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Video News Releases: The Ball's in the FCC's Court

Whither the fight against fake news?

In April, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) published a Public Notice on video news releases (VNRs), video segments designed to be indistinguishable from actual TV news reports. According to the FCC, current regulations mandate that viewers be told the source of a VNR only when stations are paid to air it, or when the VNR deals with a political matter or controversial issue. The Public Notice also asked for further information on the use of VNRs.

In response, nine comments were filed by the FCC's June 22 deadline. Two were filed by individuals supporting additional measures to ensure disclosure. Six were filed by VNR companies and associations of broadcasters and public relations practitioners. Not surprisingly, these argued against strengthening disclosure rules.

Mad Cow USA - The Cover-Up Begins to Unravel

The US government's elaborate cover-up of mad cow dangers in the United States has begun to unravel. Twenty-four hours after our successful protest (with Organic Consumers Association) of the US Department of Agriculture's mad cow dog-and-pony show in St. Paul, USDA Secretary Johanns was forced to admit that a cow tested last year and declared safe in fact DID have mad cow disease, or at least has tested positive on the definitive Western Blot test recently administered by USDA and considered the 'gold standard' for BSE testing.

I've often charged that the USDA is hiding US cases of mad cow by using the wrong testing procedures and by failing to conduct food safety tests on millions of animals and this announcement proves it. USDA finally used the correct test -- the Western Blot test -- on this suspect animal and it has proven to be a case of mad cow disease.

Crashing the USDA's Dog-and-Pony Show

The online free encyclopedia Wikipedia defines "dog-and-pony show" as a public "display that is somewhat pathetically contrived." That's what the new U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Mike Johanns, is convening this Thursday, June 9, in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Secretary Johanns will lead a roundtable discussion dominated by the most powerful agricultural lobby organizations in the United States to spread the good news that mad cow disease is no longer a problem in North America. The invited participants include the American Farm Bureau, the American Meat Institute, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the National Meat Association, the National Milk Producers and the National Renderers Association. Not a single consumer, human health or public interest group was invited to speak, nor were any scientists who research mad cow and related diseases, such as Nobel laureate Dr. Stanley Prusiner. The USDA hopes to convince the assembled news media that it's time to open the U.S. border to Canadian cattle and time for Japan and Korea to accept U.S. beef and cattle.

The Drug Industry Gets a Dose of The Blues

In the heart of Sydney's Ryde Valley - Australia's drug industry alley - fifty marketing managers and PR advisers from major drug companies, including Pfizer, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Novartis and GlaxoSmithKline, pondered the industry's poor public standing.

The drug industry representatives – used to hustling everything from drugs for guys struggling with their love life to cancer cures – were seriously depressed. "I am appalled by our reputation," Group Vice-President Far East Region for Schering Plough, Rod Unsworth, told a panel of industry heavy-hitters discussing "reputation management" at the third Australian Pharma Marketing Congress.

Unsworth, who describes himself as a "passionate" supporter of the industry, bluntly told the mid-May gathering that the drug industry in Australia was way behind even the tobacco industry in its efforts to rebuild its political stocks.

Unsworth warned the panel of the potentially fatal consequences of the Australian industry's defensive posture. "If we say we are going to just look after the opinion leaders and we don't give a damn about the public, we are dead. And if we let the debate be about price, we are dead," he said.

Pfizer's Fickle Philanthropy

In a series of announcements in the aftermath of the tsunami that swept that swept through East Asia and parts of Africa on December 26, 2004, Pfizer committed itself to contribute a total of $20 million in cash and $60 million worth of medicines. Pfizer's staff chipped in a further $2 million.

On its U.S. website, Pfizer listed its tsunami response as an example of its commitment to corporate social responsibility.

However, at a recent drug industry marketing conference in Sydney, Pfizer Australia's Manager of Government Affairs, David Miles, said that the company would have been better off being less generous. "We would be better off giving five million and shutting up," Miles said, only a little jokingly. "As soon as you get into big numbers people think you can double or triple it."

Nuclear Energy's Green Glow

"Several of the nation's most prominent environmentalists have gone public with the message that nuclear power, long taboo among environmental advocates, should be reconsidered as a remedy for global warming," the New York Times' Felicity Barringer reports. And while environmentalists who support nuclear power as a supposedly "emission-free" alternative to fossil fuels are not representative of the larger movement, the buzz about them is mushrooming. "Their numbers are still small, but they represent growing cracks in what had been a virtually solid wall of opposition to nuclear power among most mainstream environmental groups," writes the Times.

Edelman's Rescue Plan for the PR Industry

Over the last four months, Richard Edelman, the CEO, president and chair of the privately-owned PR firm Edelman, has been busy blogging away about how the public standing of the PR industry is in free-fall.

In a May 2nd post, he was incredulous that blogger David Weinberger - who has been a consultant to Edelman's firm - doesn't think that PR people have a role in the blogosphere, because they are, by their very nature, propagandists.

A few weeks back, Edelman blogged about spending a weekend smarting after CNN/US president Jon Klein referred to "sophisticated corporate PR departments, marketers and politicians" as "propagandists," during his speech to the National Association of Broadcasters.

While it might seem self-evident to most people that the PR industry is in the propaganda business, these incidents led an agitated Edelman to propose a five-point plan to rescue the PR industry’s tarnished credentials.

Why Armstrong Williams Wants Us To Forgive and Forget

There's an old PR trick that if bad news can't be suppressed, its release should be stalled until late on a Friday afternoon or just before a holiday break. It's a trick that served the U.S. Department of Education well when, late on Friday April 15, it released its Office of Inspector General's damning final report into the $240,000 Armstrong Williams contract to promote the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation.

The strategy behind the late Friday afternoon news dump is simple: most media outlets will be squeezed for space to cover a late-breaking story, looming deadlines will ensure harried journalists don't have time to get much further than the executive summary, and by the time Monday rolls around, it will be seen as stale news by editors with the attention span of a gnat.

Reading the 20-page report, which was prompted by Greg Toppo's exposé on the Williams contract in USA Today, it's easy to see why the Education Department wanted to bury it. The report chronicles the deception, bungling and mismanagement behind the Williams contract.


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