Doctor Who spins BBC comms into a new time frame

The discovery of long-lost episodes of Doctor Who dating from the 1960s in Nigeria gave the Beeb's comms team a PR headache, but it overcame social media criticism to secure blanket worldwide coverage.

Let me begin with a confession. I am a massive - and I mean geekingly huge - Doctor Who fan. Always have been.Nothing I can do about it.

I know how this goes down with your average punter, so it's not the kind of thing I normally advertise. I even kept it a secret from my then girlfriend (now wife) until she had agreed to marry me. In fact, I didn't tell her until the second year of our marriage.

Up to that point, she'd always thought that the stash of VHS videos in that manky box under the bed was of the blue variety, when in fact it was of the Who variety.

There you have it. I'm out and proud (and I look forward to the abuse in the office when this gets published).

So, you can imagine how close I was to bursting when rumours surfaced on Twitter six months ago that a haul of missing episodes from the 1960s had been found at a TV station in Africa. Missing episodes, you ask?

Let me explain ... 50 years of Who history in 50 words: The BBC wiped over 100 Who episodes from the 1960s. They haven't been seen since first transmission almost 50 years ago. Fortunately, some copies had been sold overseas. Fans have scoured the globe trying to find them. Last month, it was revealed two old stories had been found in Nigeria.

There you go. So, a massive deal for Doctor Who fans, and a massive deal for the BBC ... specifically BBC Worldwide, the organisation's commercial arm.

It should have been a wonderful, celebratory moment for the BBC. But it quickly became a social media nightmare as fans took to Twitter to abuse the Beeb, accusing it of mismanaging the whole affair, disrespecting the fans and generally giving it a damn good kicking. Unfairly, I must say.

From the consistent BBC denials (or LIES as incensed fans saw it) in the run-up to the announcement, to the charging of a tenner for an immediate iTunes download of a story that fans would have sold a kidney for a year before (what do i pay my licence fee for, blah, blah, blah).

The BBC simply couldn't win. But ultimately, it did.

Reputationally, it may have taken a bashing from diehard fans, but commercially the PR team delivered, with the two stories - The Web of Fear and Enemy of the World - making it to number one in the iTunes TV chart, beating Homeland and other modern established blockbusters.

How did the BBC Worldwide team do it? Either by paralysis or design, it broke all the rules of 21st-century PR.

In the six months preceding the official announcement, Twitter, Facebook, forums and search engines were abuzz with rumours of the find. For many, it was one of the worst kept secrets in TV (alongside the one about Chris Tarrant and that spoon).

But the BBC refused to engage, refused to converse and only responded to official and traditional media enquiries with what now appears to have been known falsehoods.

Why? Well, firstly, the fans' excitement appears to have put the entire recovery of the episodes in jeopardy. The tense negotiations for the return of the stories from Nigeria were made harder, tenser and no doubt pricier, with the relentless quest for the truth being played out hourly on social networks.

But, more importantly, BBC Worldwide kept its eye on the prize. It knew it was infuriating a cynical and already negative fan-base by refusing to engage, but the brief was surely to balance the reputational issues while maximising the opportunity for sales... something that would have been critical to the deal negotiations themselves (mythical 50-year-old long-lost film reels recovered from African TV stations don't come cheap you know).

And, ultimately, didn't it do well.

Blanket coverage in every paper, around-the-clock reports on TV and radio, and ultimately fan elation on the web and across social media (though it didn't quite extend to totally enraptured Beeb-love).

Conjuring up worldwide media interest and delivering first-day digital sales that top the charts?

Not bad for a PR team looking after a 50-year-old show about an old man travelling through space in a blue police box.

Stuart Jackson is the former Communications Director of Orange and EE. He now runs the company's CEO office. He tweets @flackhackjack

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