Broadcast: Tune in to the power of the viewing public - Soap operas can wield enormous influence in raising awareness of issues to a ready market. A situation which some organisations and PR people have already tried to exploit

From the farming information of BBC Radio’s the Archers, to Tony Blair’s guest appearance on Russian radio soap House Seven, Entrance 4 last week promoting the importance of education, broadcast drama has consistently been used as an effective way of pushing messages out to the public.

From the farming information of BBC Radio’s the Archers, to Tony

Blair’s guest appearance on Russian radio soap House Seven, Entrance 4

last week promoting the importance of education, broadcast drama has

consistently been used as an effective way of pushing messages out to

the public.



In fact, both programmes were partly conceived for that purpose - the

Russian programme has been supported by the BBC with cash from the

European Union’s Know How Fund, fulfilling a dual purpose of

entertaining the listeners and providing advice about living in a market

economy. The Archers began life as way to help to educate farmers in

more modern farming techniques after World War II.



Such use of broadcast drama as a PR tool is becoming increasingly

common.



Dewe Rogerson has been involved in one project in Slovenia which

produced a comedy show to help explain issues of privatisation and share

ownership, again supported with money from the EU.



Having the undivided attention of a soap opera-addicted audience must

seem like PR heaven - but there are limitations to the potential of

soaps as a PR vehicle.



’We are not talking about someone from Coca-Cola or Virgin phoning up

and saying ’we’ve got an idea for the programme’,’ says Ric Mellis,

producer of Channel 4’s Brookside, which revealed its plans to cover

adult literacy issues as a boost to a government campaign last week.



’We cannot get away from the fact that people will have an interest in

putting a message across in stories that we want to do,’ says

Mellis.



’The pain control element of the euthanasia storyline Brookside did

recently was triggered by a press release from the Morphine Information

Service.’



The effectiveness of an organisation’s PR in the first place is vital -

getting your agenda talked about at the scriptwriter’s dinner party will

help to sow the seeds of ideas.



The BBC’s EastEnders won an award last week from the organisation Mental

Health Media, for its sensitive handling of a storyline on character Joe

Wicks’ struggle with schizophrenia. In this case, the programme makers

worked very closely with the National Schizophrenia Fellowship on the

storyline - outline scripts were read by workers at the NSF, and

detailed comments and suggestions made. Such partnerships clearly add

credibility to a programme’s plot.



However EastEnders script editor Richard Stokes insists that the

programme’s first priority is to the characters - it is not a vehicle

for PR messages.



’If we even hinted that we took on issues that we felt were ’worthy’

then we would be inundated with requests,’ says Stokes. He reveals that

the programme was approached about covering the adult literacy issue,

but decided against it.



’Not because it isn’t a worthwhile issue but because the risk you run of

being looked upon as a political speaker is too dangerous. If you start

to become a political voice you start undermining your own dramatic

licence and it confuses the grey area between fact and fiction.’



Mellis takes a different view. ’It’s erroneous to make a distinction

between being character and issues-led. Does Brookside’s involvement in

the adult literacy campaign mean the Government will dictate the

agenda?



Of course they won’t dictate our editorial stance, but they do dictate

what happens to people. Soaps talk about things that happen in real

life,’ he says.



While the programmes differ as to how much outside influence they are

prepared to allow, they both acknowledge their obligation to handle

sensitive stories responsibly.



Perhaps that commitment is the greatest opportunity for issues-led

organisations to exploit - the NSF is frank about the enormous benefits

it has gained from EastEnders’ coverage of schizophrenia.



Fiona Carr, press and publications officer at the NSF, says the

programme has been a real breakthrough for the organisation,

particularly as the programme can look at complex issues over a length

of time.



’It has put mental health very much on the public agenda - with 20

million viewers, we couldn’t have asked for a better vehicle to raise

the profile of mental health and the NSF,’ she says.



The organisation has worked with programme makers before, but admits to

having had its fingers burnt by film makers who ’say one thing and do

another’.



’We are a good resource, but we want to be sure that they are not going

to abuse that,’ says Carr. ’We’re not ever going to have editorial

control so trust is very important.’



By careful negotiation, the NSF was able to time press releases to

coincide with what was happening in the plot.



’Now that EastEnders has been so successful we will be more pro-active

about going out to makers of other programme,’ says Carr.



As programme makers develop storylines, there is clearly an opportunity

to influence their portrayal of the issues involved. Making yourself

media friendly and accessible, making sure programme makers know where

to come when they need the information and contacts you can supply, can

lead the way to widespread and effective coverage.



But those doing the influencing need to be aware that once they have

provided the information the programme needs, their influence stops.



Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in

Would you like to post a comment?

Please Sign in or register.