Channel 4 publicity chief: "We do not just light the touchpaper and stand back"

Love it or hate it, 'Benefits Street' provides opportunities to reinforce the channel's brand values.

Jane Fletcher: "We are glad this series has prompted a conversation."
Jane Fletcher: "We are glad this series has prompted a conversation."

It has been a busy start to 2014 as James Turner Street, better known as 'Benefits Street', has become one of the most notorious addresses in the UK.

Many brands might react to the tsunami of coverage the show has generated by holding their head in their hands, praying for the laser-like focus of the media to move on while wondering how to get the story under control.

But at Channel 4 we operate in a different way – and as all of us have big media stories to deal with it is worth taking time to consider what they say about the DNA of our organisations as we plan our responses to them.

Channel 4 was set up to experiment, provoke and entertain; to provide an alternative to the publicly funded BBC and commercially funded ITV. It is part of our remit to stimulate debate on a wide range of issues. So it is a key part of my job, and the work of my team, to encourage and facilitate debate around Channel 4 content in the media. 

Clearly, there has been plenty of debate when it comes to Benefits Street. It’s been discussed in Parliament, on the 'Today' programme, 'Newsnight' and pretty much every media outlet in between. The chances are that, whether you have watched the programme or not, you have an opinion on it or have had a conversation with someone about it.

So how do we approach content like this, which has the potential to both enhance and damage our reputation? Contrary to some preconceptions, we do not just light the touchpaper on provocative programming then stand back. 

In fact, due to the sensitive subject matter, we made the decision not to do extensive pre-publicity for 'Benefits Street'. Initially we wanted the audience to see the residents in the context of the programme rather than a newspaper article. We had a responsibility to balance the needs of publicity with contributor care and worked closely with Love, the independent production company that had been filming on the street for more than a year.

We agreed our key messaging and media-trained our executives in anticipation of media interest. Then we put on our tin hats and got to work. Since the evening of the first transmission we have been engaging on a constant basis with all areas of the media, ensuring our voice is in the debate but – crucially – not attempting to stop or change it. 

Will we go on 'Newsnight' to defend our right to broadcast a programme like 'Benefits Street'? Yes. Do we think the residents of James Turner Street represent every person on benefits in the UK? No, we do not. 

We are glad this series has prompted a conversation about the reality of life on benefits, and what makes the role of the press team so crucial is that this debate has played out in the media. 

Like it or hate it, I hope you will agree that 'Benefits Street' is exactly the kind of programme Channel 4 should be broadcasting and gives my team and I the opportunity to reinforce core values of the Channel 4 brand.

Jane Fletcher is controller of press and publicity at Channel 4 

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