Beth Andrix Monaghan
Beth Andrix Monaghan

This week, an Amazon VNR is being called propaganda. The segment about Amazon’s safety measures around COVID-19 was timed in advance of a shareholder meeting. It ran in almost identical stories across a number of local TV stations where it looked like original reporting because the newscasters ran the b-roll and read from Amazon’s script.

An excerpt from Amazon’s response: “This type of video was created to share an inside look into the health and safety measures we’ve rolled out in our buildings and was intended for reporters who for a variety of reasons weren’t able to come tour one of our sites themselves.”

Critics blasted the stations for not providing disclosures. There is finger-pointing at “young producers” who didn’t carefully vet the segment. But VNRs are easy fill-ins for strapped local news stations, especially now. Despite a climb in viewership since the outbreak of COVID-19, ad revenue for local TV stations has dried up. TEGNA, which operates 66 TV stations nationwide, recently announced furloughs and salary cuts—the first major station owner to do so.

The TV news industry has also been turned on its head with the inability to shoot in-person, in-studio or on-site. In a recent press panel hosted by InkHouse, NBC Bay Area anchor Scott McGrew talked about the new normal of remote interviews. He said that stations need video to accompany segments and increasingly have to rely on sources for footage.

The Amazon VNR entered a turbulent atmosphere in which the stakes for transparency have been raised. Alongside COVID-19, there are strong currents of trust erosion. Consumers aren’t sure which information to believe. They hear conflicting advice from supposed experts about the economy and their health. And they see the “fake news” accusations being thrown at the media. Local news has hung in there as the trusted source for most adults, but this could damage that too, which helps no one.

So how can PR professionals walk the line of providing useful materials while not being overly-promotional or compromising the integrity of news? Self-promotional video footage has a logical home: your website and social channels. I’ve been watching Amazon’s on its social channels and as an avid Prime member, I’m interested.

And of course, PR people are supposed to place good stories in the news. If we must do VNRs, we should clearly credit images, quotes, and video. Notably, in this case, Amazon’s video assets did not have an on-screen credit saying that they came from the company. By working collaboratively with a producer and asking what assets they need to help enhance a story, you not only avoid a situation where lack of communication could end up in an embarrassing situation for both parties, but you also build a working relationship that could lead to long-term access. And yes, this means we have to work a little harder on our individual media outreach. I think that’s the right way to do PR.

We also need to understand the media landscape without taking advantage of it. Be empathetic to the reporters, editors and producers we work with (many of whom, by the way, have been deemed essential workers), and recognize the challenges they are facing in the current environment. We can do this by offering relevant, authentic, compelling stories that resonate for the right reasons—it’s called “earned media” for a reason.

This atmosphere is asking us to reconsider some old PR tactics, which, candidly, should have been sidelined a long time ago for the very reasons we’re discussing now. We have to try harder than ever to be clear, transparent and non-promotional. We must remember our mission: to create authentic and loyal relationships with our audiences that are mutually beneficial. PR people have a responsibility to the truth.

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Beth Andrix Monaghan is the CEO and founder of InkHouse, an integrated PR firm with offices in Boston, New York, San Francisco and Seattle. Find her @bamonaghan on Twitter.