Docusoap hell – turning staff into stars

Organisations
which step into the public eye through TV documentaries can so easily end up
with egg on their corporate face if they are not careful about what the cameras
see. Alison Thomas passes on advice from some short-lived stars of the small
screen

The
settings are diverse but the scenario never changes. A handful of flamboyant
characters, liberal helpings of tension and conflict and an unsteady, hand-held
camera to create the illusion of immediacy and life in the raw. For the
television channels, the fly-on-the-wall documentary or "docusoap"
has hit the ratings jackpot. But what’s in it for the organisation?

A
lot of grief in the case of the Royal Opera House, which bared its soul to the
nation in the BBC’s The House in 1996. The unedifying spectacle of
management squabbles, power struggles and divas’ tantrums would have been
damaging enough in any circumstances but this was a particularly turbulent time
for the organisation.

Former
HR director Mike Morris, once a TV journalist, acknowledges that it made
terrific television but believes it was a huge mistake. "Once you open an
institution to scrutiny, you create an appetite for public knowledge," he
says. "It meant that the press continued to go on probing and finding out
things that might never have come to light otherwise."

Morris
joined the staff after the decision to film was taken and the first inkling he
had was when he turned up for interview to find the cameras rolling.
Embarrassing? No doubt. But it was nothing compared to the public humiliation
of the box office manager, whose sacking was witnessed by 3 million people.

One
viewer who was shocked was Judith Waddell, HR director of Selfridges, and when
her own turn came two years later with The Shop, she determined to
protect her staff.

"Once
the ball is in play, there is little you can do, so it is important to lay down
ground rules," she says. "It is also worth noting that they are quite
skilled at managing you. The assistant producers kept popping into the office
to make reassuring noises and tell us how wonderful everyone was being."

Waddell’s
ground rules included a total ban on matters relating to recruitment and
discipline. "They kept coming back but I wouldn’t allow it," she
says. "Even recruitment can go wrong from the individual’s point of view
as they can be selective in what they show. Looking back, I am really pleased I
made that decision."

Waddell
also insisted that no one should be under pressure to take part and obtained
permission to view all six episodes before they were broadcast.

This
allowed her to prepare individuals who might be upset by how they came across,
although in the event she was surprised by the lack of fall-out. "Perhaps
I’m more sensitive than most," she comments. "Never underestimate
people’s desire to appear on TV."

As
a board member, she was party to the decision to let the cameras in. So what
did the organisation hope to gain?

"We
had started a corporate transformation and wanted to let people know,"
Waddell says. "The public still saw us as an old-fashioned store and it
gave us the opportunity to get our new vision across to a wider audience."

This was
the impetus too for easyJet when it agreed to be filmed for London Weekend
Television’s Airline, which recently reached the end of its fourth
series. When the cameras arrived in 1998, the company was still in its infancy,
not the household name it is today.

"There
is no substitute for that level of exposure," explains head of corporate
communications, Toby Nicol.  "We
knew we would be seen making mistakes but on balance we believed it was the
right thing to do. As a way of raising awareness and building your brand, it
has a strong commercial upside."

With
Airline still drawing audiences of about 9 million, Nicol has reason to
feel satisfied, and although the correlation is difficult to prove, he believes
that each series has had an impact on sales. Not every episode shows the
company in a good light but even this has a positive spin-off, as it allows
management to see operations through the eyes of the consumer.

"We
use excerpts for our customer training," he says. "Most training
videos are carefully sketched, carefully produced. This is different – it’s
life, it’s happening. Say someone has been on shift for 12 hours. They are
tired and just want to go home. It sends out a powerful message – this is how
not to do it, please!"

The
company is careful, however, not to victimise anyone whose human frailty has
been captured on camera. There is no question of dismissal, and if a recurring
issue causes concern, it is addressed sensitively behind closed doors.

Every successful soap opera
revolves around a few central characters, and a docusoap is no different. You
might assume this would cause resentment among colleagues but Nicol remembers
only one occasion when feelings ran high. The employee concerned had only
himself to blame as he had allowed sudden fame to go to his head. His work too
began to suffer, and when he could no longer be relied on to turn up for his
shift, the airline found itself in an awkward situation. The issue was
conveniently resolved when the culprit contravened civil aviation regulations
and his prima donna days came to an abrupt end.

But
Nicol pays tribute to the film crew, who are acutely aware of their potential
to create problems as opposed to simply recording them.

"They
are very responsible and adept at identifying level-headed people who are
neither timid, not prone to playing up in front of the camera," he says.

One
of these is Jane Boulton, until recently in charge of the check-in floor.
Evidently unphased by her stardom, she admits to cringing at times when she
watches herself on screen. "Ninety-nine per cent of what they film is not
used. I might, for example, deal with a passenger over a period of one or two
hours but only the last 15 seconds are shown. By this time the passenger is
shouting and I have to assert my authority. People think I am hard but I am not
– I am just doing my job."

She
has featured prominently since the first series but still finds it strange when
people ask for her autograph or approach her in the supermarket to examine the
contents of her trolley and quiz her on her eating habits. "I think they
feel as if they know me. It’s quite nice really, although sometimes I wish I
could go out for a quiet drink without being recognised."

If
the cameras have intruded on her private life, Boulton maintains that they have
no impact at all on her behaviour at work. "I was self-conscious at first
but when they tail you for 11 months of the year you soon get used to them and
stop noticing."

Her
observation is borne out in Hotel, which took us behind the scenes of
Liverpool’s Britannia Adelphi. Manager Eileen Downey is patently oblivious to
the cameras as she alternately harangues unfortunate staff and greets customers
with an ingratiating smile.

If
a docusoap raises business profile, this is not the sort of publicity any
organisation would wish to court. "Shabby", "inefficient",
"domineering manager", "crazy cook" – these are just a few
of the epithets that appeared in the press as the series continued. Worse was
to come when a waitress won her case for wrongful dismissal on the very day
viewers watched her suffer the chef’s wrath in a row over how to serve soup.

Three
years later ripples were still being felt when the BBC agreed to pay
compensation to a flashily dressed customer who had been wrongly portrayed as a
prostitute.

Could
it be that all the good bits got lost on the cutting room floor? Who knows? The
hotel cancelled the second series and despite repeated invitations to give us
her side of the picture Eileen Downey declined to comment.

Not all
organisations which have experienced negative exposure are as reticent. In
1982, Thames Valley Police was the subject of the cutting edge BBC documentary Police,
which won producer Roger Graef several prestigious awards. One episode in
particular caused huge controversy as horrified viewers witnessed three macho
officers subject an alleged rape victim to an insensitive grilling. So shocked
was the nation, there were public demonstrations, the press had a field day and
questions were raised in Parliament.

You
could forgive Thames Valley for becoming camera-shy, yet Graef is currently
back on the beat preparing a programme for transmission at the end of the year.
"Some people who were around last time are understandably nervous,"
says head of corporate information Gayle Rossiter. "It was very painful at
the time but positive good came out of it. We now have much better processes in
place to deal with serious sexual assaults."

She
has considerable respect for Graef, a distinguished criminologist, and has been
impressed by his willingness to take time out to explain his objectives to
staff and put them at ease. Anyone who still has reservations can decline to be
filmed, and those who do face the cameras can watch the relevant clip before it
is screened. A liaison officer has been appointed and an editorial rights
agreement drawn up.

"If
something could prejudice police operations or someone says something
inaccurate, it will be withdrawn," she says. "The other important
issue is health and safety. For example, there might be occasions when officers
are dealing with aggressive, drunken, young men and the presence of cameras
could inflame the situation."

Rossiter
is under no illusions, however, that Graef will gloss over any unpleasant
truths he uncovers, so why has the force let him back in?

"We
hope the programme will illustrate how Thames Valley Police has moved on in 20
years. It is also an opportunity to show the public that we are doing the very
best we can with limited resources. That’s a message that needs to be got
across to the Government and all sorts of people – it is really quite tough out
there.

"And
we are confident that we have a lot of good people doing good things. There
will be some ‘warts and all’ bits but in the main I think it will be positive.
As a police force we are accountable to the public. So why shouldn’t they see
what’s going on?"

Rossiter
may have been reassured, too, by the experience of her colleagues three years
ago when they featured in the BBC programme, The Force. Chief
superintendent Ralph Perry believes that despite some criticism from local
residents, it was generally well received.

"It
was not a propaganda exercise but we worked in partnership with the crew and,
by and large, they handled matters very responsibly," he says.
"Whether you could say that of every film crew is questionable. Perhaps
that is another thing – evaluate the crew before you go ahead."

It
is only natural that an organisation should try to protect itself but if an
editorial rights agreement is too stringent, the results can be bland. This is
the view of Nigel Kirkup, who was training manager of the Victoria and Albert
museum when it featured in an episode of Modern Times.

"The
director had seen The House and was so worried, he nearly pulled the
plug," he says. "There were the usual larger-than-life characters but
otherwise it was pretty anodyne and did not reflect reality. I invited them to
put a camera in my room and witness my frustration as I tried to win over
reluctant managers but they didn’t. I think there must have been negotiations
between senior managers and the BBC to make sure we emerged squeaky
clean."

Kirkup
contrasts this with his own acceptance of an invitation to appear on the Antiques
Road Show
, when he later became head of visitor services. Unafraid of
adverse coverage, his aim was to use the publicity to raise visitor numbers.
"I made it clear from the outset what I wanted and the BBC agreed,"
he says. "I don’t think this was the case with the Modern Times
programme, which resulted in a lot of ambiguity."

This
raises the question, "Who is serving who?" Are the boundaries between
journalism and PR becoming increasingly blurred? On the other hand, why would
any self-respecting organisation allow itself be led blindfold to the
slaughter? Unless it happened to be an opera house – or a prestigious hotel.

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