I recently found myself having a conversation with someone about the profession of public relations and I felt the need to defend the industry, those who practice it and what we actually do for a living. Given the lingering misconceptions about PR; that we are slick, manipulative people who exist only to further our clients’ point of view, best interests, and bottom lines, I was not surprised at having to defend and indeed, explain (for the millionth time) what pr actually is. I have an Uncle who, for years, asked me questions like, “How’s the advertising business?” or said things like, “I saw your commercial for Cover Girl the other night. Pretty clever; I bet that’ll sell a lot of make up.”
I don’t fault people for having misconceptions about the profession; after all, people have been bombarded their whole lives with negative messages about pr and pr people, through movies (Thank You for Smoking, Wag the Dog), books, second-hand stories and constant reinforcement from members of the media. When I think about it, long before Trump starting accusing the media of creating “fake news,” our industry was constantly being called “purveyors of corporate, paid, fake, and manufactured news.” These false characterizations set us up to be viewed as an industry ridden with deceitful, despicable, misleading and manipulative people who lack any decency and walk through life with a broken moral compass.
Now, more than ever, we’re under the scrutiny of media and consumer watchdog groups, and living in fear of being accused of misleading, misrepresenting, or just plain lying about a client’s product, position, or “real” motive behind something they are doing or taking an interest in; be it a charitable donation, supporting a social cause or taking an opinion or action on a trending, albeit controversial, topic.
It was only 14 years ago that a tactic used for decades by the pr industry came under attack by an aggressive and derogatory campaign by the media and by a media watchdog group called the Center for Media and Democracy. The tactic, or tool, was called a “Video News Release,” commonly referred to as a “VNR.” Similar to a written press release, a VNR was a scripted video story that was a fully produced, ready-for-air “news package,” funded by a corporation, lobbyist group, trade association, non-profit group, government institution or basically any group, or coalition who had a story or point of view they wanted told by television news reporters
The downfall of the VNR happened in 2004 when George W. Bush signed a new Medicare law designed to help the elderly with the costs of prescription medicines. A VNR, promoting the new law and what it meant, and funded by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), was produced and distributed to TV newsrooms nationwide by a Washington, D.C.-based pr/communications firm who made the fatal mistake of using a former television reporter, Karen Ryan, to provide the voice-over for the segment, misleading viewers into thinking she was actually “reporting” the news segment. To make matters worse, they identified her in the “suggested anchor intro” script, and had her close the piece with her voice saying, “In Washington, this is Karen Ryan reporting.”
The Center for Media and Democracy, jumped on this and conducted a poll among TV news directors asking if they ever used story ideas and video news releases generated, funded and provided by outside sources. They went on to also ask the news directors, if they did use them, did they “source” or “credit” the material to its originating sponsor. Of the seventy or so news directors they polled, the majority said “no, we don’t use those things.” The media watchdog group then enlisted the services of a news monitoring company who provided them with actual newscasts that the seventy + TV news stations polled, had recently aired. Nearly every station had indeed, used “outside” material (video, sound bites and prepared scripts) provided by communications companies working on behalf of corporate, or other clients. Furthermore, the TV stations who used the material did not practice “transparency,” i.e., they did not “credit” or “source” the material, instead, “allowing” viewers to believe the news segment was produced by members of their favorite, local news team.
All hell broke loose; Federal Investigations into the HHS-sponsored VNR were launched, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) started dropping their hammer down (at some point even fining TV stations for lack of transparency), and critics were saying that the failure to clearly label and identify the use of VNRs and Audio News Releases (ANRs)… violates the letter and spirit of the Radio and Television News Directors Association’s (RTNDA) “Code of Ethics.”
Suddenly, almost overnight, an industry was decimated, My company, RCM Broadcast Communications, along with many of my competitors who also produced and distributed VNRs to television news via satellite, were persona non grata among the news directors who, for so long, had welcomed, appreciated and even come to depend on, our “free and unrestricted” material that they otherwise would not have had. Our VNRs were now viewed with suspicion and avoided like some kind of contagious disease that no one wanted to get caught with, lest they too may get investigated and fined! Annual revenues of companies, like mine, who produced VNRs, plummeted; some companies went bankrupt, many jobs were lost and TV stations were no longer going near the once useful content that helped them to educate and enlighten their viewers about informative, sometimes valuable, corporate or institutional news announcements. You know, those, silly, inconsequential things like new, break-through treatments for cancer, treating diabetes, and new products that help people live easier, healthier and more productive lives.
This brings me back to the original point I was making about what we, as an industry and as pr professionals really do. Do we develop story ideas, publicity stunts, etc, to promote our clients? Of course we do, that’s our job. Is the goal of pr to sometimes help sell an idea or a product? Of course it is. What profession does not have the ultimate end goal of putting forth the image of someone or something in the best light possible, with the goal of generating goodwill, increased awareness or greater sales? Are the Disney employees who say “Have a magical day!” to everyone they greet, engaging in a form of pr? You betcha! Same with the WalMart greeter, and the waiter or waitress who asks you “How’s everything with your food?” All a part of an organizations “brand” and image and ALL a form of pr.
Is all pr self-serving and done for nefarious reasons? Absolutely not! In fact, I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of working on many campaigns over the years that, while increasing sales, and bottom lines for clients, had the dual purpose of also raising awareness of an issue or a disease that helped save lives. Awareness campaigns for deadly, vaccine-preventable illnesses like influenza, bacterial meningitis, Hepatitis “B”, and Pertussis (Whooping Cough). Campaigns that were funded by pharma but included partnering with organizations like the CDC, the American Lung Association, the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and others, whose altruistic motives are to help prevent unnecessary deaths , disabilities and hospitalizations.
So remember this the next time someone tries to “dis” our industry and our people.
Also remember this quote: “If I was down to my last dollar, I would spend it on public relations.” — Bill Gates.