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April 20, 2004

Flacks Cannot Say They're "Reporting" Anymore, says the Public Relations Society of America

A statement today by the Public Relations Society of America says that Video News Releases should no longer use sign offs like the one that got Karen Ryan into hot water, "In Washington, I'm Karen Ryan Reporting." The PRSA now agrees that the practice, though common, can be confusing or misleading.

Shame on me for practicing my profession and engaging in a standard, acceptable practice, namely, narrating a VNR. I did nothing wrong. Nothing.Karen Ryan, March 29.

Nothing, huh? In the aftermath of the Karen Ryan fiasco (background is here) the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) has taken a clear stand against the practice that got her into trouble last month: pretending to be a reporter in a video news release.

“In Washington, I’m Karen Ryan reporting” was the phrase she spoke in a Video News Release (VNR) prepared for the US Department of Health and Human Services. Now that sort of tactic has been officially condemned by the major professional group in PR. Here’s the key passage in the PRSA’s statement, released to PressThink today.

One of the issues raised about the DHHS VNR was the inclusion of a sign-off identification at the completion of the story that uses the words “reporting.” This has caused some confusion among people who question whether someone who is not actually a reporter should be identified in a manner that could suggest that he or she is a journalist. While this is often done when VNRs are produced, we agree that this can be considered confusing and/or misleading.

Here is what I know about how this statement came about. On April 2, public relations professional Ken Denney, after reading my original post about Ryan, sent a note to Catherine Bolton, president of the PRSA:

Ms. Bolton: Jay Rosen has criticized our profession in a recent entry about the Karen Ryan matter on his blog, PressThink. He points out that while journalist organizations have sent letters of protest to the Bush Administration for the misuse of VNR material, no PR industry group has done so, which, he says, is what members of a “real profession” would do. Has there been such a protest or other official action that Mr. Rosen should be aware of? Ken Denney, Atlanta.

This is what I had written on March 31:

If Karen Ryan belonged to a real profession, responsible members of that fraternity would denounce her fakery, and renounce the practice of sticking simulated reporters into video clips so as to maximize the illusion of independent journalism and serious fact-finding. A real profession would be criticizing the government for abusing the practice of public relations, instead of letting the press do it all.

The letter of protest Denney mentioned was this from Peter Bhattia, executive editor of the Oregonian and president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, who wrote to HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson: “Certainly, material distributed to television stations that doesn’t identify the government as the source and ends with a voice-over such as ‘In Washington, I’m Karen Ryan reporting’ is outside the bounds of ethical behavior for HHS or any other government agency.” (Scott Bosley, executive director of the ASNE, told me today that the group never got a repy from Secretary Thompson.)

On April 2, Catherine Bolton told Denny that the Society had been discussing the Ryan matter, and she would forward his note to the Advocacy Committee. The next week, I contacted Bolton and other PRSA officers to find out if any action had been taken, but not until today did I hear back about it. (Cedric L. Bess, the PR person for PRSA. “In response to your recent inquiry, the following is PRSA’s statement on video new releases.”) Here’s the statement in full, after which I have some comments:

Statement of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) on Video News Releases (VNRs), April 20, 2004

Extensive discussion was focused in recent weeks on a Video News Release (VNR) produced by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) pertaining to the recently enacted Medicare drug bill. Content of the video release touched off partisan debate and discussion but also raised ethical questions about the use of VNRs. Because VNRs are a basic public relations tool used by corporations, organizations and other entities to provide news content to television stations and thus communicate with the public, PRSA believes that it is important for there to be a better understanding of the role and usage of VNRs.

Three principles are at work here:

Background: The VNR is the video equivalent of a press release, a written document sent to the media. The VNR is designed specifically for TV stations and consists of many elements including a complete story with visuals and narration/voiceovers, a suggested written script, added video that can be used by the station and suggested ways the story can be localized. Public relations professionals have produced VNRs in this manner for more than 25 years, and media outlets have used them on a regular basis.

Issue in Question: One of the issues raised about the DHHS VNR was the inclusion of a sign-off identification at the completion of the story that uses the words “reporting.” This has caused some confusion among people who question whether someone who is not actually a reporter should be identified in a manner that could suggest that he or she is a journalist. While this is often done when VNRs are produced, we agree that this can be considered confusing and/or misleading.

PRSA Position:

PRSA supports use of VNRs as useful public relations tools. They will continue to be effective when adhering to the highest standards of practice as described above.

My comments: This is wise action from the PRSA, a responsible thing to do. As the statement noted, use of the term “reporting”—when there is no reporting, just a script being read—is a fairly common practice in Video News Releases. We will have to see if it actually ends. I doubt the PRSA would have taken action if the American Society of Newspaper Editors had not done so earlier. Which shows why it’s important to protest, even when your profession (newpaper editing) is not directly involved.

Also of potential significance is this sentence: “Use of VNRs or footage provided by sources other than the station or network should be identified as to source by the media outlet when it is aired.” That’s not a new principle, but it means that any footage from a VNR that appears on the news without the source being identified to viewers is a problem— officially, as it were. It’s not enough, according to the statement, that broadcasters be notified— which was the heart of Karen Ryan’s defense (“It’s clearly labeled, so broadcaster beware.”) The public has to know too.

The significance of these statements is not that they transform a dubious practice. I wouldn’t expect that from a simple declaration by PRSA. But the statement does tell us where professional flacks see the line of legitimacy being drawn today. The limits of the fake, let’s call it. What they are saying in today’s statement is that those limits have changed— a little.

The PRSA used to say nothing about “someone who is not actually a reporter” posing as such, vocally. (To me a bizarre practice.) Now it says the tactic is dubious, though common. The Society, like most groups of its kind, has no power to ban. But it does, in a way, stop the next Karen Ryan from confidently stating, “I did nothing wrong. Nothing.”

I e-mailed Ken Denney, a proud flack who sent the original quest for action, to ask what he thinks. “Although I am not a member of the PRSA, it does not surprise me,” he said. Denney wholly welcomed the statement, then spoke directly to journalists:

PR professionals and journalists are bound together, forever. We cannot do our jobs without you and you cannot do your job without us. I, think, however, that in the press of daily business there is a tendency by both professions to become lazy, in a sense. Slick, packaged VNRs did not appear overnight, they are an evolutionary phenomenon that arose from the primordial ooze of the 24/7 news cycle. PR people cannot be faulted for supplying TV stations with something designed to make their jobs easier; TV stations cannot be blamed for taking advantage of such a resource… I will agree that PR agencies shouldn’t so package a VNR that it is indistinguishable from news if you will agree that reporters, like the White House press corps, should get out of the briefing room more often.

Meanwhile, Alice Marshall, who writes the technoflak weblog, had an odd response after I e-mailed her: “I am very pleased that PRSA has responded so swiftly, she said. “A excellent example of getting ahead of a controversy and taking the wind out of your critics’ sails.”

Alice, grab a calendar. The New York Times wrote about Ryan March 15. That’s a national black eye for PR suffered 36 days ago. Campaign Desk lit into her that week and the next. The ASNE, a comparable organization, sent its letter of protest on March 18. Ryan published her manifesto for fakery (I did nothing wrong!) on March 29. On March 31, CNN made changes in the way it handles VNR’s. On April 2 PRSA was asked for a statement. On April 20, they release it and they’re ahead of their critics?

I wrote about Karen Ryan because the normalization of fakery bothers and mystifies me. Not why it happens, we all know why. We’re quite savvy about that. But we don’t think very much about rolling back this trend— in, say, newsrooms and those who pressure newsrooms. Ken Denney is right in calling the VNR’s fraudulent features an “evolutionary phenomenon,” a slow drift toward the fake by broadcast journalists and flacks. (Yes, both are responsible.) Now someone had this creep arrested.

But does it mean anything in the long run? That’s why the gods of truth added a comments feature to weblogs. Is PRSA’s action meaningless symbolism? I don’t think so. But I bet some of you do.

Campaign Desk, weblog of the Columbia Journalism Review, did much of the original work on this story. See its coverage here and here, then here . (And here on the PRSA statement.)

Here’s an excellent background article on Video News Releases by Daniel Price at Abused by the News: “The VNR is such a stealthy invention that nobody seems to know who invented it. In the 1980s, when many local newscasts were being expanded from a half-hour to one hour, producers suddenly had twice the airtime to fill and half the resources to fill it. Meanwhile, our nation’s top marketing mavens were having an increasingly tough time pitching woo to an ad-saturated public. They needed a new venue, one with an established audience and built-in credibility.”

Techdirt comments on Karen Ryan (April 21): “What’s becoming clear is that, perhaps, no one is the traditional ‘objective’ journalist - but that anyone who takes on the role of a journalist should be prepared to have their stories looked at with much more scrutiny by a crowd of people who have their own voice as well.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at April 20, 2004 11:39 AM