Opinion: Avoiding TV only gives detractors the edge

Broadcasters have certainly switched on to business. On Tuesday evening, two primetime terrestrial TV slots were given over to the kind of stories that were once confined to the Money Programme.

At 7.30 on BBC1, Real Story's Fiona Bruce laid into high-street banks for mis-selling unsecured loans to vulnerable customers. This was followed by Jane Moore's Channel 4 expose of the supermarkets' stranglehold on farmers.

TV schedulers have cottoned on to the fact that business stories plus a sufficient dose of controversy equals ratings. The problem is that corporates and their PR advisers don't seem to have noticed.

Both programmes were characterised by the invisibility of the organisations under attack. Company logos featured heavily but, with the exception of a historical soundbite from a Lloyds TSB spokesperson, the case for the prosecution passed unchallenged. In fact, both should be shown to PR undergraduates as examples of how not to do broadcast PR.

To be fair, neither organisation's PR departments may actually have been invited to provide spokespeople, but as Moore pointed out, Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda and Morrisons all turned down requests to film in their stores. And Lloyds TSB was aware enough of the coming storm to provide anodyne written statements, only serving to reinforce the impression of a faceless corporation.

But controversy loves a vacuum. So the programme was filled instead with footage of vulnerable customers of banks threatened with homelessness, farmers who are forced to destroy 25 per cent of their crops by the supermarkets' drive for perfection, academics seated among their extensive research files, and credible commentators such as Not on the Label author Felicity Lawrence.

Channel 4 did feature one supermarket CEO, interviewing controversial ex-Safeway chief Carlos Criado-Perez in his new Madrid store about the tastelessness of British supermarket food. And in the absence of in-store footage, the producers made liberal use of emotive film supplied by media-savvy animal welfare groups seeking to implicate the supermarkets' suppliers in cruelty.

The result, as so often with this type of programme, was a PR disaster.

Yes, the companies in question would have received a mauling if they had been interviewed. And it is understandable that investigative programmes strike fear into the hearts of most CEOs (and their PROs). But as these two pieces show, no comment is not an option.

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