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
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
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
’The pain control element of the euthanasia storyline Brookside did
recently was triggered by a press release from the Morphine Information
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
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
’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
’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.