Fake news is bad news for PR biz

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The Government Accountability Office says the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (through Omnicom PR agency Fleishman-Hillard) and the Department of Health and Human Services (through Omnicom's Ketchum) violated federal law with video news releases masquerading as news. Marketers have no such legal prohibition, but that right doesn't make this practice right. VNRs that fake the news deceive consumers. The PR industry must end this dishonest communication.

It's fine to release video-say, a Super Bowl commercial and B-roll on the making of the spot-that TV stations incorporate into a news story. But then there's the inexcusable ethical collapse, disclosed this month, in which the Department of Education and Ketchum paid commentator Armstrong Williams $240,000 to talk up the No Child Left Behind Act.

With VNRs, the problem arises when a company or organization, guided by misguided PR agents, goes the next step: sending stations a ready-to-run story with fake reporter and no disclosure to viewers of who produced the piece.

That's where the drug office and HHS violated the rules. In a report this month, the GAO said the drug office's prepackaged news stories reached more than 22 million homes on nearly 300 TV stations and amounted to "covert propaganda." HHS says 40 stations in 33 markets aired at least some portion of its VNRs promoting Medicare's new drug benefits in early 2004-helpful for the president in an election year.

Local TV stations are culpable when they air VNRs with no filter. But the fault starts with PR firms and clients. There is a high potential cost: loss of credibility and trust.

The GAO shined the light on the government's deceptive VNRs. It's time for marketers to do the same and for PR firms to be honest about what's going on here. If there is any chance consumers will be misled by a VNR, there is only one right answer: Kill the VNR.

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