Satellite connections that enable public relations people to arrange live interviews with their client all around the country or even the world are one example of the expanding technological repertoire of public relations firms. These are referred to as ‘satellite media tours’ and enable a person to do interviews with televisions stations around the country without having to actually travel anywhere. The cost of satellite time used in this way can be cheaper than the cost of travel and accommodation.TV news directors at local stations like them because their own journalists can conduct a one-on-one interview that they can control rather than broadcasting a network distributed interview. It also means that PR firms can go direct to local stations and bypass the national networks.
During the 1980s PR firms began sending out video news releases (VNRs)—fully edited news segments for broadcast as part of television news. Hill and Knowlton established its own fully staffed television production facilities (as did Burson-Marsteller) and by 1985 was already sending video news releases via satellite all over the USA rather than relying on the old fashioned press release. It is popular nowadays to accompany the fully edited piece ready to be broadcast (A-roll) with unedited footage (B-roll) and a script so the television station crew can put together and edit the story as if they had shot it themselves, inserting their own journalist’s voice over, or adding their own material.
Studies showing that the vast majority of Americans get most of their news from television (81% according to a poll in 1992) have ensured that VNRs are now widely used by PR companies. They were used by all the presidential candidates in the 1992 elections. Mainly they are used by private companies to promote a corporate point of view. Specialists in this area advise customers that a VNR “can help position your company as the authority on a certain topic, issue or industry” and allow them to “take a stance on a controversial issue.” Making a VNR is cheaper than making an advertisement—$15,000 - $80,000 to produce and distribute compared with $250,000 for an advertisement—yet like other media releases, they result in news stories that are more credible than commercials because it becomes part of the news broadcast and not sourced back to the company that paid for it.
According to Public Relations Journal, “VNRs have gone beyond simply selling products and services. They’re now about selling ideas, changing and influencing viewer behaviour, and shaping public opinion.” Similarly a Hill & Knowlton executive said in 1994 that “we’re seeing more people who have a message to get across rather than just selling a product.” Lee and Solomon, in their book, Unreliable Sources, claim:
Every week, hundreds of local TV stations, beset by budget and staff cutbacks, air these free, ready-made news releases, which look increasingly realistic. Even veteran media observers often fail to distinguish between video PR spots and station-produced news.
The production quality of VNRs is now as good as or even better than that of local television stations and most news directors see them as a source of information rather than as a form of propaganda. One of the main distributors of video news releases, MediaLink, found in 1991 that all 92 newsrooms it surveyed had used VNRs from PR firms. This was confirmed by a 1993 Nielson study. Another survey in 1992 found that 80% of US news directors use VNRs a few times each month.
Video News Releases have been slower getting to other countries. By 1994, however, a MediaLink survey found that 87% of European broadcasters found VNRs helpful and 30% broadcast more than 10 per month. Additionally, 60% of European PR people wanted pan-European VNRs and 30% wanted US distribution.
In 1996 when the Australian Liberal Party used them in its election campaign for regional television stations, they were fairly new to Australia. Jonathan Raymond from Media Link in Australia told ABC Radio that there was already a tradition of sending background video information to television stations and that video news releases merely took this one step further. He explained that with the intense competition for groups to get media attention, video news releases gave his corporate customers extra leverage.
As far as the television viewer is concerned a VNR piece is done by the station’s reporters and is no different from the rest of the news. However there are important differences. Pre-packaged interviews can be edited to give the best possible impression. They avoid the possibility of probing or follow-up questions from a journalist, or impromptu and perhaps more frank responses from the interviewee. With a video release the person being interviewed can be coached to give the ‘best’ answers and any ‘mistakes’ can be edited out before the news room sees it.
VNRs allow the corporation to influence the agenda of the news by providing footage, that may otherwise be difficult to obtain (including archival, on-location and aerial footage), free of charge. Even if the station doesn’t use the footage it is a powerful way of suggesting how the story could be put together. Stephen Claney from the Australian company Interface argues that his company assists newsrooms overcome logistical problems. He says of one instance when he sent a video news release containing interview footage:
the newsroom simply went and re-interviewed the person, asked similar questions to ours, and then ran it in the story, using our overlay footage. So we assisted them in constructing the story, we gave them an example of someone who was worth speaking to, and showed them how it could be used. And I think that’s a great result all around.
Corporate videos are seldom labelled, for example an on-screen credit, “this video footage has been provided by company X.” Such labelling has been rejected by PR people who say their clients would not like it because they would lose the “third party endorsement a news report normally carries.” Says one VNR producer, “The public could possibly misconstrue the VNR as an infomercial”.