Many of my friends and colleagues had been itching to view the docu-comedy Babylon that aired recently on Channel Four. One standout story in the programme was the portrayal of officers being filmed by a documentary crew.
I admit that I sat cringing at the representation. One officer kept hamming it up to the camera, while others were trying to do the job unaffected by the media intrusion. Back in the office, the comms team was considering whether a separate dog-related documentary should include footage of officers swearing. Fact or fiction? Can documentaries really represent what goes on in an organisation? And what is the role for the comms team?
At Greater Manchester Police, we receive about five requests each day to take part in documentaries. These range from showing specific departments, through to the life of a new recruit and a regular stream of requests to work with police dogs and horses. Most haven’t been commissioned and will never see the light of day. A few do, both with and without our help.
Working with film crews can have a positive impact. Last year, TV programme The Unspeakable Crime showed the support provided to victims of rape. Hopefully, it encouraged people to seek help. But for every good documentary, there is one that can leave a nasty taste. If anyone remembers seeing the documentary about Harpurhey, an area of Manchester, on BBC Three, they may be unaware of the tension it created within the community.
Committing to take part in a documentary is committing resources and time. The key for Greater Manchester Police’s participation is that the programme will support its objectives. It is also important to reach the required target audience. Finally, it needs to bring a return on investment for us. There needs to be a significant benefit if a crew is being brought in for several months. If the benefits aren’t clear, we may not progress.
Policing is a high-interest subject, but we don’t want to be all over the TV. If we have a crew in looking at a specific subject, then we don’t allow any others in.
Every day people are taking footage of events to post on social networks. Cameras are all around us and smartphones are never far away.
Concerns about letting fly-on-the-wall documentary crews loose in an organisation have disappeared. Comms teams would once have been trying to manage crews, review the footage and ensure the organisation was portrayed in the best way. Now, whether the member of staff has been filmed swearing by a documentary crew or a member of the public, it is understood that it is going to be shared.
Whoever you are and wherever you work, you could be on camera. As comms professionals, we need to push to ensure people are treated in the right way, and organisations behave in a reasonable way.
Amanda Coleman is corporate comms director at Greater Manchester Police