Analysis: How to respond to undercover TV

Following the BBC’s exposure last week of sharp practices at several estate agents, Alex Black asks crisis management experts what PR teams can do to limit the reputation damage caused by fly-on-the-wall shows

Gadget maestro Q must be spinning in his grave. These days, tiny 'spy cameras' that can be hidden in clothing are available to anyone with a half-decent production budget.

As Martin Langford, managing director of crisis comms agency Kissmann Langford, explains, this means that 'whatever is inside a company has the potential to be outside'. Organisations, he adds, can now 'forget the idea of a confidential document'.

Although an exposé along the lines of the BBC's Whistleblower – which last week focused on estate agent Foxtons – can be damaging, PROs should not panic. First, allegations have to be backed up with hard evidence, and second, the producers must give a right to reply.
But Edelman international director of issue and crisis management Mike Seymour warns: 'These programmes have to entertain, and they will limit opportunities for right to reply. Find out as much as you can about the content so you know what you're dealing with.'

Right to reply
Whistleblower executive producer Lucy Hillman says all companies are given an opportunity to respond, but admits the lead time 'depends on the seriousness of the allegations and the length of the programme'.

C4's Dispatches commissioning editor Kevin Sutcliffe adds: 'We are not obliged to carry statements or interviews in full and the non-participation of a person or organisation does not stop a show from going ahead. We are also not required to show them a copy of the programme or of our evidence.'

It should be noted that when TV producers present a company with a list of allegations, this does not necessarily mean that these allegations will air.

'A story by an undercover reporter sounds great, but often there's no real story to be told,' says Cohn & Wolfe director Lara Cresswell. 'If you can provide detailed explanations and prove [that an exposed act] was an isolated incident, then the chances are the story won't stand up and won't be run.'

If that fails, concentrate on reassuring the people who matter, advises Langford. 'You need to find out what your customers think about the situation and keep your comms in line with what they want to hear,' he says. 'Don't just roll out an inwardly focused corporate message – no one will take any notice of it. You have to empathise with the audience.'

One thing a targeted company should not do is call in the lawyers, says Weber Shandwick joint deputy MD of corporate and public affairs D-J Collins: 'This will only make the producers more determined. What's more, they will put the fact that you threatened them legally in the programme.'

Collins adds that if PROs can get involved early enough in the response process, there are things that can be done to limit damage. He suggests implementing a clear code of practice and ensuring that everyone in the company understands and adheres to it. 'With this in place, your statement that the subject of the documentary is an isolated incident carries more weight,' he says.

In the firing line
Crisis management expert Chris Wigdor has represented parking enforcement firm APCOA – the subject of a Whistleblower documentary last June – for the past 15 years.

'We have had at least 20 instances of journalists going undercover,' he says. 'In each situation you find out as much as you can, protect your employees, and make sure you send out clear messages.'

Organisations that find themselves the subject of an undercover documentary should act quickly and liaise with producers. And if the broadcast goes ahead, PROs must ensure stakeholders are not left with the impression of an organisation with something to hide.

Whistleblower vs Foxtons
Programme BBC's Whistleblower, 21 March (4.4 million viewers).

Target Exposé of several estate agents, including Foxtons, deceiving buyers and sellers and colluding with mortgage lenders to inflate prices.

Andy Pratt is chief operating officer of mortgage broker Alexander Hall, which is owned by Foxtons and was accused by Whistleblower of illegally colluding with estate agents. The two companies responded together to the allegations.

'We received a letter from the BBC two weeks before the broadcast and decided to handle it in-house,' reveals Pratt. 'The letter covered the allegations in general, but without much detail. We responded and asked for more specific examples, which we got, although the BBC did not tell us everything. The producers didn't ask for an interview – and we didn't offer one – but the show did run our response.

'From there we wrote a series of different responses, tailored for our clients and the trade press, which focused on the core message that Alexander Hall and Foxtons pride themselves on their professionalism.

'We made sure people were aware we were taking the allegations seriously and weren't being complacent. Internal comms is also crucial. Staff might get stick from peers or family, so we're working to make them feel proud of working here.'

Dispatches vs Ryanair
Programme Channel 4's Dispatches, 13 February (2.2 million viewers).

Outline Allegations of safety breaches that the show's producers promised would 'make people think twice about flying with the airline'.

Peter Sherrard, head of comms at Ryanair, says: 'Channel 4 came to us about three weeks before the broadcast with a list of 20 things to respond to. We worked through the list and provided a detailed response to each one, which we sent to Channel 4, the Irish Aviation Authority and the Civil Aviation Authority.

'We also offered the producers an interview with chief executive Michael O'Leary on the condition that it was unedited, which they declined.

'The aviation authorities backed all of our responses to Channel 4's claims and stated they had no concerns over the safety of our service. But when Channel 4 started publicity four days before broadcast, it was obvious they were doing a complete hatchet job.

'We pre-empted this by sending out a release before broadcast refuting all the programme's claims, and put all correspondence between us and the producers online for everyone to see. We were contacted throughout the day of the broadcast by the news channels, but in the end most of them left the story alone and it became a bit of a damp squib.'

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