Pulling Back the PR Veil

If you’re a PR person, you call them “video news releases,” or “VNRs.” If you’re a PR critic, you call them “fake news.” If you’re the average news viewer, you call them “the news.” And if you’re the FCC, you now call them “valuable consideration.”

I’m not an attorney, but this is how I understand the situation. Until this point, the FCC has only required disclosure of PR agency-produced video if the TV newsrooms were directly paid to use it. But a few days ago, the FCC ruled that handing over pre-produced video to people whose job it is to produce news video has the same effect as paying them, since it saves newsrooms the time and resources necessary to produce the video themselves. Therefore, newsrooms have to disclose the source of the video.

Because of negative publicity, some PR people have already stopped doing fully produced VNRs. But my sense is that most agencies at least still supply “b-roll” to newsrooms on behalf of their clients. (B-roll is video that visually tells a PR agency’s client’s story without directly telling the story through faux-reporter narration. Essentially, b-roll supplies the video dots of the story, but the real reporter is allowed to connect the dots through sequencing and narration.) Assumably, b-roll now also will need to be disclosed by news stations, which probably means news stations will use much less agency-generated b-roll.

Last April, I popped off on this issue. I suggested that the PR industry do such disclosure voluntarily: “Carrying a source disclosure through the full length of the VNR would make VNRs much more abuse-proof, save TV producers from themselves, preserve some of the remaining credibility of TV newsrooms, save clients from being subject to scathing criticism for promoting “fake news,” and help make public relations a more honorable profession.”

And now it looks as if we PR hacks can thank the FCC for saving us from ourselves.

– Loveland

15 thoughts on “Pulling Back the PR Veil

  1. Kelly Groehler says:

    This issue drives me absolutely nuts. Nice to see the FCC finally hand down a ruling of common sense.

  2. KT says:

    TV news is so lousy that they’re lucky to get VNRs, which are produced with ten times the care an accuracy as standard reportage.

  3. Kelly Groehler says:

    Doesn’t make it right.

    Wait – can I be a critic and continue to carry the “PR person” card?

  4. Kelly Groehler says:

    Hm… just read back on some threads from earlier this year on the Minnesota PR Blog. Yep, was squarely told I couldn’t criticize.

  5. jl says:

    The only instance I can think of where b-roll truly seems to serve a good purpose is surgical footage. Reason: It’s less germy and invasive to have one hospital-managed camera in the OR than a gaggle of cameras. But in that instance, just disclose the source of the video.

    Other than that, though, I have a hard time understanding why b-roll and VNRs are necessary. If a newsroom can’t justify going out to get their own video, then the core story idea is just not newsworthy. B-roll and VNRs are all about getting non-newsworthy stories on the air.

  6. Kelly Groehler says:

    Well, okay, let me back up a second. VNRs are crap, and broadcasting them without disclosure is crap. And I agree a newsroom should justify getting its own video.

    But I do think b-roll can be useful – if it’s used straight-up as an electronic, visual fact sheet.

    Jane Wells at CNBC did a story (her idea – we didn’t pitch it) this past spring about my employer’s e-waste practices, and her turnaround was short. So one of our cell phone recycling vendors provided straight b-roll – raw footage – of the facility where they break down and recycle cell phone parts. Jane used the footage in her story and attributed to the vendor. It was yet another tool I provided her for the piece – just like the fact sheet on our recycling programs.

  7. jl says:

    The vendor and CNBC should disclose, and they did that. However, if I were a reporter, I’d still be nervous about using b-roll. If the CNBC reporter doesn’t film on site, how do they know the vendor isn’t a shell operation that is actually dumping e-waste in the creek, or otherwise cutting corners, instead of recycling in the responsible manner shown on the pre-fabricated video?

    Some of the worst abuses are when “expert” interviews are supplied and used without attribution. For example, a company supplies video of someone saying their product is effective or safe, and the reporter runs it without a disclosure saying the pro-product expert was supplied by the manufacturer and paid by the manufacturer.

  8. Craig says:

    Talk to any TV news producer – the first thing they ask is if you have any b-roll. If they use b-roll only to assess the visual potential of the story, fine. If they end up shooting their own, good. If they use your b-roll, equally as good.

    It appears most of you are living in your journalistic past instead of fully advocating for your clients. Whether or not the station tags the source of the video is none of your concern.

  9. jloveland says:

    Good points as always, Craig. Two things to ponder:

    1) “How journalism could be better” is a different subject than “what’s best for Client X in Situation Z.” I was viewing this as a discussion of the former.

    However…

    2) I’d argue that the marketplace value of media relations services diminishes as the credibility of the news diminishes . Therefore, if the news media destroys it’s credibility in part by becoming overly spoon-fed by the PR industry, might that spoon-feeding actually be self-defeating in the long-run?

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