Learn from the BBC's mistakes

A new American President offers a positive message of change, but in the UK the mood of this country is 'profoundly pessimistic', according to a prominent pollster.

This assertion is supported by survey data on the decline in confidence in public institutions. The public are concerned about their individual and collective futures, and this requires a different PR approach.

The end to the 'age of plenty' will require leadership and a seriousness in public debate that has perhaps been lacking in recent years. The PM has responded to this change, but other institutions have not caught on.

The BBC's handling of 'Manuelgate' should be studied by all who want to understand how this change impacts on institutions. At its heart this issue is a real debate over the practice of public broadcasting.

But the BBC's failings - believing that it could 'handle' the issue, thinking that two complaints didn't matter and waiting days to provide a robust response - were fundamental errors. Three lessons follow.

First, never take the public for granted. The BBC forgot that licence payers mattered until 30,000 complained.

Second, understand who you are and what you stand for. The broadcast comments could have been defended, or immediately censured, but waiting to see how many people complain, and then taking a view based on media pressure suggests both poor PR advice and terrible management. In a crisis a quick rebuttal or apology can save careers and reputations.

Third, do not underestimate the power of the Daily Mail to speak for Middle England. A similar row in The Guardian would not have had such an impact.

The BBC is much more than the sum of two comedians. It is a trusted national institution, but this episode has damaged its credibility.

The public mood has shifted, and so has the news agenda. People want to see that the Government is responding to concerns. Communicators at every level need to be acting as the conscience of their organisation and telling their CEOs that prudence in operation and practical help for the public in external comms must guide corporate policy.

Alex Aiken is director of comms at Westminster City Council.

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