Even those who shun Big Brother and its ilk may still be aware of restaurant entrepreneur Luke Johnson's famous strop on an early example of reality TV. It was 2000, on BBC1's Back to the Floor, which challenged CEOs to muck in at the coal-face. After enduring a barrage of moans from colleagues, he ripped off his microphone and stormed out of his new job as a waiter. His embarrassed PR aide was seen whispering in his ear, agitated, and after some persuasion Johnson reappeared for the rest of the show.
Now chairman of Channel 4, Johnson is, perhaps ironically, partly responsible for the latest crop of reality shows aimed at getting business people on TV - most notably the channel's most recent success in the genre, Boss Swap. This sits alongside ITV's ninth series of the easyJet-starring, fly-on-the-wall documentary Airline (out this autumn), a new docusoap on SkyOne following easyGroup's cruiseliners (out in August), and the recently screened Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares.
TV producers are scouring the country to find angry bosses and failing businesses. With such a heritage of apparent PR mistakes made on reality TV shows, taking part in warts-and-all programmes is clearly a reputation gamble, but the lure of reaching millions of viewers has big appeal.
EasyGroup director of corporate affairs James Rothnie is predictably supportive. 'Why wouldn't a business want to take part in a show like this?' he asks. 'These programmes are a fantastic way to build brand awareness as long as (participants) are prepared to be honest and accept it is not a TV company's job to do PR.'
One man against the idea of clients appearing on reality programmes is Hogarth PR managing partner Chris Matthews, who says he gets requests 'every week'.
The corporate reputation specialist says the TV approach is too entertainment biased: 'Few companies have personnel who can perform in an engaging way in front of the camera,' he argues. 'Organisations make mistakes but these can be blown out of proportion by television.'
Recognition PR, on the other hand, has a record of getting its clients in front of the camera. It negotiated Union Industries' Isobel Schofield's appearance on Boss Swap. Recognition also pushed Michael Holt, boss of caravan company Explorer Group, to take part in a memorable episode of Trouble At The Top. Partner Frances Bourne says there are positives and negatives in being involved with reality television. 'If things go wrong it can bring unwanted media attention, but we manage clients' expectations,' she says.
And, she says, PROs can have editorial input. TV executives know that finding 'game' businesses is becoming harder, and are becoming more willing to compromise. 'We'll negotiate terms with a production company and ask to see a preview to discuss any sticking points,' Bourne reveals.
Recognition has also learned how to exploit opportunities made possible by a client's involvement in a reality show. Schofield has subsequently appeared on GMTV and in the television listings magazines, and secured an audition for a BBC series called Mind Your Own Business. She is currently presenting with Duncan Bannatyne (of Dragons' Den fame) for the show, where they visit small businesses and offer advice. 'PR-wise we have trailed her involvement in the media, mentioning Union Industries at every opportunity,' says Bourne.
The advice seems to be that if PROs can be convinced about the benefits of TV shows, then so can their clients. Explorer Group's Holt, for whom Karol Marketing handles PR, was an ideal candidate for Trouble At The Top - his company was in a race against time to bring out a new design for the Buccaneer caravan brand. Nevertheless, he still needed persuading to take part.
'In the end I decided it would be positive for us and the caravan industry.
I would do it again, although my wife found the experience quite intrusive,' says Holt.
But companies must be aware of broadcast lag. Sainsbury's was in a Back to the Floor episode in 1998, featuring former chief executive Dino Adriano.
Although feedback from the supermarket's customers was positive, filming took place nine months before the show was broadcast and ended up being aired when Sainsbury's was going through a tough time.
Reaping the benefits
Undeterred, Sainsbury's continued to work with the BBC. This January's appearance on Trouble At The Top was timed perfectly to promote the chain's new clothing range. 'We watched other episodes before agreeing to be involved and saw the final take to make sure we weren't taken out of context,' says press officer Pip Wood. She says shopper awareness of its clothing rose by ten per cent following the broadcast. 'I can understand why some PROs and clients are reluctant to get involved in something like this but Sainsbury's has not had much positive press in recent years,' Wood adds.
And it seems there are still plenty of companies queueing up to be on TV. Radisson Edwardian has just put forward its head chef, Jean-Claude Sandillion, as a mentor for a Five series called Britain's Worst Chefs.
Less able chefs will cook in the kitchen of the recently launched Amba restaurant at the Mayfair Radisson Edwardian Hotel.
'There is always a risk that Jean-Claude will not come out favourably but we looked closely at who else was taking part in the series. Our chef is being included because he is one of the best at what he does. This is also a great way to promote Amba,' argues George Anthoulakis, account director at Mason Williams PR, which represents Radisson Edwardian.
Making reality television is relatively cheap, so it is understandable why broadcasters are committed. Hopefully for those who can see the benefit of enjoying (or not enjoying) 15 minutes of fame, there will be a PRO to keep their feet on the ground.
WHEN OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS
TV exposure will often present the chance for an agency to pick up new clients, but sometimes the business goes begging.
In June, Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares revisited Neil Farrell's Lake District restaurant, The Glass House. When the original programme was broadcast last year, was criticised by Gordon Ramsay for its pretentious food and bickering staff.
But while media interest in the restaurant rocketed after the show, with extensive coverage in the local, regional and national press, including full-page articles in the Financial Times and The Guardian, Farrell says he felt disappointed that he was not approached by any PR companies. 'I do not usually allocate a PR budget but if someone had approached me after the first show I would have bitten their hand off because I needed help to cope with all the press interest.' Because managing the press on his own began to take more and more of his time, he had to refuse interviews against his better judgement. 'I even turned down a piece with Now because I was sick of doing interviews. This was despite my head chef Richard Collins telling me we had to milk the media attention for as long as we could.'
Journalists' interest was rekindled by the revisit earlier this year when Ramsay's team praised the restaurant's service and food. The more media-savvy Farrell was better prepared, but again was on his own. 'I am sure a PR company would have come up with some new ideas,' he says.
'I'd wear a pink tutu and dance around the car park if I could see the benefits to my business. But having managed things myself now, I might resent paying a PR agency for its services.'
COMMS BOSS SWAPS FOR TV
As most clients reap the benefits of taking part in reality TV shows, why shouldn't a PR company take its turn in the spotlight? Southampton-based Leepeckgreenfield starred in Boss Swap when co-founder Lee Peck changed places for two weeks with the managing director of polythene bag manufacturer Decomatic. Both men were given £1,500 to make five changes to each other's business.
'We blew hot and cold for three weeks before deciding whether this would be a good thing to do,' says Peck. 'Having someone else come in and run your business and having it shown to millions is risky but I decided to engage in the project and maximise the PR opportunities for the agency and our clients.'
Peck wore a Southampton FC sweatshirt with a Friends Provident sponsor logo when he was shown jogging each morning, while in the office he wore an Omega watch. All three brands were LPG clients at the time. 'If you are going on network television you have to be schooled in how the media work - I was aware of when the camera was and was not running,' Peck says.
'Our clients knew we were taking part and in the days before the programme was broadcast we sent out 5,000 promotional leaflets and put up a large poster on the front of the building.
'I got 800 emails the next day, of which only four were negative. We generated 20 business leads.'
RDF Media series producer Eve Kay says you may have to be persuasive to get the best subject. 'The people who want to take part are usually unsuitable,' she claims. 'The best SMEs for our show are run by bosses who are control freaks and will not let go of anything - let alone allow a complete stranger to run their business.'