Just the other day, the New York Times ran a story by Anne Kornblut saying that David M. Walker, Chief of the Government Accountability Office (GAO), issued a widespread warning that Federal Agencies may not produce newscasts promoting administration policies without clearly stating that the government paid for the program. The government is doing something about it, and now it is time for corporate America to say, “No!” to sponsoring phony TV news broadcasts.
“Prepackaged news stories," Walker explained, "can be utilized without violating the law, so long as there is clear disclosure to the television viewing audience that this material was prepared by or in cooperation with the government department or agency."
Bravo, Mr. Walker for letting Americans know that twice in the last two years, agencies of the federal government have been caught distributing prepackaged television programs that used paid spokesmen acting as newscasters and, in violation of federal law, failed to disclose the administration's role in developing and financing them. What this means is that Federal Agencies produced a TV show that looked like a news program but was actually a pre-paid video news release that was distributed to stations across the country. The two cases referred to by the GAO concerned the new Medicare law and an anti-drug campaign by the Bush administration. Now who is going to police Corporate America?
More and more, PR agencies and the clients themselves are looking for a quick fix to their publicity programs by paying anywhere from $25,000 to $150,000 to be a part of a phony TV newscast or a bogus TV feature that will provide significant exposure to their products or services. These productions are not done by legit editorial people who get paid by the networks to have unbiased opinions but rather by video production houses that know how to mimic the real thing. Many times the video production studios will even hire the likes of Morley Safer or Michael Douglas to act as hosts of their shows... I often wonder if these notables realize that appearing in one of these fake programs could mean the kiss of death to their careers.
These practices have been around for years and the phone calls from the 561 area code -- where a lot of these corporate video production companies reside -- seem to be creeping up more and more. Every day I get a call from a 561 area code video production company telling me that one of my clients is being considered for a feature story on hot new products for a holiday gift-giving segments. I get a good laugh when they twist the words about being considered. Instead of just coming right out and saying that for X amount of money the product will get top billing, the production houses pretend that there is an editorial consideration.
Boy, are they slick. Their pitch almost sounds like the real thing. Very tempting. But this old war horse has seen it all and pre-paid programs are no substitution for the real thing. Shame on PR agencies who try to pass this off to clients as true editorial placements, and shame on corporations who are so desperate for editorial coverage that they will pay their way to try to fool the American public.
I am happy to report that the American viewing public gets the last laugh. Most of the pre-paid TV news and feature stories never see prime time no matter how much the video production companies swear they have major viewing audiences. Most of their programs run in the middle of the night, in cities no one has ever heard of -- or in a lot of cases they do not run at all. There is a happy side to this that could satisfy their egos: Sad sack corporations or desperate PR agencies can pretend that they received quality coverage because they are furnished with DVDs of the program, which they can show to shareholders and/or clients. All they have to say is, “Here is a copy of that program that I told you we were featured on.”
Spread the word: “It is not real!”