BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. In recent months, a certain phrase has entered the lexicon of media dirty words - video news releases. Also known as VNRs, these are PR products paid for by companies or government agencies but designed to look like real reported news spots. They're distributed to TV stations in the hopes that news producers will drop the fake news into their real newscasts, and often, it works. But lately, some VNR producers are taking steps to ensure that it always works, and that the decision or whether or not to air the material is no longer in the hands of journalists. It's called branded journalism, and Joe Mandese wrote about it in a recent issue of Broadcasting & Cable. Joe, welcome to the show.
JOE MANDESE: Hi, Brooke. It's a pleasure to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, could you begin by explaining how this kind of branded journalism, as it's called, differs from the traditional video news releases that we've talked about that have gotten so much press lately.
JOE MANDESE: Sure. Well, basically, a VNR or video news release was just like a press release. It was a well put together PR message, you know, highly produced by a VNR company that was distributed to stations, and they chose whether to air it or not or air it in its entirety or not. What's going on now is these companies are actually going out and securing time, actually buying the time, to make sure that message runs intact, exactly the way the marketer or the corporation intended it. And most importantly, they can plan and buy the audiences they want, much like Madison Avenue can, and they can actually figure out what demographic, what type of person, consumes this media and they can control it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We have some tape from one of these spots. This one was paid for by Siemens Hearing Instruments and produced by PR firm Media Link Worldwide.
KATE BROOKS (tape): Now, news from the net, with back to school hearing aids. Hi, I'm Kate Brooks, with Newsbreak. It's estimated 3 in every thousand kids are born with hearing loss. If left untreated, many of these kids face major obstacles in the classroom. Experts say early diagnosis and high tech hearing aids are helping hearing-impaired students perform just as well as their normal-hearing counterparts.
MAN: With properly fit hearing aids, with the right kind of features, children - any child - should really be able to hear in a classroom, as effectively as, as any of the other counterparts in that classroom.
KATE BROOKS: Learn more. Log on. Go to NewStream.com.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, what we saw there was a backdrop with an anchor, and the doctor interviewed was captioned with his affiliation, which was Siemens Hearing Instruments, but there wasn't any other disclosure about the spot's source. You said that the VNR companies are going to be developing new guidelines as to disclosure. What have they told you?
JOE MANDESE: Well, right now, the guidelines and the ethics of the industry are really controlled by the news organizations themselves. It's up to television stations and networks to know if these things are so obscure that they need a disclosure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But television stations are not in the business of questioning their advertisers. If they aren't lying, then they'll put them on there.
JOE MANDESE: To some extent. I mean there are rules and laws, you know, in this country, Federal Trade Commission rules about deceptive advertising that networks and stations are somewhat accountable. What's happened over the last 10 or 20 years is, because of cutbacks in their own, you know, administration and management, they have put more of the pressure on advertisers to sort out the claims themselves. But they still can step in. If an advertisers really complains about a competitive claim from one advertiser to another, networks can step in and pull the ad.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If another advertiser complains, but what if a consumer complains and says, you know, I've just heard this three minute newscast, and it seems like they only gave one side of a story. They say, well, that's advertising time. What's your problem?
JOE MANDESE: Well, you know, ultimately, all broadcasters, cable casters, are accountable to the viewer, if they don't listen to them, they'll tune them out, so they better be sensitive to that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right. But if the VNR companies are producing newscasts independent of these news organizations, then they have to do the policing themselves, and will they?
JOE MANDESE: You know, that's an excellent point, which is that the lines of who is the news disseminator are really changing here. But let me ask you - it's not just professional PR people that are disseminating news these days; everybody is. Consumers are distributing news. We're getting the whole area of blogging, consumer generated news content that's a really slippery slope. Nobody knows.
The PR industry's done its own research on consumers and how they consume news online. They know right now that consumers don't know the difference if they're looking at PR Newswire or Business Wire which are professional PR release organizations, and the Associated Press.
Well, the same thing's true of television, radio, internet, any kind of news organization. Why would the consumer know the difference?
What you need to do is, a) tell them this is a paid message, or this is a product, and then b) point them to where they can get more information on that.
You know, in the end, what we're really talking about here is trust, you know? Can a consumer trust its TV station or its network that's delivering its news? Can it trust the marketer or the brand or the corporation that's communicating to them through this type of news?
I mean, it is a new area, but I do think there's no reason why it can't work. We've seen it work in other areas of media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right. Joe, thank you very much.
JOE MANDESE: Thank you, Brooke. It's a pleasure to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Joe Mandese is a columnist for Broadcasting & Cable magazine and editor-in-chief of MediaPost.com.