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by Mark Fuller 10th July, 2019
5 min read

Crisis comms when Panorama come calling

As is now standard, stories of splits and discord at the upper echelons of the Labour Party have been splashed across this week’s papers. As has too often been the case, arguments about whether Labour has or has not done enough to address allegations of antisemitism sit behind much of the press – prompted by news that the BBC is about to broadcast a Panorama special lifting the lid on the Party’s shortcomings.

BBC comes knocking on your door

It’s hard not to feel a pang of sympathy for Labour’s embattled comms officers. There are few experiences as a comms pro that can compare to the sense of impending dread that comes with the news that the BBC’s flagship investigations programme has got your business in its sights. However, while the Labour Party’s response is obviously subject to a whole host of tricky political dynamics, most businesses will, with luck, be in a position to take some sensible steps that could (hard as it might be to believe) actually benefit in the long term.

Here are a few pointers.

Unless you’ve been lucky enough to get wind that you’re being investigated, the first you will know of it will likely be a polite, but firmly-worded letter from the BBC letting you know that the programme is on the way. It will likely have an overview of the allegations that are to be made, with an invitation to respond on the record. There will be little detailed indication of what the evidence is that they have collated or exactly what is going to be broadcast.

At this point there are a few directions you could go in:

  1. Lawyer up to go to war with the BBC
  2. Try to style it out by shooting the messenger
  3. Act quickly to get to the bottom of things and put right what has been exposed – and make sure you are seen to do so

 

Option 1 – lawyer up

Tempting as the first option may be, it is not advisable. By the time you get that letter you can assume that the programme’s production team will have gone through some pretty rigorous internal procedures and be more or less certain that there is a case to be answered. They will have evidence – most likely some undercover recording or an on the record testimony from a credible source. And they will be looking out for obfuscation or evasion – the programme will be all the more powerful for featuring a response they can frame as shifty.

Option 2 – shoot the messenger

Likewise, the second option – which is arguably how Labour has responded – is unlikely to be a great idea. For all of the reasons above, you should assume that Panorama have at the very least got something embarrassing on you if not a cast iron case of wrongdoing. You’d have to be pretty sure that all of the hands in your organisation are completely clean to get away with going on the counter-attack.

None of which is to say that you should sit on your hands and let events unfold. Comms and legal advisers can work together to put together a response to the Beeb that makes it clear that their reporting had better be sound and the evidence robust. You could request advance sight of the full evidence they will be broadcasting – although you are unlikely to get it – and let them know that you will be scrutinising the programme carefully and will take action to address any misrepresentation or inaccuracies. This could make the programme makers think twice about running any elements of the programme they are less than 100% confident in.

Option 3 – deal with it, quickly

The most valuable thing you can do in the letter though is to get the ball rolling on the third scenario. A brief statement for broadcast that thanks the BBC for bringing and important issue it to your attention and shows an intention to set right any wrongs will make it clear that you are part of the solution, not the problem. Of course, you should be certain that you are ready to take necessary action, particularly as the right moves in the short-term can actually help avoid matters slipping out of your control. For example, announcing that you have commissioned a credible third party to investigate matters on your behalf could stop your business having less focused scrutiny forced upon it.

Perhaps more important than the media messaging though is the practical steps to take in reassuring your stakeholders. It’s vital that your regulators, funders, major clients and other stakeholders hear from you before the programme airs. Contacting them directly and quickly with a frank account of what has been put to you and a confident statement of what you are doing about it will generate valuable trust. This could be the difference between retaining your licence to operate and having it removed.

A necessary tough call

These are difficult steps to take – no business wants to publicly acknowledge that all may not be right. But it’s a necessary tough call if you don’t want the value of your business irrevocably damaged – reputations are put at risk by mistakes but completely shattered by being seen to ignore them.

There is no getting around the fact that it will be tough going if Panorama  – or any other major media investigator – cover your business. But by taking decisive action to engage your stakeholders and sending clear signals of positive intent, you could actually emerge over time with enhanced levels of trust and credibility, not only could this strengthen relationships with funders and regulators, it could build the value of your business’ brand reputation.

 

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You might also like:

Why you should prioritise crisis communications planning

5 reasons spokespeople fail to get their message across

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See more articles by Mark Fuller