Screen test

Organisations which step into the public eye through TV docusoaps 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
subject organisations?

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 diva tantrums would have been
damaging enough under 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
probe and find out things that might never have come to light."

He joined the staff after the decision to film was taken and his first step
into the limelight 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 shocked viewer was Judith Waddell, HR director of Selfridges, and when
her turn came two years later with The Shop, she was 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."

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."

She also insisted that no one should be under pressure to take part and got
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, she was surprised by the lack of fall-out. "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," she 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.
"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 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 around 9 million, he has
reason to feel satisfied, and although the correlation is difficult to prove,
he believes that each series has 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. Perhaps a
procedure has not been succinctly explained, leading to unnecessary
confrontation, or a policy changed without notifying customers. "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. 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 firmly
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.

In this context, he pays tribute to the film crew, who are acutely aware of
their ability to create problems as opposed to simply recording them.

"They are very responsible and adept at identifying level-headed people
who are neither timid nor 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
just doing my job."

She has featured prominently since the first series but still finds it
strange when people ask for her autograph. "I think they feel as if they
know me. It’s quite nice, although I wish I could go out for a quiet drink
without being recognised."

If the cameras have intruded on her private life, she 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 takes 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" – 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 her side of the picture, 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 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 have the opportunity to
watch the relevant clip before it is screened. A liaison officer has been
appointed to promote mutual understanding 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. There might be occasions when officers
are dealing with aggressive, drunks, and the presence of cameras could inflame
the situation."

She 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 is a message that needs
to be got across to the Government and all sorts of people – it is really quite
tough out there. 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?"

She 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 part- nership 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 didn’t 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 management and the BBC to make sure we emerged squeaky clean."

He 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 what I wanted and the BBC agreed," he says. "I
don’t think this was the case with the Modern Times programme which led to a
lot of ambiguity."

Which 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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