FOCUS: BROADCAST PR - A new angle on making the news/Television programme editors may deny all use of outside material but thanks to stunning and unbiased, visuals VNR producers are still managing to get their footage on air. Sue Beenstock investigates

Ask VNR producers which broadcasters use their output and they reply with one voice: ’everybody’.

Ask VNR producers which broadcasters use their output and they

reply with one voice: ’everybody’.

In fact, claims Stuart Maister, now senior vice president of Medialink

International following the buy-out of his broadcast consultancy The

London Bureau, the VNR is ubiquitous. ’You might as well ask who uses

press releases,’ he says. But broadcasters are dismissive. First of all,

they say, look at the rule book.

When the BBC had its fingers burnt several years ago, after using

Greenpeace TV footage of Brent Spar in 1995 without rigorous fact

checking, producers were told they must never again use supplied footage

unless it was impossible for a BBC crew to gather its own film, in which

case the piece must be clearly labelled and credited.

When the ITC updated its rule book earlier this year, there was a new

reference to VNRs. The guidance notes declare: ’In general, avoid more

than occasional use of such material. There must always be strong

editorial reason for its inclusion in programmes. Exceptions to this

rule may be made where the material itself is very brief and in no sense

promotes the supplier’s interests.

’Material whose effect is clearly promotional or partisan, should,

however be avoided, unless the organisation’s activity is itself a

subject of the news story.’ (see panel)

Fine words, according to Andrew Carapiet who, as media training director

of the Broadcasting Business, produces what he calls VNR Rushes for a

client list that includes Bank of Scotland, NHS Trusts, United

Distillers and Ventura. His version of the VNR is, he claims ’neutral

footage’-well produced film made without spin or prejudice, which

regularly makes it on to air. But surely such material, which amounts to

little more than library shots, has little promotional value for the


’Not at all,’ says Carapiet. ’For the client, the crucial point is that

they get the issue covered, and if we didn’t supply the footage, the raw

material, I doubt the story would be used. Whatever they claim, TV

stations have limited resources and a story has to be huge to justify

the editor sending a film crew.’

Richard Dove, former assistant editor at BBC Business Breakfast and now

joint chief executive of Fifth World Productions, agrees that pragmatism

is an issue at editorial meetings: ’If we’re doing a story that needs 20

seconds of footage of an oil platform off Aberdeen, it’s obviously

unrealistic for us to get it ourselves and there’s no need to apologise

for taking it from a VNR.’

Hence Medialink International’s exclusive films of Dolly the sheep’s

firstborn and the opening of Paul McCartney’s house as a museum, were

both eagerly snapped up by terrestrial and satellite stations alike. But

unless the VNR offers exclusive footage, its existence is irrelevant,

says Dove - if a story is worth covering, a crew will be found.

For Peter Eustace, deputy editor, daily business television programmes

at the BBC, that rule is unshakeable. ’Just because Medialink rings me

on Friday offering footage of the Rover chairman’s response to Gordon

Brown (on the over-valued pound) doesn’t make it a story. I considered

sending a crew, but it wasn’t a strong enough piece to pull them away

from another item higher up the running order.’

Bulletin International may boast that its VNR for Marks and Spencer’s

Retail Crime Initiative (see panel right) was picked up extensively by

the BBC, including its business output, but Eustace insists that what he

bought into was the idea. ’PROs approach us 50 times a day with


That’s fine because they give us stories and contacts. But whether they

supply a VNR is irrelevant. I tell my editors to ask themselves, ’Is

this a story?’ If it is, then it’s strong enough for us to crew it


Sure enough, a close look at the compendium of coverage of the M&S

Retail Crime Initiative appears to show that only the exclusive CCTV

footage was lifted; all other filming and interviews were done by the

broadcasters themselves.

This is why television consultancies must be more journalistically

astute than other PR agencies, says Peter Sibley, a former news

producer, now director of World Television which produces VNRs for

non-profit organisations.

’VNR is much more journalistic than any other part of PR and it has to

overcome the cynicism of the newsroom,’ he claims.

Although BBC editor Peter Eustace says he judges VNRs from benevolent

organisations like the Red Cross and World Health Organisation as

shrewdly as those from the commercial sector, Sibley claims that on the

whole, his client list predisposes editors to look favourably on his


In fact, VNR is such a sullied acronym, Sibley prefers to call his work,

PSNRs, public service news releases. ’VNRs are corporate and trying to

influence the news agenda, but in our area there’s an important function

to communicate important issues to the public, very different to say

Shell launching a new oil platform where the bottom line is to sell more


But perhaps an even more persuasive element in gaining Sibley’s videos

airtime, is that his subjects, often human interest or environment

based, are particularly telegenic. According to Bulletin International’s

group director, international operations, Shoba Purushothaman that is

the key to getting VNRs broadcast.

’You won’t find a producer that admits it,’ she says, ’but if you’ve

stunning pictures, they’ll want to use them, even on a relatively weak

story.’ A story Bulletin covered recently on the tallest buildings in

the world, in Malaysia, was a classic ’so what?’ story, she adds, but

fantastic aerial shots ensured it was used in 93 countries, including

the UK.

Chris Dyer, new business development executive for Reuters, which

produces and distributes VNRs agrees that high quality pictures are key,

but also identifies newsworthiness and good background material as being

key. He says that if Reuters does not think that a client has a good

enough story, it advises against producing a VNR. Dyer claims this acts

as a kind of safety net for clients, although he admits they offer no

guarantees that any VNR it produces will have any hits.

And while TV journalists deny they ever use VNRs except for the

irresistibly strong exclusive or bland library-type footage, the video

producers, like Tim Arnold, now managing director of Arnold Broadcast,

and former BBC reporter and Sky News anchorman, agrees with

Puroshothaman’s assessment.

’We have a 100 per cent record for VNR coverage,’ boasts Arnold. ’If

it’s not going to be used, we’d advise a client not to make one. But if

it’s a picture-led story, it will be used,’ he claims.

For a recent piece on a new train timetable, the operator invested in a

VNR with brand new, clean rolling stock in the background and provided

regionally-relevant footage. ’Unlike the print journalist, the TV

reporter has to start his piece with what the viewer sees on the screen.

That means that although I can’t control the final product on air, I can

ensure my client, the train operator, is shown to his best advantage,’

says Arnold.

Purushothaman emphasises that the VNR is only one tool in a company’s TV

strategy, and Dyer of Reuters agrees. He says: ’A VNR is a good PR tool,

but it is part of the communications mix.’

Reuters can also advise on other approaches to television news, offering

a consultancy service to some clients. ’We also like to look at the

long-term picture, building up broadcaster loyalty by producing

consistently high-quality images and strong stories.’

David Davis of Medialink says: ’The VNR is only a press release for TV,

never a completed story. We provide elements for the broadcaster to edit

and it’s unrealistic to expect every client’s story, however photogenic,

to generate a TV story.’

Medialink’s growth - 30 per cent year-on-year - with half of that

relying on the increase in VNR production, proves, says Davis, how

effective VNRs can be when used as part of a TV strategy. Until

recently, says his colleague, Stuart Maister, TV PR was largely ignored:

’Editorial is a far more powerful advert yet most people don’t spend on

it. That’s changing, and fast.’

In the next year, digital TV will bring hundreds of new channels to the

UK, with a voracious appetite for just the sort of stories VNRs

illustrate so well, he claims. ’It’s a question of helping the broadcast

journalist produce valid, photogenic stories.’

But Geoff Beattie, until last November a senior producer at GMTV, now

director of HBL Media, believes digital TV will actually cut the need

for VNRs because journalists on the road will each carry a hand-held

camera and deliver broadcast-quality footage straight back to the


’What’s needed is a more imaginative approach to creating strong picture

stories that broadcasters will want to cover,’ he claims. ’People go on

about the lack of crews and limited resources, but that’s just an


If you’re creative and arrange a film opportunity that captures an

editor’s imagination, you’ll get the coverage.’


Last April, World Television produced Forest Protection Partnership, the

third VNR in a six-video, year-long television strategy for the World

Wide Fund for Nature’s Forests for Life Campaign. The campaign’s ongoing

aim is to secure protection for at least ten per cent of each of the

world’s forest types by the year 2000. TV is crucial in building

international public pressure and political momentum.

This particular news release was hooked on a press conference on 29

April in Washington, at which President Cardoso of Brazil would announce

a funding deal which would protect up to 62 million acres of the Amazon


The announcement was crucial to WWF’s campaign, but the telegenic

qualities of the officials involved weren’t quite enough to guarantee

the sort of coverage the charity needed.

World Television’s challenge was to come up with some strong additional

footage that would move the press conference coverage up the agenda and

provide a relevant interview package.

The team produced a VNR which included stunning aerial views of the

Brazilian rainforest which would now be protected, and underlined its

relevance in the context of the forest fires then destroying the region.

Interviews with HRH Prince Philip, president emeritus of WWF

International and James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank were

added and sent in advance to all WWF offices world-wide for local sell

in. The multi-lingual director general of WWF was interviewed in four


The evening before the announcement an interview with President Cardoso

was sent by satellite, and played into the press announcement. Next day,

World Television covered the press conference, re-packaged the event

into the existing VNR and distributed it across the US by satellite.

It was simultaneously fed back to Reuters in London where it was sent as

a news flash through Reuters World Alert. This is a new bi-weekly news

feed of VNRs for non-governmental organisations, which claims to

maintain the news agency’s editorial and technical standards, while

providing a reach and monitoring system which charities and NGOs can

afford. According to World Television’s director, Peter Sibley, it costs

between an eighth and a tenth of what a commercial outfit would expect

to pay-pounds 2,500 a story, including satellite distribution and


Estimated audience reach for this VNR was 250 million, and key stations

included BBC World Service 24 hour news, 6pm news, Business Breakfast

and Newsround; in Europe it was featured on Euronews, Bloomberg Business

TV, Sky News and CNBC; while in Germany RTV, TVSat1, RTL2 and TV Kabel

also covered the story.


Electronic gadgetry and technology all help get the VNR to the

broadcaster, but according to most video producers, personal contacts

are still the most important element in getting your piece on air.

Tim Arnold, now managing director of Arnold Broadcast, and former BBC

reporter and Sky News anchorman, says the good PR lunch is still the

best way to get your VNR on the news agenda.

’You’ve got to know the correspondent, take them on a nice lunch and

then say, ’By the way, we’re doing this event ... If you want to come

and film it yourself you’re most welcome. But here it is on film

anyway.’ Using satellite to distribute the VNR is simply technology gone

crazy, you’re bamboozling your client and trying to impress them with

knowledge and resources. The personal touch is always superior,’ he


But it obviously depends on time and the regional relevance of the story

as to how you deliver the VNR to the newsroom. At Medialink

International, satellite is increasingly the norm. David Davis,

president of Medialink International, has a deal with APTV which gives

Medialink its own newswire.

’We’ll advise the broadcaster in advance about the story on the phone,

and distribute accordingly,’ he says. ’But even in the UK we find

satellite increasingly useful.’ His colleague, vice-president Stuart

Maister, says using the APTV feed means it’s routine for TV stations to

view Medialink’s footage. ’It’s become just another source, rather like

an agency, where both client and broadcasters come together.’ But the

copy is only sent once his team has discussed the idea with the

broadcaster. ’We’re not just sending unsolicited text. That only gets

your story as far as the bin.’

John Clare, managing director of Lions Den Communication Management,

reiterates that there’s no point distributing a VNR that won’t be looked

at, so establishing a network of, in his case, health correspondents who

know his work, is vital. Clare was a TV journalist for 13 years and

claims that experience gives him a useful radar to suss out when an

editor is genuinely interested in receiving the VNR.

’Sometimes they’ll agree to see it just to get you off the phone. But if

a journalist knows you and understands that your piece conforms to high

standards, and it’s worth a view.’ The key is not to use the term VNR or

ask the planner, ’Did you get my fax?’ but sell the idea, and let them

know you have strong footage. ’They know me, they know I’m not peddling

rubbish and they listen,’ says Clare. Without that credibility, he

claims, his recent VNR for SmithKline Beecham featuring case studies of

patients who had used the company’s new Multiple Sclerosis drug, would

not have been featured on GMTV, BBC Breakfast News and Sky.


Bulletin International, which was founded nine years ago, now produces

around ten VNRs a week in the UK alone. The company’s client list

includes Digital Equipment, the NatWest Group, Rhone-Poulenc, the

British Tourist Authority and Rolls Royce, as well as Marks and


For the past two years, M&S has been doing innovative work to tackle

career criminals who rob high street stores of goods worth pounds 600

million a year. Working closely with the police, other retailers, local

businesses and the community, M&S has attempted to target the rising

numbers of criminals in its Retail Crime Initiative.

Obviously, it’s not a new story, but last February, as part of its

ongoing strategy to win more TV coverage for M&S, Bulletin devised a VNR

which not only highlighted the seriousness of shop theft, but showed the

positive ways M&S is fighting crime, emphasising its partnerships with

the community.

The release of the British Retail Consortium’s (BRC) annual retail crime

survey provided the topical peg on which to sell this two-year-old


Editors were contacted four days before the BRC’s annual survey was

published and those interested were sent a copy of the VNR. The VNR

contained dramatic CCTV footage of criminals bundling items into M&S

bags, followed by street chases, police on patrol in a shopping centre

talking to M&S security, a shopping centre’s camera room, the M&S crime

database in London, as well as interviews with the head of the M&S

Retail Crime Initiative and BRC.

The VNR package was angled for individual editors, so regional

statistics and local contacts were provided, depending on the TV

station’s remit.

Regional M&S store managers and spokesmen were trained and briefed for

interviews with local stations; business editors were given the economic

angle; and general news programmes were given more information on the

impact on consumers, underlining the fact that honest shoppers pay an

extra pounds 85 a year for other’s criminal behaviour.

According to Bulletin, which co-ordinated all of M&S’s interviews on

embargo day and helped with other local contacts, the story achieved a

total of 58 minutes of coverage, including GMTV, Business Breakfast,

national lunchtime bulletins and ITN’s News at Ten.

While Bulletin managing director Lucy Tilbury claims the story won

plaudits from broadcasters who ’appreciated the efforts being made by

M&S and were a little surprised at the helpfulness of M&S’, producers

who ran the piece claimed the VNR had no impact on their decision to run

the story and Marks and Spencer CCTV footage was the only item lifted

from the VNR.


The Independent Television Commission and the BBC both issue guidance

notes for producers. Both have extensive guidelines regarding the use of

material from outside sources.

Under the section entitled Video News Releases and other acquired news

material, the ITC guidance notes make the following declarations which

determine the use of such material.

- In general, licensees should be careful to avoid more than occasional

use of such material. There must always be strong editorial reason for

its inclusion in programmes.

- The source of material supplied by, or on behalf of, official bodies,

commercial companies or campaigning organisations should be briefly but

clearly labelled on-air for a maximum duration of five seconds by using

either sound or vision.

- Exceptions to this rule may be made where the material itself is very

brief and in no sense promotes the supplier’s interests.

Material whose effect is clearly promotional or partisan should,

however, be avoided, unless the organisation’s activity is itself a

subject of the news story.

The BBC also has extensive guidance notes in its Producers’ Guidelines -

the editorial standards by which the BBC makes its programmes. The

guidelines were most recently updated in November 1996. In the section

on material from outside sources, it states that:

- We must be wary of using a News Release to illustrate a story about

the organisation which provided it, particularly if it gives an

unrealistic or overly favourable impression of the organisation. We

should normally use such material only to illustrate the way in which

the company or organisation is promoting itself.

- Sequences which include incidental music or commentary provided by the

supplier should be used only to show how the company or organisation

tries to portray itself.

- If we use Video News Release material to illustrate a more general

story, we must try to select shots which do not promote the supplier or

their products. We should try to use it in conjunction with other

illustrative material.

The full BBC guidelines are available on-line at and the

ITC guidelines are also published on its web site, found at

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in