VNRS: Flourishing amid the recent proliferation of new television
channels and the prospect of 24-hour news
BBC: Cut-backs and down-sizing have created new opportunities for
broadcast PR specialists
CONFERENCE CONFIDENCE: Anticipating broadcasters’ needs can spell
success for press conference organisers
The results of a recent survey of broadcasters revealed what that
industry really wants from PR professionals and what they are actually
getting. Tom Dawn reports
How easy it is to get your company name, a campaign or product launch on
to televsion and radio depends on a set of rules that most public
relations companies are notorious for failing to understand.
But, to make things a little easier, the rules are changing. Unless you
have been living in a cupboard for the last year or so, you should have
heard about the huge number of television channels about to be unleashed
in Britain, about the BBC plans for round-the-clock news, and the rapid
rise of myriad commercial radio stations. And more stations, with more
space to fill, on slimmer budgets, spells opportunity for PR people.
This trend is illustrated by a new survey of broadcasters’ attitudes,
carried out by independent research company Metra Martech on behalf of
TV specialist The London Bureau. According to Metra Martech, some 62 per
cent of a sample of 60 TV forward planners, producers and correspondents
felt the use of footage from outside sources would grow in Britain
during the next twelve months.
In addition, three-quarters of the planners and producers of these
business and regional news programmes had used such footage in the last
month, as had two-thirds of international news programmes.
TV journalists were, however, keen to qualify their enthusiasm for using
PR generated footage, underlining the fact that the selection of stories
was subject to normal editorial judgement and that such footage was
edited to reduce branding and overt product placement.
‘We would only use material from an outside source if there was a strong
news reason to do so,’ says Nigel Dacre, editor of ITN News on ITV. ‘To
be absolutely frank, the vast majority of video news releases aren’t
even looked at.’
These views are echoed by regional broadcasters, even though they are
invariably hungry for stories.
‘Broadcasting needs news and news events, companies going bust and so
on,’ says Pallab Ghosh, a BBC TV and radio local science and technology
correspondent. ‘There may be a useful role for public relations in
crisis management, or putting up experts for comment, but there’s less
time on air than there is in print. It’s not about good news for
companies, it’s about real news.’
The word every broadcaster bandies about is ‘news’, and what they really
want to cover is the ‘issues’. ‘They are far more issue-oriented than
newspapers, which is why people like pressure groups find it so easy to
get on TV,’ says crisis media specialist John Stonborough. ‘Broadcast
media are often hostile to commerce.’
So the important questions are whether the broadcast media explosion
will materially alter these positions, or whether a little more guile
from PRs would make their message more palatable to broadcasters.
There is no doubt that the new channels are more receptive to commercial
PR than the established stations, largely because they include niche
programmes, with an interest in business and commerce.
‘If you send us a decent video news release, not too tightly edited, and
done so that we can use it without patronising the public, then the odds
probably do increase that we will run the story,’ says Sue Watkins,
deputy managing editor of European Business News, a pan-European cable
and satellite channel, partly owned by Dow Jones.
However, she applies the same basic editorial criteria: ‘Smart PR people
realise that we’re out for news, and they are also aware of the fact
that the public are not stupid. They can see straight through something
that’s obviously plugging someone’s products. Having said that, we can
allow ourselves to be positive.’
The quality issue harks back to comments gathered by The London Bureau’s
broadcast survey. Most interviewees equated VNR quality with long, uncut
shots, a light touch on product or branding, and an accompanying timed
log of the contents. Many respondents said they would not use interviews
unless they had themselves asked the questions, but among the stations
that would use pre-recorded interviews, interviews of a good length were
preferred which could be cut.
More revealing still was the fact that PR operators were most valued as
facilitators. Many of the interviewees quoted the ability to source and
set up location and interview subjects, and generally give useful
assistance in terms of logistics, as the most valuable services provided
by PR people.
‘The VNR is not always the answer,’ admits Stuart Maister, managing
director of The London Bureau, ‘but it may be part of it. Remember that
television producers will say one thing about what they use, and then do
another. Footage alone is not enough, however, you need to have a
Maister claims his ‘cute’ spin on stories makes the difference. For
instance, Guardian Direct Insurance was far from being first direct
insurance product in the marketplace, but The London Bureau landed
coverage on ITN’s six o’clock news bulletin with a ‘changing Britain’
theme. Last month, the London Bureau used Linda Evangelista the ‘new
face of Yardley’ as the hook to generate coverage of the new Baroque
perfume. Interviews were accompanied by prepared footage, including
point of sale and production shots which reached 3.9 million UK viewers.
Clearly, hanging your story on a bona fide news peg or popular issue, is
a useful tactic, which The London Bureau augments with a regular TV
forward planner, with various ideas thought out from the broadcasters’
point of view, including plants from its own customers.
Using pegs is of course the accepted route of PR to broadcasters, when
the client company can provide an expert to comment on events. For this
purpose, the proliferation of broadcasters makes it easier to secure
Lucy Tilbury, Bulletin International’s director of client services,
explains: ‘We can now be much more targeted in our approach to TV
stations. There are now 60 news outlets in the UK, including national,
regional, and cable and satellite channels. So for City PR consultancies
who try to place financial interviews with the print media we can say
there are five, six or seven stations where they could target their
spokespeople. People are sceptical about cable and satellite, but if you
take [Sky] for example... it is a very important target now. It has
European audiences that are really worth having.’
The commentator approach translates effectively to radio as well, and
according to Peter Geraghty proprietor of Media Image Incorporated,
there is currently a surge of interest from organisations investing in
broadcast quality phone connections to help get their commentators on
This rush has been assisted by the reduced cost of installing the
necessary equipment. For instance, the National Farmers’ Union has just
bought and is installing seven regional connections, to put its
spokespeople in touch with radio.
Geraghty’s opinion is borne out by the experience of the Countryside
Commission. The organisation’s media relations manager Terry Grant says:
‘In a normal year we got about 28 hours of airtime on radio. When we got
ISDN, in the first full year we had 41 hours of local (and national)
‘I think it makes a considerable difference. Once the radio stations are
aware that you have it, I think they come to us with that in mind. We
find now in radio there are individuals who we have got to know very
well, and built up some trust and confidence with them, and a good
rapport,’ says Grant.
Local radio correspondent Ghosh concedes: ‘Local stations are not going
to go to companies just because they’ve got an ISDN connection, but it’s
the kind of thing that stations would like.’
Commercial studios such as Ludbrook Radio and Two-Ten Communication’s
broadcast division, regularly provide syndicated stories for radio, but
also provide a venue for spokespeople to do high sound quality live
interviews with a series of radio stations.
‘There are fewer and fewer broadcasters that actually have airtime for
PR,’ says Ludbrook Radio director Paul Plant. ‘But they want live
Getting a handle on what broadcasters really want is the key to
effective broadcast PR. ‘The VNR is just one tool’ says Steve Garvey,
manager, Reuters Corporate Television. ‘You have to look at
Garvey recently sewed up a deal with BT to provide TV news coverage to
complement its sponsored round-the-world yachting event, the BT Global
Challenge. Reuters offers free delivery to any station that wants
‘The pictures will be in demand,’ says Garvey. ‘It’s newsworthy, but
broadcasters will find it too expensive to cover themselves. This scale
of event is what we’re really interested in doing, not chasing snippets
here and there. I don’t want to be in the business of flogging dead
horses selling stories to broadcasters. Life’s too short.’
Getting it right: A guide to media success
BROADCAST SURVEY RESPONSES
The London Bureau
DON’T edit your video news releases too heavily. Similarly don’t dub
sound on to them or overdo branding or product hype.
DON’T send out low quality or irrelevant press releases, which are not
actually targeted at television.
DON’T keep us too long with your initial phone call and try to avoid
hassling broadcasters with a barrage of follow-up calls.
DO provide written timed summaries.
DO keep shots long and steady.
DO concentrate on providing useful background material and on time
consuming technical shots.
DO concentrate on the story. Get the right spokespeople and make sure
they are well-briefed, and prepared.
DO encourage them to build bridges, answering the questions they’re
asked, and returning to the message you are putting out.
DON’T let TV journalists on to your premises until you’ve agreed the
subject and terms of their filming.
DON’T expect to make an instant hit with television staff.
DON’T be afraid of broadcasters. A lot of PR people are nervous of TV
people because they feel that they have their own agenda. There’s a
feeling that PR people lose control of the story. Also there’s a lack of
trust, and television [journalists] are notorious for abusing the trust
DON’T send lots of unwanted press releases.
DO find out who does what on each programme - should you be dealing with
the researcher, the editor, or the producer of the day? There are
databases to help you keep up with staff changes.
DO add a regional twist to your stories, remember local radio is
desperate for news and information.
DO think about televisual considerations, such as locations and picture
DO remember the formula: expert, plus user, plus theme.
DO make sure your story is topical. Choose the right presenter - if it’s
a personality, why him or her? Do they have a personal link with your
DO package the VNR carefully. If you’re sponsoring a syndicated item for
radio, keep it to three minutes, and try to offer something of value to
the listener, rather than worry about a head count of brand mentions.
BBC: Opportunities do exist for outside providers
‘The BBC, like broadcasters in general, recognises there are a number of
credible outside providers of news content. It has no reason to be
concerned about the quality because at the end of the day it has the
So says David Davis, senior vice-president of Medialink, which has
recently placed news stories for swimwear firm Speedo, Norwegian
conglomerate Kvaerner and car manufacturers Ford, Toyota and General
Like others in the broadcast PR business, Davis is a fan of John Birt’s
BBC, which he sees as an increasingly competitive organisation with ‘a
voracious appetite for programming’.
John Birt’s brave new BBC has, in many ways, become its own biggest news
story: recent years have seen a radical shake-up in the way programmes
are made and resourced, while the Birtian emphasis on competition - both
internal and external - has created a whole new breed of Beeb
Recent pronouncements from the Director General’s office have reinforced
the image of a semi-privatised organisation obsessed with the need to
shed its bulk in favour of a lean and mean ‘virtual corporation’, to use
the DG’s own words.
The BBC has thus reached a commercial cross-roads; but Birt and Co
resolutely maintain that all the changes will have no impact on the
BBC’s hard-earned reputation as a public service organisation committed
to the highest ethical and journalistic standards.
But is the BBC practising what it preaches? There are now a significant
number of PR specialists whose full-time job is to get their clients
coverage on the BBC and other stations.
They appear to be thriving in the Birtian era, while the BBC itself
seems preoccupied with cut-backs and down-sizing - witness the recent
announcement of a pounds 10 million budget cut and the loss of around 80
jobs at the World Service.
Stuart Maister, managing director of The London Bureau, which claims to
be the leading specialist in video news release (VNR) material, says
business is booming. ‘We’re getting a lot of repeat business because our
clients can see results.’
This is despite the fact that VNR material has been out of favour with
the BBC since last year’s Shell Brent Spar story. The BBC made extensive
use of Greenpeace’s footage, only to find itself red-faced when it
transpired that Greenpeace’s version of events was not the whole story.
An internal BBC memo was fired off, urging staff to ignore all VNR
Things appear to have calmed down somewhat since then. Others in the VNR
world believe there is often a disparity between BBC theory and BBC
reality. The increasing demands of time, resources and quality being
made on BBC programmers means they are inevitably receptive to outside
John Clare, an ex-TV journalist and now managing director of Lion’s Den,
asserts: ‘As long as you’re not trying to peddle crap, you have a good
chance of getting your story covered.
‘There’s a lot of BBC doublespeak - they’ll talk about PR hype, but
they’re often completely blind to it. Look at all the political spin
doctoring that goes on.’
Clare sees big opportunities for client exposure: serious news stories
are being extended and there are more news and current affairs slots
during daytime programming.
‘In the old days, before the budgetary cuts, the BBC would have shot
everything themselves. These days, they’re happy to run footage supplied
by people like us - even if they have to make it clear that it’s come
from an outside source.’
The official BBC Producers Guidelines state: ‘However tempting it may be
for hard-pressed programmers to accept outside material at face value,
it must be scrutinised. The audience must be made aware of the source of
committed material, especially if it has a campaigning purpose, so it
can be judged from an informed perspective.’
All very worthy, of course, and strongly endorsed by Richard Eyre,
controller of editorial policy and planning at the BBC. His response to
the claims by broadcast PR professionals that they are enjoying booming
business is: ‘Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?’
However, he does concede that ‘as the PR profession gets older and
older, they do get better and more sophisticated. But we have also got
more sophisticated in recognising the PR and applying normal editorial
judgements to it.’
Perhaps, but in some ways the BBC does look naive. For example, Eyre
says the BBC would never use an ISDN line that had been supplied by an
outside organisation specifically for a particular broadcast. If the
ISDN was already installed, then no problem.
But this theory ignores the reality that many broadcast PR specialists
are busy advising their clients left, right and centre to install ISDN
lines solely in order to lure the broadcasting brigade through their
Another ISDN line installer and broadcast PR specialist, mainly
targeting radio, is The Broadcasting Company. Greg Strange, an editor at
TBC, comments: ‘The growth of ISDN in the last few years has changed the
face of radio. It has allowed a quality that just wasn’t possible
before. All broadcasters appreciate this and are not afraid to take
advantage of the technology wherever possible.’
But he too stresses the need for strong stories and (proud of his radio
journalism roots) the importance of being ‘straight, honest and
truthful’ in dealing with broadcasters.
Howard Kosky, director of Market Tiers, a name well-known in BBC news
rooms, notes: ‘If you are looking to get coverage on TV you are having
to work harder and listen more to the programmer’s requirements.
‘That means getting way from obvious PR tricks like National Weeks,
which have become devalued, and thinking about how you can enhance, if
at all, a programmer’s requirements.’
An anonymous BBC local radio producer, who has used Market Tiers on
several occasions, agrees: ‘ If a PR person understands what you need,
they’ll have much more chance of success.’
He adds: ‘Local radio has been stretched by the move towards dawn-to-
dusk speech-based programming. The pressure on us, using very, very
limited resources, is enormous.’
Press conferences: Improving the spectacle
According to the recent broadcast survey undertaken by Metra Martech on
behalf of The London Bureau, the most common complaint among
broadcasters about press conferences is that they are not visual, that
they are not logistically thought out, and that they are dull.
The favourite whinge of network news editors is midnight press
embargoes, which mean the press get the story in the morning, but
television not until 20 hours later.
Looking at an event from the broadcaster’s point of view is clearly the
job of a broadcast media specialist, and probably a strong reason why
most of the survey respondents said they preferred dealing with
specialists above general PR companies.
Ranked in order of importance, the services that broadcasters from all
sectors thought most useful were: Understanding the broadcasters’
timeframe, providing comprehensive information, and providing broadcast
quality pictures, organising interviewees, providing brief story
advisories and setting up filming arrangements, International news
producers rated the availability of film footage most highly, while
regional news producers most valued contacts with interviewees, and
national news producers were primarily concerned about their time frame.
Business programme producers rated as ‘essential’ services, the setting
up film arrangements, providing information, and lining up interviewees.
Clearly, the PR that can promise some visual opportunity is going to
have an edge both in drawing the camera crew, and in securing coverage.
‘The location and visual opportunities are incredibly important,’ says
Two-Ten’s broadcast operations manager, Colin Dawson. ‘If you must have
the conference in a hall or something, think about the backdrop. Don’t
choose anything too tacky or commercial.
‘The second thing is that your people must be very well briefed, so they
can field any questions that come. Preparation is important, so you know
what you want to say, and can use questions to build bridges to that
The most frequent logistic problem for camera crews is only having ten
minutes to arrive and set up. If possible, it is also a good idea to
allow time for individual interviews with a spokesperson, face-to-face.
Steve Garvey, manager of Reuters Corporate Television, points out the
crucial advantage of a press conference - the coverage you get is free.
However, there are drawbacks as well, namely that you have no copyright
over the material that’s used, no control of its distribution, and no
proof of who used it, unless you commission a monitoring company.
Case study: Football kicks off BTA campaign
One of the most effective uses of commercial videos is in international
event coverage, where many stations balk at the cost of sending crews
The British Tourist Authority (BTA) took just such an opportunity this
year, to promote English tourist attractions to fans visiting Euro 96.
Since the national teams, and their fans, were hosted by cities up and
down England, the BTA wanted to promote alternative attractions in the
regions, off the beaten tourist trail.
The BTA commissioned Bulletin International to produce a series of
tailored background video news releases, visually promoting England as a
‘vibrant, contemporary holiday destination’. The host cities were
London, Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Sheffield, Nottingham, Birmingham,
and Newcastle. The broadcast targets included TV sports programmes, plus
other programming surrounding the event, such as tourist/holiday
Bulletin filmed a variety of attractions, accommodation and activities
in and around each of the host cities, and produced 15 different edits
of the tape for broadcasters throughout Europe. Background information
was translated into the main European languages, and Asian and Middle
Eastern countries received generic background information and then
satellite feeds of the pictures.
Typical VNR length was 3.5 minutes per city, of loosely edited
background pictures. For example, the footage of Leeds included general
views of the Elland Road stadium, plus the City Market, Corn Exchange,
Royal Armouries museum (a new tourist venue), the Yorkshire Dales, and
In total, the BTA tapes received two hours of coverage, in at least 49
broadcasts (estimated audience 89 million). The total cost of the
promotion, including filming, was pounds 30,000.
How much the promotion benefited specific venues is difficult to say,
although the combined effect of Euro 96 was unmistakable. Some 250,000
fans visited England for the tournament, and spent about pounds 118m
while they were here. Regional tourist boards in the host cities
confirmed that the tournament swelled their volume of enquiries by
around 60 per cent. In Sheffield, for example, takings in pubs and off
licenses rose by around 300per cent, and hotel occupancy was up by 40
A number of statistics together showed the importance of the event to
tourist venues. For instance, Leeds Bradford Airport had its busiest
weekend in 75 years when matches were played at Elland Road. In Leeds
itself, fans were the predominant visitors at Tetley’s Brewery Wharf in
Leeds, and the Royal Armouries museum.
The wisdom of mixing football fans, beer, and arms might be questioned,
but the importance of Euro 96 as a whole, and the success of the
promotional video with a large number of broadcasters seems clear cut.