Thursday, July 19, 2007

If the BBC is 'getting it' - just wait for the PR firms to get it too

The BBC stands accused of cheating an lying. Its reputation has been been tarnished by a sequence of revelations. Initially it was over a phone in scam on the top children's programme Blue Peter which was using a studio guest to pose as the winner of a phone-in . .". Next can a programme trailer of the queen walking at a pretty fast lick in her state regalia trailed by the BBC as leaving celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz in a huff but actually arriving for the appointment.

While this lapse was under investigation another storm has broken with revelations of staff passing themselves off as viewers and listeners on radio and TV shows in fake phone in and prize shows including high profile charity blockbusters including 'Children in Need', the BBC's flagship charity-fund-raiser. In the Guardian Janine Gibson has a longer list, She notes: " On Wife Swap, when they say they swap for a week, it's sometimes really only four days. On Countdown, when the guest in Dictionary Corner comes up with a seven-letter word, sometimes that's come down the earpiece from a man in the gallery. On Have I Got News for You, they see the questions in advance, because the point is to be funny, not good on current affairs." She continues: "Even last week ... we might have been comforting ourselves that the news was somehow different. That was until Newsnight admitted that a couple of incidents in a film last month about Gordon Brown were broadcast the wrong way round. Robbie Gibb, the deputy editor of Newsnight, wrote on the BBC editor's blog: "Unlike the incident with the footage of the Queen, whichever order the events had been shown, the meaning would remain the same." Underneath, a viewer has posted: "If the meaning would remain the same, why was the chronological order changed?"

It seems that there is systemic and endemic problem in the BBC. There seems to be an absence of trust and fair dealing. It tells us that something is deeply wrong in the cultures of some of the BBC’s staff and some of its suppliers.

The BBC has undermined its own authority and in a broadcast to BBC staff the director general, Mark Thompson, said: "Our values and our editorial guidelines must take precedence over everything else. There is no excuse for deception..... If you have a choice between deception and a programme going off air, let the programme go. It is far better to accept a production problem and make a clean breast to the public than to deceive."

But this goes further than the BBC. Michael Grade, the executive chairman of ITV and an ex BBC Chairman, in a speech to the Royal Television Society this month, went as far as to doubt the existence of a basic understanding about the importance and value of trust.

That is pretty bad and its is having an effect on TV viewing fugues and that industry as a whole.

But this is not nearly as bad as a PR consultancy I know. The one I have in mind, is oft seen in the columns of the national papers, is a feature organisation in Media Guardian and seems to have a guaranteed slot in PR week. It is a member of PRCA and its employees have senior roles in the CIPR. This consultancy interviewed a student for a job last month. A wide eyed innocent, they thought. Easily seduced into our Graduate programme with examples of high profile brand campaigns, they thought. This agency, told of a campaign that had the brand as hero celebrating 50 years at the top. It was a big and loud campaign - the trouble was - the brand is still not 50 years old, a fact known to both agency and brand manager all the time. The whole promotion was based on a lie. The student turned down the post because she disapproved of the ethics of this consultancy. Now she has spread the word to whole generation of students. The canker of lost reputation is already gnawing away at the bowels of this (in)famous PR firm.

One day, sometime in the future, an obscure blog post will blow the gaff. Questions will be asked. The TV and Newspapers who had been fooled will be outraged, clients will fade away and perhaps the story will be reported in those publications so in thrall to the PR glitter.

One does not have to look to far to see that this canker has been gnawing at another large Agency this year.

Well, some may say, its to be expected.

Corruption in PR in Britain is worse that in Gangland Nigeria because we know how harmful and corrosive it is.

Some organisations will seek advice from a corrupt PR firm. And just like the BBC the effect of malpractice undermines authority and affects trust and value put on the advice given.

Of course there are pressures. Of course there are rewards and of course there is the culture of the organisation.

The BBC latest revelations came about through staff who do have a code of ethics coming forward and making a clean breast of what was happening.

The same will have to happen across the whole of the Television industry including the production houses.

And as they do it, they will no longer be in a position to take at face value the hype and lies of PR people. This is a good thing for PR which also now needs the kind of transparency we are seeing at the BBC.

It is time now for the PR industry to clean up its act too. It applies internally and externally. It is evident in the churn of agencies and Fluctuations of fees and retainers. It is seen as paid-for placement; the late night drop (and that includes that dinner party); exchange of favours; under and over servicing; unequal treatment of journalists. The list is long.

If it is happening in a consultancy near you, there are the confidential lines to the PR associations or, its just possible that social media offers a way like no other to clean up the act of not jst the BBC.