Saturday, March 26, 2011

Best laid plans

This date in 1997 will always remain with me.

Back in the days when Video New Releases were an accepted practice between public relations firms and television news departments, my agency had spent a good deal of a client's money preparing a VNR, contacting health reporters across the country, and getting "Dateline" halfway there for a story about a new, breakthrough medical device.

Dozens of local TV stations were ready to receive the VNR via satellite. It was cut to look like a TV newscast. All they had to do was put their own reporter or anchor in the lead-in, place their station logo on the bottom and, bam, instant health news sgement. News stations vetted our material, so all was on the up-and-up.

This was an "issue" campaign. Our client made a new device that doctors could wear during surgeries to alert them when their latex gloves began leaking, and they were now at risk of infection. The problem we highlighted were cases of doctors unknowingly passing Hepatitis C to patients during surgeries. We emphasized "today" in our piece, as to create a sense of urgency for the TV stations to run it.

So, as I woke on this day in 1997, I was ready to celebrate a major effort and call the Dateline producer one more time to finalize this story. We had also done an Audio News Release, so I had turned on my radio on the way to work to wait for our story.

Instead, all I heard was this "developing story." The bodies of 39 cult members were found in a home north of San Diego. The Heaven's Gate group had committed a mass suicide.

My heart sank.

This was our one shot. Instead of our VNR airing on more than 60 stations across the country, it was broadcast in about a dozen. Dateline disappeared. All because of a cult. As a health story, this was a piece that could easily be dismissed in favor of breaking news.

We laid low for a few days, then tried to convince stations our "infection issue" story was still important. But our "opportunity" had passed. The medical device never really took off with doctors or hospitals. We soon lost this client.

Today, packaged news is not allowed (due to a 2004 scandal involving VNRs and the federal government).

Today, I always warn clients that breaking news could get in the way of our story.

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