council provided aerial pictures of the wall and TNR also requested computer-generated images of a Roman fort as it would have looked.
Awareness of the wall itself made sell-in relatively straightforward, says Palmer. 'It was easy to sell because this was the first time a walk had opened from coast-to-coast in the UK. Everyone's heard of Hadrian's Wall, and foreign broadcasters were interested because it is seen as part of Britain's culture and history.'
The tight budget did not include money for European satellite distribution.
This meant a tape, minus the opening ceremony, was sent to foreign broadcasters prior to the official unveiling of the path, so they could show footage on the day. This was edited in London, with the mobile edit on-site adding in the opening on the day. The tape had been sold in to broadcasters in the week prior to the event.
Coverage was wide-ranging, and included the BBC's breakfast and one o'clock bulletins. The story was also on RI:SE, BBC News 24 and ITN. Regionally, it featured on Tyne Tees and Border TV, while CNN, Sky News and Reuters also picked it up. Broadcasters in Germany, Holland, Norway, France, Spain, Russia and Poland carried parts of the VNR.
On the day, TNR estimates that 41 million TV viewers saw some of its images. The council said it received requests for footage and interviews up to three weeks after the opening.