Reality TV used to mean being locked in a house built by Channel 4 alongside individuals with no discernable talent, other than being mediocre at Karaoke (think X Factor) or having a particularly large chest.
Now business-related ‘fly on the wall’ programmes are in the ascendant and popular too. Probably sparked by The Apprentice and Dragons’ Den, running a business seems to be high on the agenda for programme makers.
Many companies have been willing to allow the cameras into their offices or on their shopfloors. As far back as the 1990s, EasyJet was the subject of the "warts and all" documentary Airline that almost became a soap opera in its own right. A couple of years ago Channel 4 aired the series I’m Running Sainsbury’s, with the aim of promoting shopfloor workers to management positions if they proved capable.
Then we saw the lamentable Ann Barnes, described routinely as the “Bumbling Kent Police and Crime Commmissioner”, in a behind the scenes documentary called Meet the Commissioner. Most commentators agree this was car crash PR but it was highly entertaining and funnier than any sitcom – a sort of collision between a female David Brent from The Office and a transvestite version of Alan Partridge. Ann remains firmly ensconced in her highly paid job, but Kent Police are still dealing with the reputational fall out.
Organisations are often tempted by the prospect of a being in front of a television audience, which would normally cost millions to reach. The old adage “any publicity is good publicity” still gains credence, but the next question should be “at what price?” There’s also the prospect of getting across brand messages, with the chance to explain complex issues and the true culture behind an organisation. This is almost impossible using traditional advertising media where you are forced to resort to short sharp sound bites. Secretly too, many bosses are susceptible to instant fame and welcome the kudos it gives them in their corporate and social life.
The programme-maker will always begin with a programme format in mind, and have a very clear view of the outcomes they’re expecting, whether they articulate that to you or not. Hours and hours of footage are shot (even for a half hour programme), and careful editing can present almost any viewpoint. If you’re tempted to allow cameras free rein you have to be very confident that the programme will be fair. Let’s face it, even with the best intentions a cameraman will be keen to film flaws and mistakes to keep a viewer’s attention and to generate coverage from TV reviewers. The only thing you can influence is who you allow them to talk to and where you allow them to film.
You also have to be sure that your staff will be able to handle any difficult situations while under the spotlight, and do (and say) the right thing. If your reputation is already at rock bottom maybe you’ve nothing to lose, but with most companies having a good relationship with their clients, the reputational risk is enormous.
If you’re remotely tempted, your management team will need to be unanimously signed up and you need to brief your staff thoroughly. Employ a public relations expert to work with you before and during the filming. They’ll be able to deliver a detailed risk assessment up front and during broadcast. Finally, you’ll need to be fully prepared to react to the programme’s impact after it’s been broadcast. You might get a chance to see it before it goes out, but you won’t be able to change anything unless it’s factually incorrect.