Rx, Lies, and Videotape

Backlash from a government VNR provides lessons for pharma PR.
Jul 31, 2004

When the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) sent out a video news release (VNR) in January called "Government Answers Questions About New Medicare Law," the agency thrust that public relations tool into the spotlight.



The video, which aired on about 50 small- to mid-market stations, featured HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson and Leslie Norwalk of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services touting the benefits of the new Medicare discount cards. It was voiced by a woman who signed off, "In Washington, I'm Karen Ryan, reporting."

But then came the backlash. Ryan, a former TV news reporter and anchor and current president of the Karen Ryan Group, was vilified in some quarters as a shill for the Bush administration. As the story of "deception" gained momentum, several TV stations claimed they didn't know they were running a VNR. They thought it was "legitimate" news because they took it off of CNN's news feed service. (CNN declined to comment to Pharm Exec for this story.) HHS says, given the title, TV stations were aware of the material's origin and had the opportunity to edit it if they wished.

Eventually, the General Accounting Office ruled that the VNR was an illegal use of taxpayer funds for government propaganda. However, what's less certain is the controversy's effect on TV stations' appetite for pharma-funded VNRs.

Off the Record In response to questions about the HHS VNR, former colleagues and current video news release users act as if they have been asked about their sex lives or tax returns: "I can't comment about that, but maybe I can find you someone who can," says one high-powered news executive. "Can I do it off the record?" says another. "I'll talk to you, but don't use my name," says one anchor.

So, what's the big deal? "Everyone uses them, but no one wants to admit it. Otherwise, there wouldn't be so many companies putting them out," says Christina Summers, a colleague of mine at the Manhattan Bureau and one of the few people willing to comment on the record.

Few TV stations admit that they air VNRs word for word, but tracking reports indicate that the tactic is quite common. One medical news producer, who wishes to go unnamed, says, "We are very conscientious about what we put on the air. We don't use cut [pre-voiced] stories. And we don't retrack [replace the announcer's voice word for word] with our own reporter. We do our own research, but we are happy to look at VNRs and use the b-roll [secondary footage] when needed."

The controversy over the Medicare VNR ballooned in the face of online news sources pointing to specific stations that were "lazy enough to run parts of the segment as news," according to The Columbia Journalism Review's campaigndesk.org. Despite that, few industry observers think that will change stations' VNR pick-up practices.

"I think it's had no impact," says one New York anchor regarding the Medicare VNR. "Stations have more and more hours to fill and producers have less time to vet the stuff. That's the fact, that's the bottom line." He goes on to explain why some pharma VNRs do so well: "Medical stories are very teasable so you're going to be drawn to them."