OPINION: The BBC needs to get some news sense

The BBC employs thousands of journalists and hundreds of press officers and assistants. Yet its recent PR failures have been caused by its utter lack of news sense.

Monk: 'it was as much use as a chat over a cup of BBC canteen coffee'
Monk: 'it was as much use as a chat over a cup of BBC canteen coffee'

For all its corporate decision-making processes – or perhaps because of them – the BBC failed to calibrate the impact stories would have when they crashed onto the print agenda.

The first error was that when the promo apparently showing the Queen storming out of a photo shoot was screened, no one connected with the pre-publicity realised the footage was dynamite for tabloids and broadsheets alike. This is despite its subject being a monarch who had
performed her duties on- and off-camera for half a century without ever displaying dissent.

Further beyond belief was the corporation’s failure to react externally for some 18 hours after the film was unmasked as a fake. Instead of immediately derailing tabloid splashes and broadcasting the truth, the corporately minded souls allowed the story to explode as they went home for the night or buried their news sense in internal processes. Did no-one think of phoning a few editors? Or to put out a simple holding statement on PA?

The BBC showed a similar ignorance of the visceral nature of the print media in the Yentob ‘noddy­gate’ affair. It was content to let newspapers run gleefully with the story that Yentob had faked his presence at televised interviews by allowing the insertion of nodding shots of him at given points in interviews conducted by others. Weeks after the story had run its course, Yentob himself, in a cosy interview with a friend of 25 years published in The Guardian media pages, said it had been discovered that no faked noddy interviews were broadcast. So that was fine.

Except that virtually no newspaper felt the need to follow up The Guardian interview. As a PR exercise in putting the record straight, it was as much use as a private chat over a cup of BBC canteen coffee.

A maturing PR industry rightly prides itself on increasingly diverse professional practices. Yet it cannot ignore the need for news sense too, for the ability to tap into the ever-hanging kaleidoscope of views, prejudices, obsessions and populism that drives the daily agendas of a commercial media. News sense can be accrued by reading newspapers and talking to journalists. It can be acquired corporately by hiring the occasional journalist who understands the speed at which the news agenda works.

It is an imprecise science based on instinct, knowledge and contacts and it governs the environment in which we all operate.

Ian Monk is founder of Ian Monk Associates and was formerly a senior newspaper executive at the Daily Mail and The Sun.

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