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«13TH INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC RELATIONS RESEARCH CONFERENCE “Ethical Issues for Public Relations Practice in a Multicultural World” Holiday Inn ...»

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Communicators should understand the whole business environment, not just media and communication. Operational experience across the whole of a business, not just the communication areas, is needed in order that senior communicators can represent the organisation externally with authority. They must “speak language of the business” with fellow senior managers.

Training and Education – The key investment subjects for senior communicators are business strategy, financial literacy, economics, public affairs and public diplomacy, and relationship management. These can be delivered through training programmes or via executive programmes in universities. There also needs to be a “stronger focus on research skills” and more training on market and business analysis methods such as PEST and qualitative data interpretation.

Proof of Performance: The ability to interpret and apply the most appropriate research methods is more important than technical measurement skills, which can be undertaken by middle or junior communicators or external suppliers. Evaluation frameworks, said the respondents, need to be developed for judgement on organisational impact, not clip measurement. With these more powerful, interpretive methods, communication planning skills will improve and offer more effective implementation of communication that is fully integrated with business strategy.


This report opened with Sanchez’s recipe for the future corporate communicator as “an adroit strategist, a creative technician and a skilled facilitator – a friend of technology and an exponent of life-long learning”. This study agrees with most of these characteristics, with the exception of the senior communicator as a “creative technician” which is a role that others will undertake by 2015 as the future communicator will have more focus on relationship development, reputation management and the integration of communication strategy within the broader business strategy. It is an exciting and challenging future and one that corporate communicators have to drive forward themselves.


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Arthur W. Page Society (2007). The Authentic Enterprise Report. New York: Arthur W Page Society Bronn, P.S. (2001). Communication managers as strategists? Can they make the grade?

Journal of Communication Management, 5(4), 313-326 Clausen, L. (2007). Corporate communication challenges: A ‘negotiated’ culture perspective. International Journal of Cross Cultural Management, 7(3), 317-332 Dozier, D., & Broom, G.M. (1995). Evolution of the manager role in public relations practice. Journal of Public Relations Research, 7(1), 3-26 Eyrich, N., Padman, M.L., & Sweetser, K.D. (2008). PR practitioners’ use of social media tools and communication technology. Public Relations Review, 34, 412-414 Friedman, T.L. (2005). The world is flat. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux Gregory, A. (2008). Competencies of senior communication practitioners in the UK: An initial study. Public Relations Review, 34, 215-223 Hogg, G., & Doolan, D. (1999). Playing the part: Practitioner roles in public relations.

European Journal of Marketing, 33(5/6), 597-611 McDermott, R., & O’Dell, C. (2001). Overcoming cultural barriers to sharing knowledge.

Journal of Knowledge Management, 5(1), 76-85 Mintzberg, H. (2009). Rebuilding companies as communities. Harvard Business Review, July-August, 140-43 Moss, D.A., Newman, A., & DeSanto, B. (2005). What do communication managers do?

Refining and refining the core elements of management in a public relations/communications context. Journalism and Mass Communications Quarterly, 82, 873-890 Murray, K., & White, J. (2005). CEOs’ views on reputation management. Journal of Communication Management, 9(4), 348-358 Pollach, I. (2003). Communicating corporate ethics on the world wide web: A discourse analysis of selected company web sites. Business & Society, 42 (2), 277-287 Sanchez, P. M. (2005). What color is your future? Communication World, May-June, s10-s11

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* The research is being made possible by a grant from the Coca Cola Company to the Institute for Public Relations.

Dr Tom Watson is Deputy Dean of the Media School at Bournemouth University in England. A former consultancy MD and chair of the UK’s Public Relations Consultants Association from 2000 to 2002, Tom is a member of the Commission on the Measurement & Evaluation of Public Relations.

Contacts: twatson@bournemouth.ac.uk; Tel: +44 1202 961986 Dr Chindu Sreedharan is a Lecturer in Journalism at the Media School at Bournemouth University.

Lauren Edwards, a final year BA (Hons) Public Relations student at Bournemouth University, undertook data entry of the survey responses for the project.

898 The Role of Activists in the Ethical Debate about VNRs: Policy and Regulation

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Contact Information:

476 Communications Building Knoxville, TN 37996 865 974-5112 white@utk.edu

Key Words:

activist organizations; activism, ethical public relations; video news releases; FCC sponsorship policy


The purpose of the study is two-fold. It reviews the ethical arguments about video news releases (VNRs) and the current status of FCC policy, and looks at the activist efforts of the Center for Media and Democracy to change FCC policy. The FCC rules about VNR use are clear: stations are not obligated to identify the source if there are no sponsorship issues (payment for placement) unless VNRs concern political or controversial issues. The basic argument is whether source identification of VNR material should be self-regulated by journalists or regulated by the government. The study used an activist-centric approach to examine the role of activism in the debate by assessing the efficacy of strategies used by CMD. The study found that the strategies of CMD served a problem recognition function and had an agenda-setting effect, resulting in news coverage and success in instigating an FCC investigation of VNR use, but were not successful in the attempt to change policy. For future theory building, communication strategies of activism, rather than of activists, should be the unit of analysis.



Despite the mutual benefits of video news releases (VNRs) to both the corporations that produce them and the television stations that air them, and despite the clarity of the policies of the FCC and professional associations, VNRs remain at the center of ethical controversy. In recent years, the controversy has been fueled by the activist group, the Center for Media and Democracy (CDM), which considers all video news releases to be “fake news” and calls for increased FCC regulation of their use.

The purpose of the study is two-fold. First, it reviews the recent ethical arguments about video news releases and the current status of FCC policy. Second, it looks at the activist efforts of the Center for Media and Democracy to change FCC policy, and examines the role of activism in the ethical debate. The study investigates the efficacy of strategies used by CMD by examining discourse and calls for action on its Web site, responses by other organizations, and resulting FCC actions. Rather than viewing activism from the perspective of the organization or industry being acted on (the FCC as an organization and public relations as an industry) or viewing activism as negative or dangerous, the current study attempts to objectively understand activists’ strategies and their effectiveness, which is important for relevant theory building.

The Ethics of Video News Releases Video news releases are an important public relations tactic for private, nonprofits and governmental organizations. The widespread use of VNR material is an effect of free markets.

Television stations are increasingly owned by media conglomerates that, like all corporations, are expected to make a profit. News room budgets are shrinking and news holes are large; most stations are increasing their hours of local news coverage while decreasing the number of reporters. Consequently, local news could not exist without third-party material (RTNDA, 2006).

VNRs, which are electronic versions of written press releases, are third-party source materials that provide television journalists with story ideas, expert testimony, images, and background information at no cost to the stations. They often contain video footage which could not otherwise be obtained (Harmon & White, 2001). VNRs are used if and when they are deemed credible and newsworthy by television news directors. Journalists use VNRs for the same reason they use press releases – they contain news that may be of interest to their viewers (Stoker, 2005).

VNRs often are packaged with extra video, sound bites, split audio and mixed versions (B-roll), and scripts to facilitate editing. There is no expressed or implied agreement regarding their use, no payment for use is expected from either party, and broadcast journalists are under no obligation to use them. Few stations use VNRs in their entirety as produced by the client, but rather select segments from the video feed. Academic studies have found that when VNRS are used, they are heavily edited with most of the footage used coming from the B-roll (Blount & Cameron, 1996; Harmon & White, 2001). The most common use by local television stations is as a voice-over story on the evening news (Harmon & White, 2001).

Despite their utility, the controversy surrounding the use of VNRs has not subsided since TV Guide published its notorious article, “Fake News,” on Feb. 22, 1992 that called for continuous on-air graphics to label the VNR as such. The article contended viewers are led to believe that stories from VNR materials originated with the journalists presenting them, and therefore are fake news, even though they may contain factual and newsworthy information. The fake news cry was taken up by the Center for Media and Democracy (publishers of PR Watch), a special interest group that according to its website, “examines how PR experts concoct and spin 900 the news, organize front groups, manipulate public opinion and manage public policy for powerful special interests.” The CMD describes video news releases as “pre-packaged news” and contends that verbatim use of information from VNRs without identifying the source is plagiarism (John Stauber, executive director of CMD, quoted in Chepesiuk, 2006).

Ethical Issues Video news releases are not inherently unethical, but how they are used and the consequences of use have spurred ethical debate. The central concerns in the ethical debate about video news releases are the issues of transparency and disclosure. Transparency as an ethical construct includes not only what is said, but how it is said. It includes values such as accountability, credibility, trust, respect, honesty, and duty (Plaisance, 2007 cited in Aiello & Profitt, 2008). The question from this point of view is not whether VNRs contain accurate and newsworthy information, but whether journalists have an ethical obligation to viewers who “trust” television news and have a right to know the source of information. This argument includes concerns that it is deceptive on the part of journalists to present information from VNRs as original, as well as concerns that information provided by a public relations firm on behalf of clients and presented as news is also deceptive. At issue is not only the content of the VNR, but also the method by which the information is conveyed and whether or not viewers are intentionally deceived, either by VNR producers or by journalists (Aiello & Proffitt, 2007). The concept of trust, both between television journalists and television audiences and between publics and organizations, is at stake.

A second ethical concern about the use of VNRs is whether or not source disclosure affects viewers. There seems to be an assumption in the ethical debate that television viewers are harmed in some way when VNR material is used without disclosing the source (Calvert, 2008). The ethical question from this perspective is whether not disclosing the source affects the audience’s ability to reason. Several academic experiments have found that labeling has little effect on viewers; there was no significant effect on understanding, credibility, or visual recognition of the stories when they carried labels in an experimental setting (Reece and Cameron, 1992; Owen & Karrh, 1996). Tuggle & Ferguson (1994) conducted an experiment to see if the credibility of the news story, retention, and recall were affected by labeling. They found that labeling made no difference in perceived credibility nor held any advantage of for viewers. While viewers expect journalists to confirm the accuracy of the information, it is doubtful that viewers today, who are accustomed to seeing new stories containing video shot with personal video cameras by bystanders, believe or care that all news is entirely independently-produced.

A third ethical concern is the moral obligation of journalists to provide objective information. The use of VNRs without disclosure means that viewers may not be getting the objective information they expect (Linn, 1992). Lieberman (1992) contended that the use of VNRs without identification is a breach of covenant between news producers and audiences that assume the news will be independently gathered and produced, and it is the moral obligation of journalists not to promote the interests of governments, corporations, or special interest groups.

Aiello and Proffitt (2007) contend the role of the news media in a democracy is to inform the citizenry, which includes informing them about the source of information. However, Wyatt (2005) argues the important issue is not where news originates, but how it contributes to the public discourse. For example, recent VNRs distributed by Medialink Worldwide, Inc. included a product recall produced by a toy manufacturer in cooperation with the Consumer Products Safety Commission, information about the dangers of texting and driving produced by an 901 insurance company, and information about a new children’s fitness program at Boys & Girls Clubs. The news values, accuracy, and contribution to public discourse of the segments would not be changed by the origination point.

The Legalities of Video News Releases The two key legal issues in the VNR debate are the definition of sponsored content and the greater obligation of disclosure in connection with political or controversial program matter.

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