Media: When Dispatches comes knocking

Channel 4's current affairs programme Dispatches can strike fear into the heart of a PR professional.

Subjects tackled by the hard-hitting investigative show this year included a no-holds-barred documentary entitled The Trouble With British Airways.

The five-strong commissioning team works across news, current affairs and religion and has a wide-ranging scope for investigation. As a general rule, however, bigger brands are the ones that come under the most scrutiny.

When Dispatches contacted British Airways for a documentary planned for 13 October, looking at cancelled flights, allegations of price fixing and the Terminal Five opening debacle, BA's head of media relations Paul Marston knew the company was 'in for a hiding'.

'They approached us at a very late stage and it was obvious it was going to be a hatchet job,' he says.

BA declined to provide a spokesperson for an interview, because Marston believes any interview would have been subject to heavy editing, so individual remarks could have been taken out of context.

Instead, BA provided a detailed response to the points Dispatches raised, which, Marston says, helped limit the damage. But he adds: 'It was essentially a demolition job.'

Some feel Dispatches is losing its edge, and it does not seem to be on every PROs' mustwatch list. Andrew Griffin, MD of Regester Larkin, says a recent Mark Thomas programme about CocaCola's record on human rights and the environment was 'just a platform for a rant'. Nonetheless, it still has the power to damage reputations.

PROs contacting Dispatches to suggest programme ideas are unlikely to get much joy either.

But some PROs have had a positive experience with Dispatches, though even they urge caution. Rachel Brewin, senior consultant at Bottle PR, gained positive publicity for her client, energy company first:utility, in a recent Dispatches entitled The Truth About Your Energy Bill.

The programme featured case studies of families struggling to pay their energy bills, and a first:utility product was used as a potential solution.

'We had long discussions with the programme makers until we were convinced of the way they were going to be structuring the programme,' says Brewin.

Whether the coverage is likely to be positive or negative, Alex Woolfall, head of issues and crisis management at Bell Pottinger, says it is 'madness' not to engage as much as possible with Dispatches if it expresses an interest. 'It is far easier to put the boot into a company that won't return your calls and goes into hiding,' he advises.

Audience: Average is 1.2 million but has reached 3.5 million this year
Frequency: Forty films a year, mainly 8pm on a Monday
Lead times: Story dictates the time, effort and budget, but some
programmes can take up to a year to make

A MINUTE WITH ... Kevin Sutcliffe, editor, Dispatches

- Who watches Dispatches?

We aim to attract a wide range of viewers. The make-up of the audience can change depending on subject matter - there is no set age or social class that is loyal to the programme, but we have a strong core audience.

- What is your editorial agenda?

The rule of thumb we work by is whether a subject matters to our viewers, and whether they will care about a subject when they get to hear about it.

- What makes a good Dispatches investigation?

The elements change but a good Dispatches makes you view something in a new light.

- Dispatches has a fearsome reputation among companies who tend to think the programme is going to give them negative coverage - do you think this is justified?

We cover high-profile, important subjects and expect and receive close scrutiny from these companies and their lawyers.

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