VNRs: Amused by the politics

I’m very amused by the political attack being waged against the current Administration for its effective use of such time-tested and valid public relations tools as video news releases. These are the pre-packaged news stories that public relations firms like mine can help clients put together. They are delivered via satellite feed to broadcast news outlets around the country at no charge, and they deliver product launch news, consumer tips, or other educational information about the client’s products or services. In this case, the client happens to be a federal government agency.

Critics of the Administration, frustrated by the inability of their political leaders to come up with a message that effectively reaches the public, instead attack the successful use of these communications tools by the government. That’s a bogus attack and the public should understand it for what it is.

The Public Relations Society of America, the largest professional association of public relations practitioners, has made it very clear to its 28,000 members and students that the PRSA Code of Ethics and Professional Standards requires clear disclosure of the origins of video news releases to the broadcast outlets that receive them. Once we do that, it is up to broadcast news directors to ensure that they tell their audiences where they got the report.

When I was a radio newscaster in the 1970s (LOOONG time ago!) there was an 800 number at the US Department of Agriculture where you could download audio news reports featuring interviews with USDA officials and experts. Like newscasters at many other radio stations, needing extra content for newscasts, I used these reports. They always signed off saying “I’m so-and-so with the US Department of Agriculture.” What’s the big deal?

One of the saddest signs for the decline in network TV news recently was coverage of the floods following heavy rains in Southern California. Two of the traditional TV networks, CBS and NBC, used purchased video footage of the damage caused by the flooding. There was no on-air announcement that the video didn’t come from CBS or NBC film crews, just very small visual “bugs” on the screen as credit lines that most viewers would have missed.

What a state of affairs when two news organizations that were once worldwide in their scope now don’t even have a video crew in Southern California! Even sadder, no one is attacking the networks for the decision to cut back staffing so much.


  1. Capital markets demand profits, and having crews everywhere is not profitable. But with respect to the issue concerning VNRs, which ran in the Times last Sunday, it seems to me you are politicizing what is a very valid concern: namely, whether or not VNRs played on newscasts are potentially subversive, and whether or not our industry is partly responsible.

  2. Glad to see my comments creating a reaction. I still think that broadcast outlets bear some responsibility for telling their audiences when they are using VNRs in their entirety. Even Daniel Schorr thinks so. (See NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday, 3/20/05.)

  3. Steve, you’ve pointed out the real issue — VNRs are being used more because news departments have cut back on staff. The news media is responsible for fact-checking and/or editing any VNRs it receives. In the Armstrong Williams case, the PR firm bore some responsibility for the mistake. But the misuse or over-reliance on VNRs is a media industry issue, not a PR industry issue.

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