Nutopia's Jane Root on playing digital catch-up

The founder and chief executive of TV production firm Nutopia believes the UK is lagging behind the US when it comes to digital comms

Jane Root: "I think the US has become much more profoundly digital - it’s often a few stages ahead."
Jane Root: "I think the US has become much more profoundly digital - it’s often a few stages ahead."

Jane Root’s TV production company Nutopia scored a worldwide coup in its first major commission, America: The Story of Us, by convincing Barack Obama to introduce the series. Although the PR for the show was handled by its broadcaster, The History Channel, not many emerging production companies could lay claim to getting the US President involved in a PR plug for its debut show.

Among media insiders, Jane Root’s reputation in the TV industry is prolific. After joining BBC Two in 1999 as the first female controller at the institution, she went on to become president of Discovery in the US, before setting up her own independent television production company, Nutopia.

A Google search on Nutopia brings up two Wikipedia results. Firstly, John Lennon’s conceptual country of Nutopia, dreamt up after he was refused a Green Card, and secondly, Jane Root’s television production company. Root says the reference is entirely coincidental, but she is happy to play up the story. Still, she insists the made-up name was strategic and important from a comms perspective, if only in a practical sense. "I knew I had to find a word that no one else could copyright, and since we wanted to be a global company, the name was important," says Root.

The company employs 25-full time staff plus freelancers, including TV and film PR Geraldine Jeffers. Jeffers is responsible for external comms, including announcing programme commissions as well as handling Root’s activity at industry events. She also advises on PR activity around the company’s programmes, particularly those with a UK transmission.

With offices in London and Washington DC, Root says the most difficult part of internal comms is working across time zones: "I spend my life on the phone and Skype, but you have to work at it." And when it comes to external comms, does the company approach things differently across the pond? Root says the US is ahead of the game: "I think the US has become much more profoundly digital - it’s often the case that it’s a few stages ahead."

Root admits TV people are not necessarily digitally savvy when it comes to comms. Working on a recent project for BBC Two and PBS, Root says she realised how important Facebook and Twitter are: "As a company it’s made us realise we have to be much smarter at social media. TV people aren’t always as clued into that stuff as they should be."

For a lot of Nutopia’s projects, the broadcasters bring in a PR agency, but Root believes it is important for the company to be involved in the comms process too: "There’s sometimes a sense that you’re a television production company, that’s what you do and the broadcasters do the communications. I’ve always believed that you have to be a voice in the communications."

For Root, who co-founded independent production company Wall to Wall in 1987, running her own company is not new territory, but she continues to learn about comms. Her most recent foray on to new ground was working with American-based religious PR company Grace Hill. The agency, which Root describes as "the most interesting PR story I’ve found for a long time", was brought in by CNN for one of Nutopia’s latest projects, Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, Forgery, a programme about finding historical artefacts associated with Jesus.

Root says Grace Hill targets what it calls faith-based communities, playing "offence and defence" on films such as The Blind Side and The Da Vinci Code. For Root, finding ways to target specific audiences in this way is the essence of PR: "Grace Hill has a real level of expertise that is very different from what we have. Working with it has been a really different model for me of how you work with a PR company."

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