In this installment of our new interview series, Lisa Chen talks to Fenton’s Executive Producer Victor Neufeld about what social impact organizations can do to land broadcast coverage. A veteran broadcast storyteller, Neufeld won dozens of industry awards driving production for shows like 20/20, Paula Zahn Tonight and The Early Show before coming to Fenton to head up our studios division. In other words, this guy knows his stuff.
What are the big changes you’ve seen in broadcast news in recent years that cause organizations should be aware of?
Most of Fenton’s clients are in the business of doing social good and making social change. They have amazing stories to tell of aspiration and inspiration—of individuals as well as social movements. These stories will always be natural points of interest for TV news professionals.
What has changed is that news outlets have fewer funds to do longer, in-depth pieces. That’s because the journalistic world has been hit financially, and, as a result, splintered more outlets, which in turn has dispersed advertising money.
Okay, that’s the bad news. What’s the good news?
One outcome of budget tightening—as well as a shift in consumer taste—is the rise in ‘talk’ or commentary programming. The evolution of MSNBC is one case in point. The weekend morning shows with Chris Hayes and Melissa Harris-Perry are great opportunities for progressive leaders—especially if they are dynamic and charismatic. These are skills that can be trained for. Stories still have an important role here—they just need to be told by your dynamic and charismatic leader. Weaving in anecdotes can also be learned. We do this all the time for our clients. The best way into these shows, of course, is to strike when the iron’s hot, by offering a strong point of view on news that is already happening and generating heat.
Another opportunity is CBS This Morning which is focused more on serious issues. This is departure from other TV morning shows which tend to focus more on lifestyle topics like fashion and cooking. This is very good news and a trend we should support with our viewership.
How important is it for a cause organization to produce their own video content?
We’re living in the era of the image right now. So having a YouTube channel or videos on your website signals that you are on top of this trend. But many nonprofits underestimate how important video can be as part of media pitch – especially for TV broadcast gatekeepers. It is extremely important when pitching yourself to a TV producer sitting in his office in New York City that you can say, “Go to our website and click on our video, and in two minutes, you can see what we are all about.”
Producers are harried; they would rather see a two minute video than read a press release. It also allows you speak in their language –image and video. It doesn’t mean they’ll use your footage, but a good video helps them ‘see’ the story. Short video of your CEO or ED giving a talk can also be critical for landing a commentary spot because it allows bookers to see what they’ll get.
Let’s say I’m ready to make a video on my issue. Any pointers? Common pitfalls to avoid?
You need to be aware that there is a common vocabulary in cause-driven videos that has become tired to the point of losing impact. So, to be blunt and at the risk of sounding insensitive, what you have to avoid is images of starving children with flies circling around them. That’s just one example of a larger phenomenon: too many nonprofits today are pushing messages and images that have stayed the same for 20 years. It’s time for an update. I’m not saying this is easy; it’s actually very hard. But we have to start with that mindset and strive for it.
Do you have advice for global cause organizations that are trying to attract U.S. broadcast attention?
Global stories can actually be easier to secure. That’s because the global audiences of media like Sky News, CNN International and BBC are much more erudite, so you can pitch more thoughtful pieces. But the same rules apply: be conscious of the viewers’ general short attention span, and make sure you story has the dramatic elements that will draw them in.
What sets a great video apart from a good one?
You don’t need the highest-end equipment to make an effective video. But you also shouldn’t be filming your CEO or ED on a flip cam. The most important thing to keep top-of-mind is that the audience for the video is not you. It is your audiences—potential donors, supporters, journalists—people you have to draw in. What sets a successful video apart from one that gets viewed only a handful of times is the strategy and creative that goes into establishing a strong narrative arch; smart editing that keeps the story moving and active; and charismatic spokespeople and evocative settings. These are the elements worth investing in.