Courier Newsroom YouTube video on TV channels broadcasting an Amazon video press release.
For A&W’s 100th anniversary last summer, the hamburger chain released a B-roll video of old commercials and black and white billboard footage, as well as a suggested script for TV channels.
“100 YEARS AGO THIS WEEK – JUNE 20, TO BE ACCURATE – THE FIRST FRANCHISED RESTAURANT CHAIN OF AMERICA IS BORN”, script reading.
In 2017, Southern California Edison, an electricity company, provision similar pre-published segments for radio and television, as well as a suggested scenario on how the city of Ontario worked with the company to set up charging stations for electric vehicles.
This packaged news might look like nighttime television news to an inexperienced eye. But they are a form of public relations, called “video press releases,” and have been around for decades.
This week’s practice attracted a lot of attention when the Courier Newsroom, which was founded by a liberal political group Acronym, compiled images local TV programs airing a segment produced by Amazon touting its efforts to protect warehouse workers from coronavirus. (One of the stations that manages the segment is owned by NBCUniversal, the parent company of CNBC.) The testimonials included in the package differ significantly from the conditions described by some Amazon warehouse workers during the pandemic.
Critics have criticized Amazon for distributing the materials and the broadcasters for distributing them. An Amazon spokesperson said that this type of video press release was not new and that it was transparent that the material came from the company. A spokesperson for the company said he welcomed journalists to his building and that the video was intended for journalists who could not visit its sites themselves.
“We have included some short extracts from a video provided by Amazon as part of our regular and ongoing reporting on the conditions of Amazon workers in distribution centers in our market,” spokeswoman for WTVJ, a radio station. NBC-owned television operated by NBC in Miami, CNBC said in a statement. “We regret not having assigned the source as clearly as we could have. Our station will continue to report this important issue in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, including giving Amazon workers the opportunity to tell their version of the story.”
The other stations did not return requests for comment.
CNBC spoke with experts, researchers, and leaders of journalism organizations about the history of video press releases, their use, and their difficult history with the FCC.
It started in the 1950s with government reports
Larry Moskowitz, who once ran a public company called Medialink, focused on video press releases, said that the sending of video material to television stations had started in the 1950s, when government entities provided videos on subjects such as new agricultural techniques.
Hollywood studios later sent movie trailers to TV stations, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission used them to send visual information about product recalls, such as defective strollers or potentially dangerous toys.
In 1997 Medialink flyer mentions a Pepsi-sponsored broadcast campaign to counter rumors of syringes found in soft drink cans.
“Pepsi produced four VNRs (video reports) that aired in a week and countered rumors by showing the public that it was difficult to tamper with the canning process,” said the document. “The company’s electronic surveillance has indicated a cumulative audience of 488 million over the one-week period, including broadcasts on ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and CNBC.”
Moskowitz said companies have finally started sending out packages of documents to help journalists better explain a product or who it was for. But they expected the media to use the material “responsibly” to make sure the story was balanced.
However, news stations do not always hold this end of the market.
The administration of George W. Bush used video press releases to tout initiatives in the area of air security or the country’s invasion of Iraq, the New York Times reported in 2005. The news appeared to be news and many stations were broadcasting it without any indication that it was from the government.
FCC later in 2005 posted a public notice that these stations and cable companies must disclose the “nature, source and sponsorship” of the material and that failure to comply with this requirement could result in fines, revocation of the license or even imprisonment. In 2011, for example, the FCC said he would fine two licensees for failing to disclose the required information.
The FCC did not return a request for comment on whether it had received complaints about the news stations broadcasting the Amazon video press release.
Blame the stations
Candace White, a professor at the University of Tennessee’s School of Advertising and Public Relations, said it was up to news stations to disclose when they broadcast prepackaged material.
“The news manager knows 100% of the time … there’s no question they know where it came from,” she said. “If a news station decides to broadcast it, it can modify it, refute it, make it work in its entirety, it can broadcast a song, it can B-roll and voice. If someone is dupe, this is the television station dupes viewers. “
She said viewers can look for clues that they are watching a prepackaged report. Watch for experts who appear to be from outside the community and for ambient videos which do not include road signs, license plates or other identifiers.
But she said that this particular release seemed normal to her.
“Amazon clarified what it was,” she said. “You are choosing something current; you are obviously trying to put your business in a positive light,” she said.
White acknowledged that the practice has become more common due to changes in the industry. The increase in 24-hour news stations and the increase in local news slots from a few minutes to a few hours have created more airtime for busy programmers. Satellite technology has enabled businesses and government agencies to quickly send packages by air, rather than sending video recordings by mail.
Dan Shelley, Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer of the Radio Television Digital News Association, said the temptation to broadcast prepackaged material could be stronger in smaller media markets with fewer resources – especially on weekends vacation. He suspects that this is why some of the stations have chosen to broadcast the press release.
But Shelley stressed the code of ethics, which encourages stations to be completely transparent about the source of the video or any information they report. He said they should also independently verify the information in the submitted video or audio.
“It is not uncommon for television and radio stations to broadcast them from time to time when they meet their editorial requirements and needs,” he said. The video submitted can come from anywhere, including local health departments or even NASA live streams.
The Public Relations Society of America code of ethics its professionals are also encouraged to be honest and precise in communications.
Al tomkins, a higher faculty for dissemination and online at the Poynter Institute which wrote on the subject Earlier this week, CNBC said it had been years since it heard of presenters using full VNR where storytelling was actually provided – a practice it said was much more common. He said he was not blaming Amazon for sending it.
“It is a mystery to me why it happened across the country, through the owners. I still do not understand why it happened,” he said.
He said that with the audience that watched the media so much, consumers want to know that what they are seeing is the real deal. He emphasized the old adage. “Don’t give someone the gun to shoot you,” saying that is what happened here.
“When we do things like that, the public assumes that there was a bad intention,” he said. “The public already believes that we are for sale. This only gives them more reason to believe it.”
But Lisa Graves, progressive activist and chair of the board of directors for the Center for Media and Democracy, said that Amazon should stick to advertising. His group heads PR Watch, which has long documented the practice and publication of video press releases in newsrooms.
“It is understandable that Amazon wants to tout its efforts in this pandemic, but it should do so through its advertising budget as advertising, or through substantial donations to help the public given the profitability of the business and the exponential wealth of his head Jeff Bezos is today a year ago, “she said.
“It is also true that broadcasters have an obligation, a legal obligation and a moral obligation, not to broadcast prepackaged video press releases that promote corporate products without them disclosing them as they are are, “she said.