As the TV industry consolidates and strips out costs, already-tight resources are being stretched even further, arguably creating the perfect environment for broadcast PR specialists to play the white knight and rescue editors and producers with offers of ready-made stories.
Indeed, Stuart Maister, managing director at broadcast specialist BroadView, says such cost-cutting has been going on for more than 15 years. He points out that the onset of Sky and multi-channel broadcasting at the tail end of the last century split advertising revenue, and the shake-up of ITV franchises also led to cutbacks. 'There was a time when ITN accountants told news editors which stories we could afford to cover,' Maister says.
'What's happening now is an acceleration of that trend, but it's different because the BBC is involved for the first time. The BBC is entering the same commercial world that ITV and Sky have been in for years,' he adds.
Maister claims there is certainly a growing opportunity for broadcast PR specialists to fill the widening cracks in resources faced by all TV companies: 'There is a gap between what broadcasters have to do and what they have to do it with, and that gap is our opportunity to go to them with well-thought-through stories. It's about making their job easier.'
The cost of cutbacks
Shout Communications director Catherine Bayfield says that although some redundancies are a few years off, the effects of cutbacks can already be seen: 'Journalists just don't have the same resources available as they've had in the past. I worked in broadcast journalism for 15 years and when I started, a TV crew was made up of a cameraman, a sound man, a lights man, a producer and a correspondent.
'These days, the journalist is sometimes doing the lot - then goes back to the newsroom to edit it. That doesn't leave much time for going out to find and investigate your own stories.'
Medialink head of broadcast Dennis Vaughan, who until recently was a BBC World news editor, believes the onward march of the video journalist is unstoppable. 'Journalists being required to shoot and edit will become a fact of life,' he claims.
This doesn't mean broadcasters are so desperate for content that anything goes, however. 'It's still a question of real stories, and broadcasters are not at all weakening their resistance to product placement,' Vaughan adds.
Maister agrees: 'The principles of good broadcast PR remain. (Weak stories) won't get coverage.' But he says that broadcasters are looking beyond VNRs and B-rolls to building long-term relationships with PROs.
'Correspondents are willing to engage with us. The problem is that most companies have nothing to do with PROs for most of the time except when they need to get coverage,' he says.
One of BroadView's recent successes was the launch of Prudential's PruHealth policy. News desks were offered case studies and copyright-free B-roll footage made to broadcast news standards. The PruHealth launch was featured on major broadcast outlets, including the BBC, Sky News, Five News, Reuters TV and CNN International.
With job cuts, some relationships between PROs and broadcasters will inevitably be lost. The NewsMarket chief executive Shoba Purushothaman argues that this will mean fewer opportunities for those who don't understand the needs of TV news editors.
'Clients have traditionally approached broadcast PR by sending out two VNRs a year for product launches, but this is lazy,' she says. 'Newsrooms with tighter resources need trusted and reliable sources of well-produced content at their beck and call. One of the challenges we have is persuading clients that news happens when the newsroom decides it will, so it's important not to pass up opportunities. Broadcast PROs just need to be there and provide content when it is needed.'
An evolving industry
Purushothaman reveals that cash-strapped US broadcasters are gravitating to more junior staff, using people who can multi-task, and becoming more reliant on technology. 'Clearly this is good news for PR if we take the time to really understand broadcasters,' she says. 'The mantra is "what's the easiest way for them to do their job?". Broadcasters are becoming more receptive to using good, unbiased material.'
One of The NewsMarket's most successful campaigns was David Beckham's Unicef appeal for children affected by the Boxing Day tsunami.
The appeal gained blanket coverage in the UK, 'even from broadcasters that swear they never take PR content', says Purushothaman.
No one in the sector is claiming that broadcast PR specialists are suddenly seeing news editors pleading for VNRs and B-rolls. Where broadcast PROs can really add value is by doing the legwork for news desks that might have a sole news editor and one planner, rather than several.
'Broadcast PR is in a sense assuming some of the responsibility of the old planning desks,' says Vaughan. 'We need to show we have a real idea of what broadcasters need, and that's hard unless you are an experienced broadcast journalist.' In many ways, it's business as usual, particularly as news programmes move towards interview-based input. 'A lot of the stations we deal with have been under cost restrictions for years, and rolling TV news has been moving towards interviews for a long time,' says markettiers4dc director of media output Julian Fisher.
Vaughan agrees that the offer of a guest interviewee is increasingly attractive. 'We try to hit as many bases as possible,' he says. 'If broadcasters have video in hand, pictures, a good story and a guest, that goes down well.'
A knock-on effect of this trend is an increasing requirement for broadcast PR agencies to provide media training for client spokespeople.
Bayfield says that while five or six years ago, B-rolls were banned from national TV newsrooms, most broadcasters are now open to using them, with a few caveats. 'B-rolls need to be of a high quality. They might be short staffed but broadcasters are still picky about what goes on air,' she says. 'And PROs need to follow the golden rule and (only send) material that the broadcasters would find difficult or impossible to film for themselves.'
THE BROADCASTER'S VIEW
Breakfast news show GMTV is a favourite target for clients, but deputy editor Malcolm Douglas says there is plenty of room for improvement in the way broadcast PR specialists approach him.
'It's less to do with resources being stretched than PR people doing their job properly,' he says. 'I am constantly surprised by the amount of money that is spent on glossy launch material that just isn't what we need, or arrives late. A lot of PR people haven't got a clue what we need. We're after genuine news stories, not plugs for a product. I think a lot of it is down to a lack of experience. There are some really good PR people who understand the planning processes and restrictions we operate under, and they have usually worked in the business themselves.
'We are receptive to PR-led stories for our news bulletins and the rest of the show, and we like interviews, but again, we can't just bring company spokespeople on to talk about a new product. Just because our resources are stretched doesn't mean there is more opportunity for PR if there's not a genuine story.'