Rx, Lies, and Videotape

Pharmaceutical Executive

Pharmaceutical Executive, Pharmaceutical Executive-08-01-2004,

Backlash from a government VNR provides lessons for pharma PR.

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."

Full Disclosure

The HHS VNR serves as a case study for industry and highlights important issues for executives to consider when using the tool. The first is to underscore the media's responsibility in how they use information transmitted through VNRs. Lisa Kovitz, director of brand marketing at Burson-Marsteller, says, "What we do is provide the expertise of our spokesperson or the unique finding of a survey or special b-roll that they couldn't get themselves, and then it's up to the journalists to decide what to do with it."

ABC News' managing editor for medical coverage, Roger Sergel, says, "The responsibility here is upon news people to be sure that they understand what it is that they are bringing to the public and that they make efforts to ensure that the information is accurate and balanced."

However, Sergel uses the word "deceptive" several times to describe medical VNRs. He sees public relations firms and drug companies using that video as a tool to get to the local affiliates that are more likely to run the material without question.

Sergel's perception demonstrates how pharma-sponsored news feeds can backfire without complete transparency. "It's always very important when one is doing a VNR, press release, or setting up an interview to have full disclosure," says Novartis executive director of public relations Gina Moran.

Other media, such as CBS News—which has its own paid VNR feed—have institutionalized the full disclosure process regarding VNRs. The organization's spokesperson, Sandy Genelius, says that, even before the HHS incident, "CBS Newspath already had in place an extensive set of safeguards to ensure that VNR material was clearly marked, and it would be virtually impossible for Newspath clients to mistake it for anything else."

10 Tips for a Successful Pharma VNR

But if healthcare VNRs are so common and everyone claims to have a hard and fast policy about their use, why was the Medicare VNR such a big deal?

"Perhaps in the HHS incident, it may have had more to do with politics than the use of a VNR as a public relations tool," concludes Moran.

Ryan concurs: "The reason it got so much publicity is that it was political. I don't think it was so much that it was the VNR, it was the subject and the fact that it was an election year."

It's back to business as usual for the parties involved in the Medicare VNR. HHS still runs VNRs. Ryan admits only one concession: "I won't sign off 'reporting' anymore."

In an election year when the industry is a favorite punching bag, there are lessons to be learned. To be up front with TV journalists, ensure that editorial contact information is listed on the tape label and title slate in case reporters have questions. Watch networks' coverage of drugs. Is your VNR just as balanced? As clear and engaging? Would you be proud if the VNR's transcript was printed in the New York Times? If your answer is "no" to any of those questions, you might be heading for trouble.